Believe me, I don’t enjoy reminiscing about unforgiving losses as much as I do. But miss the potential tea leaves that occur on the pitch and you might miss the real reasons Fulham are or are not playing the way they should be. Boy, were there plenty of reasons why Fulham didn’t play well last weekend.
For starts, Slavisa Jokanovic’s team might have scored first in the first ten minutes of the game, but that had no indication as to how poorly they really were playing. Andre Schürrle’s long range effort was Fulham’s first shot all game and delivered just 0.02 expected goals according to Understat. It was a world class effort that came off the foot of a player that really is on a hot streak (four goals vs. 1.84 expected goals this season). Here’s hoping the 2014 World Cup winner doesn’t lose his scoring touch anytime soon because my goodness will this attack get worse really fast if it does.
Before that magnificent strike, Cardiff were completely bossing this game. They went ahead and had the first three shots of the game and were out-passing Fulham in the attacking third 21-9. None of their efforts were threatening enough that it scared Marcus Bettinelli in any capacity as their expected goals tally in the first 11 minutes was just 0.14. They also didn’t have that great of a press with over 15 passes per defensive action, but Fulham just kept making poor passes that allowed their opponents to springboard their attack quite easily.
Speaking of easy, my goodness was the defending on the first goal horrendous. Between Schürrle’s strike and Josh Murphy’s tally, Cardiff went on to complete 15 of their 17 completed passes in the attacking half of the pitch. One of those passes from the defensive side came from Sol Bamba, who found a very open Murphy that allowed him to dribble all the way into the penalty area to put it passed Bettinelli. It would be the second of five total shots the former Norwich man had along with four successful dribbles. Only Bobby Reid went on to have more (5) among Cardiff players that day.
By then, Aron Gunnarsson was really putting his mark on the pitch. By the time of Murphy’s strike, the Icelandic International returned from injury and was leading Cardiff in completed passes with 13 and passes going into the final third with seven. Even after he was substituted in the 77th minuted, Gunnarsson still lead all Cardiff players on the day with 49 completed passes and would also pitch in with a club-leading three tackles as well.
After Fulham’s first marker, Cardiff kept curve-stomping Fulham until Tim Ream’s mess up of a clearing attempt lead to Bobby Reid’s goal in the 19th minute. By that point, Cardiff were outshooting Fulham 10-1 and generated 0.75 expected goals to Fulham’s tiny 0.02 that didn’t change at all since the Schürrle goal.
That being said, Fulham finally had their opportunity to control the game for the rest of the opening 45 minutes. Since the Reid goal, Fulham slowed the game down by only allowing one shot to their two (including the Ryan Sessegnon goal) and dominated possession with a 146-77 completed passes advantage. The game also turned ugly as Fulham put in a crunching seven tackles and six fouls committed to Cardiff’s three and five, respectively, and that was in a 25 minute span! That meant that the visitors were able to work their pressing game much better than Cardiff did, even if those defensive actions mainly took place down the left hand flank and on the defensive side of the ball.
The bad news from that first half was that Fulham were really giving up way too many shots and struggled mightily to get out of their own half and dictate the tempo of the game from the start. The good news was that once they did control the tempo of the game, Cardiff struggled to get any sniff of the ball and parity was created in terms of what both teams were able to do with and without the ball. You would have thought there was a genuine blue print to execute and claim three points in the second half. It turned out that wasn’t the case.
In the opening 13 minutes, Fulham were outshot 5-1 and outscored in expectation 0.20-0.02 and outplayed in final third completed passes 32-16. In that moment, Jokanovic thought it was a good idea to sub Jean-Michael Seri for Floyd Ayite. The Frenchman finished his 58 minutes of play with 0 shots, 2 key passes (including an innocuous assist on Schurrle’s goal), 0 tackles or interceptions and 47 completed passes. That’s a quiet stat line for Fulham’s most expensive player, but if Seri’s appearance was 90 minutes long, he actually was on pace to complete a club-leading 73 passes. With him and Johansen trying to generate anything in attack, it would have been best to push either up the field as the makeshift Tom Cairney role and replace the other with an extra midfield destroyer in Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa.
Instead, Jokanovic went with Floyd Ayite. As usual, the Togo International is a solid workhorse at Championship level, but is quite normal and bland, and therefore, not good enough at what he does at Premier League level. Adding an extra attacker onto the pitch made sense in that there needed to be an extra body to collect the ball and dictate play inside Cardiff’s final third. However, the connection between midfield and attack has been so out of sorts since Cairney’s absence that it would have been so much better to have a creator move further forward instead.
In a strange way, Fulham’s attack got a tiny bit better by losing the shot battle 6-5 the rest of the way. But what made matters worse was banking on Johansen to be a strong cog in a double pivot with McDonald. Talk about two traffic cones in defense! If anything, Cardiff would go on to have 152 completed passes to Fulham’s eight defensive actions: good enough for a press that allowed exactly 19 passes per stop. That is well below what to expect from a solid defense and it showed in the latter stages of this fixture. Combined, the Johansen-McDonald duo only had two tackles all game. All of them belonged to McDonald and all of them occurred in the latter stages of the first half. Again, with more feeling, Fulham has to start incorporating Anguissa into the midfield, at minimum. Otherwise, expect the center of the pitch to always be won by Fulham’s opposition in an easier manner.
Again, Cardiff were able to make life easy for themselves in attack by getting into the attacking third 80 times to Fulham’s 54. They also were able to complete nine dribbles to Fulham’s four: thus making themselves the much more mobile team on the day. These are damning facts, but until Fulham’s attack gets better and more creative, Fulham’s defense suffers and vice versa. The elements are there to play a solid pressing game in the Premier League, but it has to be consistent and with the correct players starting and playing the correct amount of minutes. Jokanovic isn’t there yet at all with his definitive system and squad rotation. That’s fine if we’re at the end of August. We’re almost at the end of October and it seems like there’s no solution in site and not enough trust being built on the whole. Here goes them giving it a go against one of the surprise team’s of the season in Bournemouth.