Class of Cairney has helped Fulham power clear of Premier League danger zone as goals have flowed for Whites


Heading into the final international break of 2023, Marco Silva cut a glum figure on the Villa Park touchline as he watched an insipid display from his Fulham side in a comprehensive 3-1 defeat.

Silva had signed a two-year contract extension just over a week beforehand, and he was now staring through the incessant rain at the very real possibility of an unwanted relegation battle on the back of a wildly successful return to the Premier League last term.

The Whites were averaging less than a goal per game following Aleksandar Mitrovic’s summer move to Saudi Arabia, and four matches without a win meant they were just six points above the drop zone with a hectic festive period fixture list ahead of them.

Silva has insisted since the early weeks of the season that Fulham’s issues finding the net ran deeper than losing Mitrovic alone, and he cannot be accused of not trying to find ways to address the problem.

Raul Jimenez never seemed a natural replacement for the Serbian given his struggles in front of goal since fracturing his skull three years ago, and the Whites boss has placed more emphasis on his midfield players providing better service for the Mexican rather than fixating on signings in the January transfer window.

This led to a series of experiments that included Alex Iwobi playing a central midfield role and the regular rotation of wide players like Harry Wilson and Bobby De Cordova-Reid. Choosing between Jimenez, Carlos Vinicius and Rodrigo Muniz to lead the line was an added headache, with all three proving frustrating in their own way.

Fulham v West Ham United Premier League, Craven Cottage, 10 December 2023
Picture : Keith Gillard

The break in November offered Silva another chance to consider his options, yet it turned out the answer had been right in front of him all along. For Wolves’ visit to Craven Cottage, Tom Cairney was selected for what was only his ninth Premier League start since the beginning of last season.

It proved to be a masterstroke, with Cairney winning a second-half penalty in a 3-2 win but also helping Fulham look far more dangerous in attack thanks to his ability to make telling passes in the middle of the park. Silva suggested his captain had been the best player on the pitch as his side’s winless run came to an end, and he has only continued to be decisive since.

Cairney started on the bench for the daunting trip to Anfield that followed, yet when his pinpoint cross found the head of De Cordova-Reid to put Fulham into a shock 80th-minute lead, the Whites looked set for a victory to remember.

The concession of two late goals in the space of a minute meant they went home empty-handed on an afternoon when Jurgen Klopp’s side exclusively scored screamers in a 4-3 thriller, yet the results that have followed clearly showed that Fulham took confidence from another strong display.

With Iwobi now back on the wing to allow Cairney his rightful place in midfield, Fulham tore both Nottingham Forest and West Ham apart last week, showcasing some delightful interplay and scoring some brilliant goals in consecutive 5-0 wins at the Cottage.

Silva has not always been convinced by Cairney’s ability without the ball, but that has hardly mattered in this run of four games in which Fulham have found the net an astonishing 16 times.

Fulham v Crystal Palace Premier League, Craven Cottage, 20 May 2023
Picture : Keith Gillard

The Scottish international rounded off the dismantling of Forest with the final goal of the night, and last Sunday, in what was his 300th Fulham appearance, he once again pulled the strings against a West Ham side that are now European regulars.

Back-to-back clean sheets may help persuade Silva that Cairney can do his bit defensively, although his quality in possession was surely never doubted.

Perhaps a more surprising return to prominence has been that of Jimenez.

He was the fall guy during Fulham’s sluggish start, compared unfairly and unfavourably to Mitrovic as he began life in west London by extending his goalless run in the Premier League to 33 games.

That streak was ended with a consolation strike on that miserable afternoon at Villa Park, and he has since benefitted from having Iwobi, Andreas Pereira and Willian playing closer to him since Silva altered his approach.

Fulham v Luton Town Premier League, Craven Cottage, 16 September 2023
Picture : Keith Gillard

A stylish back-heel secured him a brace against Forest, and he powered home a header from a Joao Palhinha cross against West Ham with a simplicity that made his early-season struggles seem a thing of the past.

With Fulham now as many points away from the Champions League places as they are the relegation zone, they can now look forward to the busy schedule ahead rather than worry about where their next victory is coming from. Success in their EFL Cup quarter-final at Everton next week could mean there is even more to get excited about in the new year.


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