“There is a bit of relief; we want to win football matches. I’ve got a very good team here and we know this will be difficult. They come in Monday morning and they’re the first to put their hand up and understand we need to improve. Tonight, I was seeing that.”
Outwardly, Fulham manager Scott Parker remained level-headed following his side’s first league victory of the season on Monday night — but on the inside, the 40-year old will have been nothing short of delighted with what he saw from his team during the 2-0 dispatching of West Bromwich Albion at Craven Cottage.
The drive and determination of Parker's players to right previous wrongs was there for all to see. With captain Tom Cairney setting the standard — drawing inspiration from the playing days of his manager in many respects — the Cottagers pressed harder, attacked better and, crucially, believed more fervently in their ability to win than they had appeared to in past performances.
Yes, it was a fighting display which uncovered truly likeable aspects of this Fulham team, characteristics which had perhaps been overshadowed by their barren start to the campaign. But getting off the mark gives them the opportunity to momentarily lap up the credit they deserve.
Firstly, it’s important to remember the pressure on both the Cottagers and their opponents on Monday evening. While we’re not even a fifth of the way through the season yet, a crucial juncture is approaching: it is around now that the genuine title contenders begin to emerge, as do the teams that are likely to languish at the other end of the standings.
Both Fulham and West Brom will be players in the relegation battle until the latter stages of the campaign, there can be no doubt about that. Beating the Premier League drop in the season after promotion is an almighty task, and there will be more lows than highs along the way.
But this was, clearly, a definite high for Fulham — and the boost couldn’t have come at a better time, with a challenging run of fixtures on the horizon.
The importance of the contest for both sides made the events of the opening stages all the more critical; there was a visible degree of desperation from either team to gain the upper hand early on. The balance so nearly tipped in favour of the visitors when Conor Townsend’s cross-cum-shot caught Alphonse Areola off-guard and clipped the woodwork on six minutes, but the hosts survived unscathed and soon found their rhythm.
And it was a good rhythm, at that. There was a clearly identifiable — but less easily preventable — strategy to Fulham’s build-up play: press high, forcing West Brom long; win the aerial duel and offload possession to a creative outlet in midfield; spread play to the wings; and allow the opposition back line not a moment of reprieve with constant and unpredictable dribbles, through-balls, decoy runs and crosses.
It’s so simple to explain, but far more difficult to implement in the setting of a Premier League pitch, and that’s why the Fulham players deserve appreciation. This was a cohesive team effort in which all the players provided their own contribution and impetus to make the system work.
Beginning at the back would be apt, as it was the sturdiness of the defence on which rested the basis for such an impressive performance in all areas of the pitch.
There’s little to say about Areola’s performance on Monday, his main contribution to the match being a constant supply of feedback and encouragement to his teammates. In terms of his duties as goalkeeper, he was untroubled throughout, and that is testament to the work of the centre-back pairing in front of him.
On-loan Olympique Lyonnais defender Joachim Andersen returned from injury sooner than expected to partner Tosin Adarabioyo, forming what on first glance looks as if it could go on to be a really fruitful pairing at the heart of the back-line. The two were impenetrable all game long and thwarted any danger to Areola’s goal time and time again.
But it was Andersen and Adarabioyo’s contribution to Fulham’s attacking sequences that will have pleased Parker the most. Of course the pair were dominant in the air, standing at 6’4” and 6’5” respectively, and their ability to repeatedly recycle possession gave the spotlight to their most underrated quality: their composure in possession.
They used this equanimity to beat any high press from West Brom and supply the midfield in front of them, comprising the effervescent trio of Mario Lemina as anchor, Cairney as the spearhead and Zambo Anguissa bridging the play. The combination was tough-tackling, hard-running, but also creative and exploitative of the holes left by a less mobile Baggies midfield.
From the centre of the park, possession was usually sprayed out to the flanks where fruitful link-ups soon emerged. Bobby Decordorva-Reid came into the starting line-up for Ruben Loftus-Cheek and performed remarkably well in tandem with fellow goalscorer Ola Aina on the right, but it was down the left that Fulham continually looked to venture, with Ademola Lookman's tricky dribbling and Antonee Robinson's lung-bursting sprints serving the ingredients for an effective partnership.
Of course, the man that assisted both goals must also be acknowledged. While last season's joint-top scorer in the Championship has so far struggled to regain his natural finishing touch in the top flight, another element to Aleksandar Mitrovic's game was apparent against the Baggies: his ability to be provider as well as scorer.
The Serbian used his height and strength expertly well in aerial duels, he acted as a key linkage in Fulham's attacks and also the first line of pressing with relentless running which often forced the West Brom defenders into reluctant long-balls — something which, as we've seen, was key to Fulham's game-plan on the night.
And would you look at that? All 11 players have been mentioned as crucial to all phases of play. This is perhaps the central facet of Parker's footballing philosophy: because while the Cottagers were less possession-hungry on Monday (seeing 46% of the ball compared to their prior season average of 54%), they both defended and attacked as one robust, cohesive unit, and it made them enjoyable to watch and problematic to play against.
Parker refused to highlight one player as being the difference-maker for his team against West Brom and, on reflection, that is indeed an impossible task: they were all pivotal and contributed in equal measure to the pursuit of that previously elusive first victory.
It was their commitment that was most likeable of all: Fulham, for all their faults in the opening matches, resisted disheartenment and showed a passionate determination to set the record straight as soon as possible. Long may that continue, because while winning on Monday lifts a great weight off their shoulders for now, there is still a great deal of work to be done.
Fans won't get carried away: it's a victory which was needed. Consider the counter-reality and how the performance would have been irrelevant had the team walked off the Craven Cottage pitch empty-handed. But they can take solace in the fact that this is a talented group of players who will fight for their manager, for their club, and thus — fingers crossed — give survival a much better shot than the squad of 2018/19 did.