By Morgan Phillips
Fulham made a promising – if unspectacular – start to their Premier League programme in August. It seemingly justified the strategy of the coach Slavisa Jokanovic and the lavish expenditure on new players like Jean-Michael Seri and Aleks Mitrovic.
At the end of that first month I commented: “Neither Mitrovic nor his manager is likely to worry about armchair critics but Sunday’s 4-2 win over Burnley was a good riposte.”
Four points from four games I regarded as ‘hardly alarming’. I did not anticipate that the eight subsequent matches would yield just one point. Most worryingly, Fulham lost to Cardiff and Huddersfield – their fellow league strugglers. After the Huddersfield game Jokanovic praised Ryan Sessegnon but condemned other players who ‘are confused, scared and play like kids’.
He later criticised their body language: “I don’t know if our preparation wasn’t good enough or if they didn’t understand how important this game was.”
That second possibility (which should not be a possibility at all) has awful echoes of the last relegation season when Fulham’s experienced and expensive players seemed unaware that they were slipping down the table.
Sunday’s noontime match at Anfield was seen by many supporters as offering one of those now fashionable binary choices. Optimists looked for the start of a fight-back. Pessimists predicted a result even worse than Liverpool’s 10-0 victory of 1986. Both groups proved mistaken. Liverpool controlled the game but Fulham were by no means outplayed.
For the first 40 minutes the Whites showed a welcome discipline and unity in defence with Spanish goalkeeper Sergio Rico twice thwarting Mohamed Salah. Ryan Sessegnon squandered a good scoring chance but it was encouraging to see his interplay with Mitrovic (who won the praise of Jurgen Klopp). A long shot from Andre Schurrle also discomfited the Liverpool defence.
Then came the vital seconds that decided the match. Tom Cairney’s swirling centre was headed in expertly by Mitrovic only for the assistant referee to flag it offside. Fulham’s stunned players were caught out of position as the Liverpool keeper Alisson Becker started a counter-attack that led to an open goal for Salah.
TV analysis appeared to show Mitrovic level with the defender. A more precise Video Assistant Referee could have ensured a correct decision. It would also have revealed that the ball was already in motion when Alisson set off the counter-attack (well spotted, BBC). It was Salah’s goal that should have been disallowed.
I will not speculate on the final outcome if Fulham had led 1-0 at half-time. Liverpool would probably have returned to the field in a more tigerish mood. Instead, the second half was as underpowered as the first. Rico saved well from Sadio Mane and Andy Robertson but had no chance when an unmarked Xherdan Shaqiri added a second goal. Fulham did not capitulate but there was an air of resignation for the rest of the match.
This was, I believe, the twelfth defensive formation that Jokanovic has tried in twelve matches. Perhaps after the international break he will persevere with this one and combine with his philosophy of attacking football.
We only need an 8-0 win over Southampton to rise above the relegation zone.
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