Fulham head into the final international break of 2023 only two places and six points above the Premier League relegation zone following a difficult run of fixtures that culminated in Sunday’s 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa.
Only bottom-of-the-table Burnley have picked up fewer points than Marco Silva’s side since the last club football shutdown for international matches.
Although they would not have expected a great deal from trips to Tottenham, Brighton and Villa, and a home game against Manchester United, the winless run has coincided with several of Fulham’s relegation rivals starting to find form.
The foundations of last season’s successful return to the top flight were built upon getting the better of teams that struggled.
A 10th-placed finish was secured by picking up 28 of their 52 points against the teams that ended the season in the bottom five, and 39 of those points came against the bottom half as a whole.
There was a memorable opening day draw against Liverpool as well as a victory over local rivals Brentford to savour, along with an unlikely double against a Brighton side that qualified for Europe, but Fulham collected enough points against the teams below them to be more than safe from the threat of another immediate return to the Championship.
Although it has perhaps been clouded by recent results, it is a trend that has largely continued this term. Fulham have already recorded wins against Everton, Luton and Sheffield United, and have bolstered their points tally with draws at Arsenal, Crystal Palace and Brighton. Yet only the four teams below them have suffered more defeats and only Burnley have scored fewer than their tally of 10 goals.
Replacing Aleksandar Mitrovic following his protracted move to Saudi Arabia was never likely to be a straightforward task.
Fulham were fortunate to hold on to him for five full seasons, given how effective a goal scorer he can be in both the Championship and Premier League in a tactical system that is suited to his needs.
Such a system was designed by Silva and predicated on channelling play down the flanks before trying to pick out Mitrovic in the middle, helping the Serbian to 14 goals last season even though he missed the same number of games through injury and suspension.
So far, Mitrovic’s replacements look ill-suited to fill his boots with summer signing Raul Jimenez, Carlos Vinicius and Rodrigo Muniz managing just two league goals between them.
This has led Silva to change his tactical approach.
Summer signing Alex Iwobi, more regularly seen as wide player throughout his time at Arsenal and Everton, has been drafted into the centre of midfield alongside Joao Palhinha to replace the more conservative Harrison Reed. Iwobi has changed the dynamic of Fulham’s attack, starting moves by dribbling from deeper areas, including a particularly determined run against Villa which led to Jimenez hitting the post.
However, it also seems to have imbalanced the team’s defensive structure. Not a natural midfielder, Iwobi had already allowed Youri Tielemans to run off him twice on Sunday before the Belgian escaped down the left flank to deliver the cross that led to Antonee Robinson’s 27th-minute own goal.
Joao Palhinha’s all-action style means he can often look overworked even when the team is functioning well but he has at times been left to stop opposition attacks all by himself in recent matches.
Fulham will be without Palhinha for their next game against Wolves after he picked up his fifth yellow card of the season in the setback at Villa Park.
Signings of the ilk of the Portuguese international purchased from Sporting are needed in January, but given he currently leads the Premier League for tackles made and is also Fulham’s joint top-scorer, it is not worth thinking about the trouble the west Londoners could be in had they allowed his move to Bayern Munich to go through.
And now the run-up to Christmas looks vital for Silva and Fulham.
They take on Nottingham Forest and Burnley at Craven Cottage in the coming weeks, and a Boxing Day trip to Bournemouth also looks far more decisive than it did a month ago. It is possible that Silva’s new approach will be more effective against teams that, in theory, are weaker but only in the new year will we be able to tell.
The Fulham of last season would take enough points from these upcoming fixtures to build some breathing space between themselves and the bottom three, but this is a different team still finding ways to adjust to the loss of one of their modern-day greats.
The fixture list has not yet been kind enough for genuine panic to set in, but if they have no more wins on the board by the time the festive decorations are starting to come down, Fulham will undeniably be in survival battle and quite possibly in the relegation zone.
Subscribe to Blog via Email
Everyone at the South London Press thanks you for your continued support.
Former Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has encouraged everyone in the country who can afford to do so to buy a newspaper, and told the Downing Street press briefing:
“A free country needs a free press, and the newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure”.
If you can afford to do so, we would be so grateful if you can make a donation which will allow us to continue to bring stories to you, both in print and online. Or, please make cheques payable to “MSI Media Limited” and send by post to South London Press, Unit 112, 160 Bromley Road, Catford, London SE6 2NZ