Opinion: Possession-hungry Fulham can compete this season, but they must offset poor start soon
Photo by Getty Images/Chloe Knott - Danehouse

Regardless of any preference you might have for footballing philosophies, there's something to be admired about a manager that sticks to his guns. A refusal to compromise on principles that have brought success in the past is indicative of the steadfast leadership, assertiveness and clarity of thought that coaches need to succeed in the modern game.

See Chris Wilder and his Sheffield United side for reference: they took remarkably well to the Premier League in 2019/20 following promotion from the Championship the season prior. A 3-5-2 formation with overloads in wide areas and simple but effective approach play had worked well in the lower leagues; Wilder kept faith that it would remain productive, and it did.

But sometimes — often, in fact — such a strategy doesn't go to plan. Just ask Fulham, bottom of the pile after six games with just one point conjured so far and a fixture list which only appears to be getting tougher as the festive period nears.

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Stylistically, they don't look different from the team which was recently promoted from the Championship via the playoffs — because, on the whole, they're not. The Cottagers are more or less playing the same way, but are merely worse in the context of the Premier League than they were in the second tier.

It's obvious, but it's a point nonetheless worth making because it gives way to a key debate tackled by the hierarchies and supporters of promoted teams each and every season. Would fans be content to do away with Scott Parker's possession-based system now if it meant a guarantee on better results in the near future?

The desire to beat that dreaded Premier League drop, and the rewards that would subsequently be reaped, would render such an offer difficult to decline.

Parker has vowed to "front it up and work" to the best of his ability to improve his side's fortunes. But there's been no indication from the man himself, nor from his team selections or apparent intent during matches, that the thorough and well-practiced footballing style at Craven Cottage will be compromised.

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The difficulty for newly promoted sides is not just that the first tier is obviously more challenging than the second; there's also the vast, complex and harrowing psychological transition which takes place following promotion. Winning the majority of games in one season and losing more often than not in the next is an extremely difficult new reality for managers, players and fans to accept.

Of course, it's not just results that affect confidence, but performances, too — and going from appearing the better side in most matches to sometimes looking helpless to resist the will of their opponents is a harsh realisation to undergo.

So much can be extrapolated from how a team takes to their first few matches in a new league. And after a barren start from the Cottagers, popular consensus appears to be that 2020/21 is a write-off already, that the squad doesn't have what it takes to survive in the Premier League and that Parker is incapable of turning their fortunes around.

A closer of analysis of Fulham's performances reveals that there is just so much more to it than that. Of course, there's no guarantee whatsoever that results will pick up, and the fact is that points matter far more than any positives that can be drawn from the displays that have yielded just one so far. But there are aspects with which Parker and his team can be pleased.

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At a bare minimum, they haven't at all looked helpless to resist. Sure, they've been beaten comfortably by a potent Arsenal and an in-form Aston Villa, but managed to put up respectable fights in the rest of their matches.

The difference in quality has shown at times, but it's not been so vast that Fulham should be expecting the worst in each game. Recent encounters — particularly the draw at Sheffield United which got them off the mark for the campaign — show that the Cottagers are quickly getting up to speed with the rigours of the Premier League; what remains now is to begin accumulating more of those precious points.

On paper, it would be difficult to argue that there isn't enough quality in the ranks at Fulham to have a good shot at survival, but what about Parker and his tactics — how well equipped is the man, and his methods, to guide the Cottagers to 17th or above?

The intent is clear: Parker's possession play will persist. Only five teams have seen more of the ball than Fulham so far this season as they've averaged 54.3% possession per game, while they rank fifth in the league for both touches (4,401) and passes (3,229).

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One issue commonly associated with possession-based football, particularly for sides expected to finish in the lower reaches of their division, is turning these thousands of touches and passes into genuine goalscoring opportunities. For all that they've had the ball, Fulham have the second-lowest non-penalty expected goals (NPxG) in the league at 4.07 after six games. Only Monday's opponents West Bromwich Albion have performed worse in that regard (2.77).

However, there are also signs that this is a team underperforming, most obviously seen in the fact that the Cottagers have an expected points (xPTS) tally of 4.65 weighted against their return of a solitary point thus far.

And when raw, decontextualised statistics are taken out of the equation and performances are evaluated using the evidence of the eye instead, it's possible to see truth in the notion that Fulham have played better than their results would suggest.

The visit of Arsenal on the opening day proved too difficult a test, but it was Fulham's defence that let them down in their trip to Leeds United the following weekend, a fairly good attacking display cancelled out by frailties at the back in a 4-3 defeat.

With the following weekend's clash against Villa, it's a case of the less said about it, the better: undoubtedly the low point in Fulham's season thus far. But the display at Wolverhampton Wanderers, although it still resulted in narrow defeat, was far more positive. Signs of encouragement and improvement started to show against good opposition, inspired by the energy and dynamism of new signing Ademola Lookman who looks set to be a key player for the Cottagers this campaign.

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The optimism was all building towards what was supposed to be the first victory of the season at Bramall Lane two weeks ago, but missed chances and defensive mishaps denied Fulham yet again. The most recent loss to Crystal Palace felt like a step backwards against the positive trajectory, but Monday evening provides as good an opportunity as any to get back on track.

All of this bodes well — but for how much longer can that be the case? Fulham are in serious danger of being cut adrift from the rest of the relegation contenders if they don't start picking up points soon. A glance at the history books reveals that only 36% of the sides to begin a Premier League campaign as poorly as the Cottagers have managed to survive.

So much rides on the visit of West Brom on Monday. Of the eleven other teams to be amongst the unfortunately exclusive company of having mustered a solitary point from their first six top flight matches, only one managed to secure victory in their seventh assignment. A historical average suggests sides in this position traditionally have to wait until around match 10 for their first win.

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At the very least, the Cottagers cannot afford defeat. The psychological damage of losing in such a crucial fixture, the doubt it could place upon Parker's job security: these must be avoided at all costs ahead of an important run of matches towards the festive period.

The pressure's on. Bring it on.