Tag Archives: Fulham

Man City full of big talk after besting Arsenal, but…

Well, it’s a sign of the times when you’re the talk of the town, and tongues have been wagging about the Arsenal since about mid-October when it started to become clear that we might just be more than a flash in a pan. Indeed, we’ve topped the table for all but three matchdays. Even though we’ve stumbled and staggered these last few weeks, we still peer down precariously if not imperiously upon those below us. However, a surer sign of our strength might come from the big talk emanating out of the Eithad. One might think a more-confident, more-secure side might bite its tongue. Not so, this City side…

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Anatomy of a goal, or "21 passes, one goal"

I was going to lead with that second title, but it reminded me of something involving two people and a cup, so I went with something a bit more high-brow. If you want low-brow, somebody just wrote a bawdy limerick on the men’s room wall. Go ahead. I can wait. Anyway, the story of our second goal, the one that broke Fulham’s back and put the match out of reach, is a story of 21 passes spread across 71 seconds, give or take, with outfield player involved at least once. Zinchenko even thought to initate the backheel sequence in the early going.  

Xhaka’s all alone as Fulham overcommit to their left. 

After bit of the ball pinging around, Trossard settles it. At this point, Fulham have six players in our half. We recycle possession a bit, pressing forward only to withdraw a bit, testing and probing to see how Fulham react. By the time Saliba receives the ball inside the 18 (for the second time), Fulham have now committed seven players into our half, two of them inside the 18 and six in the upper left quadrant (and a seventh withdrawing). Their press is overcommitted to their left, leaving Xhaka all alone on Fulhams’s right. Saliba finds him and the break is on. You can see Xhaka at the very bottom of this second photo, beckoning for the ball. There’s not a Fulham defender within a country mile, allowing Saliba to switch the field without worrying that Tete will pull a Bellerin and intercept the long pass and charge in on goal.

Xhaka presses ahead, Fulham are stretched.

With Fulham having committed those seven to the left flank, they’ve left just three to defend. That seventh player manages to recover, but Xhaka is now spearheading a five-on-four break with Trossard false-nining to his left, Martinelli central, Ødegaard to his right, and Saka wide right. Tete can’t figure out whom he should commit to, Trossard wide or Xhaka probing the inside channel with the ball. By rights, Toson should close down on Xhaka so that Tete can mark Trossard, but this doesn’t happen. Worse, Tete has turned inside, showing his back to Trossard and losing sight of him. Xhaka exploits this by playing the ball just behind the defender, and the chance is on.

Leno barely fits in the frame.

Trossard rinses Tete with a tight left turn and floats a cross into the box. It’s at this point that our fluidty and incisiveness mesh with Fulham’s being at sixes and sevens. They’ve taken up something resembling a zonal marking system, but neither Toson nor Ream have anyone to mark. Leno overcommits to his right as if Trossard would should from such a tight angle. Never good in the air, he’s now fatally out of position. Worse, Robinson, whom Saka and Martinelli terrorised by varying degrees, has taken up a “position” on the wrong side of Martinelli. Martinelli is alone four yards from goal, surrounded by four defenders. He’s the only one who’s ever getting a touch on the ball as it slowly drifts his way. Robinson ducks, perhaps hoping to pull a Kane by undercutting Martinelli. Ream never reacts to the ball. Leno shows too much to his left (in fact, he’s just a shade right of center as Martinelli nods home. 

This is the kind of purposeful possession we lacked under Wenger. All too often, we would dominate possession only for opponents to sit back and absorb the pressure. It’s something we struggled with under Arteta before he could drill his tactic into his squad. Instead of squeezing our opponents deeper and deeper into their own third, in effect parking their bus for them, we’re getting better at drawing them out, enticing them further and further away from their goal as they chase the ball and maybe an equaliser, and hit with a lightning-fast counter. One doesn’t often equate dominating possession with hitting on counters, but that’s what we’ve seen here.

Of course, it’s one thing to pull this off against the likes of Fulham. It would be quite another to do the same against Newcastle, Liverpool, or Man City. We may just want to hold these cards closer to the vest until we go to Anfield, the Etihad, or St. James’ Park…

All Hail Leandro Trois-sard!

Well, that escalated quickly. Before the match, Leandro Trossard was a doubt, facing a late fitness test after also having missed the trip to Lisbon. Fast forward about 45 minutes from kickoff, and Trossard had notched tree assists and was unlucky not have more but for some wasteful finishing from his mates. He probably should have had a goal or two to his name, but let’s not be churlish. Thanks in large part to his false-nining his way about the pitch, Fulham were thoroughly discombobulated to the point that Martin Ødegaard had time to take four touches in the box on his way to scoring our third goal of the half. This made Trossard the first player in Prem history to get a hat trick of asissts in the first half of an away game.

He’s also the first to get a hat-trick of goals and assists in a single Prem campaign since our own Santi Cazorla did the same in 2012-13. He’s now gone for three goals and three assists since coming over from Brighton in January, eclipsing the production of Mudryk (£88m fee, one assist), Richarlison (£60m fee, nada), and Cody Gakpo (£40m, four goals) combined. His £20m fee looks better by the week, and if he were to keep this up, we might just asking ourselves whether we really need Jesus.

Kidding. For breathlessly as we’ve waited for Jesus’s return, we’d be remiss to overlook how vital Trossard has been. At first, we relied on Eddie Nketiah, who did his best after the post-World Cup restart, scoring four goals in his first five appearances. He was a bit of a square peg in a round hole, more of a poacher who preferred to stay central to finish than a false nine like Jesus. Enter Trossard. Since his signing, he’s become Arteta’s first choice “striker”. He plays a role more similar to Jesus, drifting wide (especially to the left, his “ancestral” position). Like Jesus, he floats about, challenging defenders to decide how to, well, defend against him. It’s no accident then that all three of his asissts came from the left wing (one being a corner, the other two as crosses from open play). Highlighting his fluidity, his best scoring chances came from shots he look to the right of the penalty spot.

What’s more, he seems to bring out the best from Martinelli, who frequently looked isolated as he waited for Nketiah to make space. Now that Trossard has given license to roam, Martinelli has sparked back to life. In the same five matches in which Trossard has started at centre-forward, Martinell has gone for five goals, two from Trossard’s assists. At a risk of slating Nketiah, Martinelli had gone the preceding five matches without a single goal. While that’s not Nketiah’s fault, it does highlight how much better Martinelli works when he plays alongside more of a false nine.

Let’s admit it: we were all underwhelmed and some of us bitterly disappointed when we “settled” for Trossard while our rivals went for sexier signings whom we had courted to varying degrees. In the long run, the likes of Mudryk and Gakpo will probably prove their current doubters wrong. Unlike Trossard, they’re both young, adjusting to a new squad and league, and feeling pressure to justify their fees. Trossard is experienced, Prem-proven, and feeling less pressure. Like the signing of Jorginho, we didn’t desperately need young, attacking players. We needed someone who could provide cover, depth, and competition while we waited for Jesus to return. The fact that we find ourselves still five points clear after Jesus missed 12 matches is a credit to Trossard (and to Nketiah before him). 

We’re gathering strength and momentum. Trossard’s done more than hold down the fort. He’s raised the squad right as Jesus returns, allowing the Brazilian to come on late in a match we had already put to bed. It’s starting to feel like we could just get something out of this season…

Gabriel Jesus is in contention for Craven Cottage!

An unconfirmed photo of Charles Watts at  London Colney.

Or so says Charles Watts. After rumours that Jesus would make the trip to Portugal for Thursday’s Europa League clash, we’d do well to take any such reporting with a hefty grain of salt. Still, Watts is know for having his ear to the ground, and it wouldn’t be the first time he’d gotten the scoop ahead of other ITK types or official sources. Even if he only makes the bench, it would signify a massive boost at a key point in our campaign. Man City’s plucky win over Palace has narrowed the gap to just two points with just 12 matches to play.

For as much as we’ve coveted Jesus’s return, it’s worth pointing out that we were five points clear of Man City when the entirely legitimate and not-at-all unseemly Winter World Cup in the wintriest of countries politely paused football for about a month. After 14 matches, we were on 37 and City were on 32 points. Even if Jesus is only a back-bencher who never takes off his puffy coat, his presence will surely lift the spirits of those who have soldiered on so bravely in his absence. Feet will feel lighter; lungs, fuller; eyes, sharper. Goosebumps will arise in the electrifying knowledge that we’re gathering strength and marshalling troops.

It’s doubtful that Fulham’s players will make much of a fuss—unless the Brazilian does doff that puffy coat and start limbering up. The away fans will raise such a ruckus that they’ll be forced to glance nervously over. Is he really about to come on? Eyes will roll like those of a spooked horse. Maybe a clearance is mishit. Maybe a runner is left unmarked. Maybe…

Okay, okay, so I’m getting ahead of myself here. Fulham are full of trained professionals who won’t simply go to pieces if Jesus puts on a pinnie and starts trotting up and down the touchline. 

In his pre-match presser, Arteta was a bit coy about his plans regarding Jesus. Instead of offering a definitive answer, Arteta said this:

The reality is when he’s started to do some activities, he’s still feeling that he needs a little bit of time. Is it a matter of days? Hopefully, yes. The moment he is ready, he will be thrown onto the field…The timescale that he had has been respected and it’s now more about his feelings and he actually demands he wants to be part of it.

Those are not the words of a coach who is content to twiddle his fingers and glance at the clock, letting out a sigh. He knows that Jesus has got to be aching to play. if he felt that Jesus was not ready—and Arteta has been extraordinarily cautious about bringing players back from injury—I doubt he would even name Jesus as a sub. Should he do so, it only be a matter of time before Jesus “demands he wants to be part of it”. Lke most competitors, he won’t want to sit idly by and watch. He’ll want to play. He’s missed about one-third of the season. He’ll want to make up for lost time. He’ll want to score.

I’m not saying he’ll put in a full 90 or even play a half. Let’s hope we see him come on in the 70th minute to help solidify an 0-2 lead, maybe adding some gloss with a late goal. That would be a tidy way to announce his return…

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Michael Oliver just can't stop helping the Arsenal, can he?

Just don’t mention Martinelli.

Michael Oliver and bookings that benefit the Arsenal. Name a more-iconic duo. Well, you’ve probably already named several as I make light of Oliver’s inflated reputation dating back to his sending Di Maria off lo these many years ago. Well, lightning, or at least a middle-aged man with pale skin, has struck twice, It seems ages ago, but Michael Oliver showed Fulham star João Palhinha a yellow card during Fulham’s match against Wolves way back on 24 February. That was his tenth yellow card of the season, and thanks to rules changes, he’ll serve the second of his two-match suspension on Sunday.

Prior to the 2019-20 season, Palhinha would have missed Fulham’s FA Cup tie against Leeds and the second against Brentford. Since then, however, yellow cards don’t carry over into the Leage Cup or FA Cup, and yellow-card suspensions are served in the competition in which the cards are earned. I’m not sure how I like the new rule, but it does work to our advantage here. That translates to “I like the new rule” for those keeping score at home. To those who accuse me of bald-faced cynicism, I say unto thee, “I’m not bald yet.”
More seriously, Palhinha’s absence carves out a rather-large hole in the middle of Marco Silva’s midfield. The defensive midfielder has easily been among the best signings of this season and has been instrumental in spearheading Fulham’s campaign to secure continental competition. He leads the Prem in tackles per 90 at 4.2. For Fulham, he’s second for aerials won per match (2.1 to Mitrovic’s 4.3) and shares the top spot for interceptions per match at 1.5. Despite having only joined Fulham this summer, other clubs such as Tottenham and Newcastle have already been reported as interested in prying him away.
In Palhinha’s absence, Silva will proably have to play Saša Lukić and Harrison Reed as DMs, something he tried against Brentford with mixed results as the Bees won 3-2 (Fulham scoring a late consolation goal deep into stoppage time to make the scoreline look a little better for them). We know Reed, more or less, but Lukić is still wet behind the ears, having played just 121 minutes after joining Fulham on 31 January. The Serbian may be recognisable as one of those who went after Granit Xhaka after Xhaka trolled Serbia’s during the World Cup, but Lukić’s role seems to have been more of a peacekeepr, at least in contrast to Milenkovic, who shoved Xhaka; or Milinković-Savić, who grabbed Xhaka by the throat, but I digress.
Back to Palhinha, it’s worth pointing out that Fulham have lost both matches that he missed, that 3-2 to Brentford and a 1-4 loss to Newcastle after his fifth yellow card back when Newcastle were still a midtable side. I’m not saying that past is prologue, but the portents are pretty good. We’d better make the most of the opening Oliver’s offered us here.

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