After shaking off a poor but predictable performance against Manchester City, Fulham were able to come away with a draw against a decent Watford side. By games end, Watford were still sitting in a Champions League place and are expected to finish the year eighth according to Understat. On the other side of the spectrum, Fulham stayed in 15th while looking like a side that could be fighting relegation thanks to their unstable and horrendous defense. Last Saturday didn’t change anything when it came to what the narratives have been for both sides. However, Fulham came away knowing that they have what it takes to beat the best teams outside of the top six.
No one would have thought that were to be true if the first half alone was to be analyzed. Fulham have now given up a goal in less than two minutes in two straight games and seem to be starting a trend in which they just don’t look great in the first half. In their six Premier League fixtures, Fulham have scored only once and conceded seven times in the first half. In contrast, Fulham have scored five times and conceded six in the second half.
So if anything, the defense is not that much different between halves, but Fulham always seem to start on the wrong foot that they seem to be intimidated to attack. There might be too much emphasis on maintaining a defensive structure that the rest of the system seems to be forgotten or starting from much deeper on the pitch.
With regards to last weekend’s fixture, it comes as no surprise that Stefan Johansen only attempted 18 passes in the first half considering how invisible he was. That is the fewest attempts by any non-attacking outfield Fulham player and nine of them were while he was in the attacking half of Craven Cottage. Meanwhile, Jean-Michael Seri had 41 pass attempts, while Kevin McDonald had 35. Along with that, Ryan Sessegnon and Timothy Fosu-Mensah (10 each) were attempting more passes than McDonald (six) and Seri (seven) towards the final third in that time frame.
That completely changed in the second half thanks to the substitutions and formation change. Under the 4-2-3-1, Fulham overcrowded Watford’s midfield and dictated the tempo in that area when they had the ball. Seri’s passing attempts skyrocketed to 58 and Luciano Vietto went from 16 to 29 attempted passes after he was moved over to the number 10 role to make way for Floyd Ayite. Even Johansen was pinging more passes with 21 from the holding midfield position. Add in Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa’s 31 attempts to the mix and you have a much more mobile and livelier midfield willing to push forward and dictate the tempo of the game. And that second half adjustment wasn’t on full display based on the passing numbers.
In the press, Fulham increased their pressure from having just two defensive actions (combined tackles and interceptions) in Watford’s end in the first half to six. That may not seem like a big jump, but considering how pinned Fulham were back with their midfield and defense, and how consistent their defensive play went through all game (18 total occurances in the first half versus 20 in the second half), that increase gets more magnified. That being said, Watford also increased their pressure from four attacking end defensive actions to seven for each half.
On the whole, we are seeing how Slavisa Jokanovic is going about each game this Premier League season. Fulham would like to play their style while maintaining some tier of defensive structure from the start. Unfortunately, that just can’t happen right now as long as the cohesion within the midfield and defense is still out of sorts. Whether that is selection issues or a lack of focus on the XI out on the field, the first half displays are just not good enough. As a result, Fulham are always on the back foot to start every game and make life harder on themselves. Once there is a freedom to their game, the club is able to display how they generally would like to play, at minimum.
If they can transfer that mindset to start the match instead needing adjustments afterwards to make it happen, Fulham could be in good business. They will have to let their football hit teams in the mouth first, eventually, instead of the other way around.