Like all previous Fulham matches this season, it looked like this was going to be a dreadful day in defense after giving up the first goal. However, Claudio Ranieri’s XI kept believing, stuck to their game plan and delivered a critical three points that has moved them off the bottom of the table for now.
When first looking at the lineup, it looked like Fulham were back to playing a 4-3-3 witch Chambers as the lone holding midfield. But from minute one, it was quite evident that Jean Mchael Seri was dropping back as well and playing more of a double pivot with Chambers instead. So Ranieri’s preferred 4-2-3-1 will be the order here at Craven Cottage until further developments arise. It was also quite evident that two banks of four were the way they’ll defend as Southampton were allowed 19 passes per defensive action.
It was nerve-wracking to watch sometimes as Nathan Redmond was almost allowed to do whatever he wanted along the right hand side. Thank goodness his crosses couldn’t find a teammate to pick out. If it wasn’t for Stuart Armstrong’s hidden runs, Southampton’s attacks wouldn’t have been possible. The game started out ominously when Sergio Rico was called upon to make not one but two saves in succession. Thank goodness Mauro Gabbiadini’s poor run of finishing chances continued. When Southampton finally broke the deadlock, a poor clearing attempt found the feet of Armstrong who wouldn’t been able to get a free shot at goal if it wasn’t for Charlie Austin blocking out Seri illegally. Fortunately for the Saints, referee Michael Oliver missed that moment and Armstrong’s goal stood to make it 1-0 to the visitors.
Fortunately, Fulham’s attack was the most alive it has been in over a month and their best players rose to the occasion. A well worked attacking play between Ryan Sessegnon and Tom Cairney fed the ball to a streaking Maxime Le Marchand who was able to go as deep inside the box as possible before delivering a perfect cross to Aleksander Mitrovic who gently headed it in. Who said Le Marchand can’t play left back?! Mitro was not only back on fire, but he wasn’t done yet.
In Fulham’s second goal, Sessegnon was not only able to control the ball quite well while being surrounded by two defenders, but he was able to use his speed to dribble past Cedric: a Euro 2016 winning Portuguese International of all people! From there, Sess delivered as beautiful of a pass to a streaking André Schürrle from point blank range to put it past Alex McCarthy.
Southampton were still delivering loads of pressure in attack and still had plenty of chances to score. However, the defensive work of Rico, Chambers, Seri and Alfie Mawson were the real unsung heroes in today’s game. In fact, Mawson went on to lead all Fulham players in xG Buildup with 0.84 and displayed quite well the ball playing skills he was advertised for when he came from Swansea this summer. Even Chambers gave it a go towards goal three times this game.
In the start of the second half, Mitrovic almost got another when Tom Cairney sprang Schürrle in a lovely counter-attacking move. The German than fed it to Mitro from inside the penalty area only for McCarthy to make a crucial stop. The save was also enough for Sessegnon to just miss collecting the rebound and for Southampton to keep fighting.
Surely enough, the Saints kept on ticking as Armstrong delivered a thunder bolt from outside the penalty area. After Sessegnon failed to give Fulham possession, a well worked give and go between Cedric and Gabbiadini ended up delivering the ball to Armstrong, who was able to strike it well into the left corner past Rico to tie this harbinger of a contest. Those within Craven Cottage feared the worst as their defense once again struggled to prevent shots and goals.
Fortunately, Fulham’s attack came to the rescue one last time as Cairney and Cyrus Christie worked the ball into the left hand side. The Irish International had has best game of the season bar none thanks to his calm dribbling, his ability to limit Redmond’s attacking play and, for once, his ability to deliver a perfect cross that flicked off the head of Sessegnon and onto the right foot of Mitrovic who was able to volley in his second goal of the night. Craven Cottage was rocking and were once again believing this side can do it.
All three of Fulham’s substitutes came in with a purpose as well, something we haven’t seen since the draw with Watford, as bodies were tiring and cramping out the rest of the way. Teenager Michael Obafemi was a real pest as a super sub for Southampton and he really should have ended this contest 3-3 twice. Fortunately, like the rest of his teammates, they continued to struggle with their finishing and their buildup was lacking any quality for their players to allow the time and space to deliver good shots was enough for them to suffer defeat. They might have taken 19 shots, with 8 on target, but their 1.63 expected goals only gave them an expected shooting percentage of 8.6%. Think Fulham’s poor attacking performance against Arsenal as an indicator for how poor Saints were at breaking down Ranieri’s defensive system.
Ideally, Fulham would want to have more than 37% possession, but that is for another time. Their counter-attack was able to deliver 1.38 expected goals off of just 10 shots, but five of them were on target and 13.8% of their chances were expected to go in: almost double a probability as Southampton. It will be interesting to see how their defense evolves under Ranieri, but for now, plenty around the club will enjoy a solid three points is enough cause for celebration throughout the week.