Come for the clickbait-y title; stay for the actual explanation as to why it’s possible to be better than Fulham and yet not actually be better than Fulham.
Three goals away to the best team in the league. And it should have been loads more if we’d scored any of the actual chances we created.
I’m not saying that the play-offs are back on – I’ve learned a valuable lesson here – but after taking the points yesterday (and performing in that matter) I have returned to perving over the Championship table once more. A sure-fire sign that I may be tempted to entertain the impossible for a little longer yet.
It was a very impressive away victory. And yet, we really didn’t do too much differently to what we’ve done to so many other teams this season.
So how did we manage it?
With a little bit of luck
In the home version of this game, we blew Fulham away in the second half with crisp and incisive attacks and goals. They weren’t geared up for our intensity, and when we got the opportunities, we punished them ruthlessly, all through our own quality and capabilities. That’s how football works a lot of the time and we can understand that.
Yesterday was slightly different. We played terrifically well, kept them occupied throughout, and yet the three actual goals we scored weren’t entirely our own creation.
Huge caveat before you proceed: I’m not here to bemoan the types of goals a team scores. You don’t get to pick and choose these. However, if, like us – you’ve struggled with the final act over the course of the season (in relation to the amount of opportunities presented), the crucial thing is that you simply keep at it. Because huge portions of what you do is correct. So you keep stress-testing the opposition as you have the quality, and believe that ultimately you will find a way.
That tenacity was evident from the start, and when you have players performing to the level Gyökeres and O’Hare managed yesterday, you have to believe that somewhere within them they have the ability to turn the lively performances they usually offer up, into genuinely ruthless and regular end-product. That’s the logical next step up in quality for them.
But when you’re not converting your dominance into goals, especially when you know you’ve been punished for that previously – you have to keep at it. Simple and obvious advice, but they both got the goals they deserved yesterday because of this mindset. That’s bravery for you. And it’s vital that they and the team continue that approach.
The opener may have ultimately dropped off the Fulham head, but the run from Rose was on the money, and the ball from Hamer had the defenders in all kinds of trouble.
There’s no legislating for the mistake that led to Viktor’s goal, but he connected well. No scuff this time – it was on target, bouncing in front of the keeper, and again – stress-testing them. It’s all done with the intention of finding out how metronomic they can be. They’re human and mistakes are inevitable. It makes perfect sense to push those limits as much as you can. That’s where a more sustainable level of self-belief comes from.
The third was the result of one too many opportunities to punish a dippy Fulham defence, and Hamer and O’Hare duly converted.
Three goals – one own goal, one fumble, and one inexplicable error.
Of course we will absolutely take that.
If there’s one thing that’ll get you closer to the results you want, it’s lunatic work-ethic. For whatever reason, each game tends to generate a certain level of intensity from players. It’s why you get those tepid matches where nobody gets going, and you’re not entirely sure why. Especially when it’s a big game and you know they’re all trying and absolutely want to win; it just doesn’t seem like it.
We gave Fulham a real taste of just how relentless we can be. It was furious, it was dynamic, and it was entirely necessary because in attacking areas – they possess huge quality. Harry Wilson only needs a sighter of goal to test you, and while Rose and Hyam were able to keep Mitrovic at bay, his aerial dominance was clear. It often needed the both of them – and he sometimes won that fight too – but the crucial element of the battle is that neither of them refused to be bullied. They returned time-after-time to the scrap and made his life far harder than most teams will have done this season.
I could namecheck the rest. Hamer just has the knack of nicking the ball; Jamie Allen makes those legs work as best he can; Maatsen’s always there on the left; and Dabo is really getting into his stride now, revelling in the battles with some of the best players in the league.
Gyökeres you absolute animal
This was early season Viktor, back to the all-running, battering ram style that we all watched and believed would score a million goals this year.
He was the difference. In a system that could theoretically seem very defensive, his outlet converts that into a hugely potent attacking weapon. He’s strong, and on those days when he realises he’s stronger than his opponent, that’s when he really kicks into life.
To have a player that offers the triple threat of a genuine aerial target, smart and reactive link-up play, and an ability to carry and chase the ball down over large distances – there’s a lot to love about that kind of striker. He’s a bit of a dream when in that mood.
Sure, he still bumbles about a little with the ball as it takes time to gain control, and he’ll definitely have fancied a couple of goals or assists yesterday given just how much joy he was finding. But I have to try not to get greedy with him. He’s not a robot. The team displayed huge levels of fight and quality throughout the match, but without him doing all the things he does up-front, those things would likely count for different.
Huge performance from a huge player.
Ponderous defence suits us
I had the audacity to say that we’re better than Fulham, and whether I actually mean this or not comes down to the definition of “better”.
(Also – no, I don’t properly mean it.)
But from the two games we’ve played against them this season, it seems pretty clear that their method of play in the defence and deep midfield areas really does lend itself to being exploited by the key strengths that we hold.
I don’t want to ignore the fact that their attack also could have scored 3 or 4 on another day, so that threat is equally as real as ours. But we’ve banged 7 goals past them this season and what was most fascinating from their approach was the continued pondering over the ball in defence as they invited the press – you could literally see them doing it – to a point where you could predict when they were walking themselves into trouble and we’d steal it.
I’ve not seen them enough to have a more rounded view of their players, but for the second time against us Tim Ream appeared to be an accident waiting to happen. Yet Fulham fans seem perfectly happy with his display – generosity which I’ve no doubt he’s earned from his overall performances this season. Many have even blamed the keeper for the third goal that wrapped up the win for us, even given the dithering from Ream. I really couldn’t believe our luck.
Over the long term, against most teams in the league, they clearly have far more about them and the ability to score as many as they like. You can see that. Their players are just too good not to. But there’s something about their methodology in both games against us that didn’t seem to work, and if anything, suited our attacking flow really quite well.
So call me wild, but maybe our way of playing is just better suited to beating Fulham. And if we played them a few more times, I’d fancy some goals in those games too.
But – and this is the important one – they’re not losing to Swansea or Hull, and there’s probably little chance of them losing those kinds of games either. Meanwhile, I’m scare stiff of those games, where we have far different problems to contend with from the opposition – and challenges that don’t allow us to do the same good things that the Fulham games have provided.
So, in conclusion. Fulham are the best team in the league. And are better than us.
And yet we’re better than them too.
Makes no sense, right? Which is exactly how I like.
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