Fulham have made a flying start on their Premier League return and hold sixth position as the international break arrives.
“It has been really good,” said head coach Marco Silva, discussing his side’s form after their comeback win over Nottingham Forest. “I have to be honest of course. I have to say as well some games in the beginning of the season we should have got more points because we deserved it.
“It is the start of the season; we go into the international break with confidence then we prepare for the next match. There are lot of fights ahead of us but we are happy with how we started and we have to keep going.”
Fulham have bounced between the first and second divisions in each of the last five seasons but their recent performances have left everyone asking the same question: maybe there will be a different ending to their Premier League adventure this time around?
In their final match before the international break, Silva’s side turned the contest on its head with a five-minute spell of complete domination, typifying their new streetwiseness at the elite level. However, it was a rehearsed set-piece routine that set them on their way, with central defender Tosin Adarabioyo converting Willian’s corner kick.
Fulham’s leveller at the City Ground was just the latest example of their dead-ball prowess, which – as they led the Championship in set-play goals last season – should come as no surprise. The play starts with Aleksandar Mitrovic (FUL9) and Adarabioyo (FUL4) on the edge of the penalty area, marked by Scott McKenna (NFO26) and Ryan Yates (NFO22). Just before the ball is struck, Adarabioyo swings behind Mitrovic, who steps into Yates’ path.
With the pick initiated, Adarabioyo charges into an empty pocket of space behind the penalty spot and find himself unmarked as Willian’s cross arrives. Virtually unopposed, he leaps into the air and beats Dean Henderson (NFO1) with a commanding header. With the fixture tied, Fulham smelt blood. João Palhinha fired the West London outfit ahead just three minutes later, beating Henderson from the top of the box.
The 27-year-old, acquired from Sporting CP for £12.7 million in the summer, has played a crucial role in his team’s impressive start. Paired with Harrison Reed in central midfield, Palhinha is a box-to-box influence with the skill and football intelligence to support his impeccable work rate.
“We knew when we were signing him that he would be a plus for us, for our squad; on the ball, off the ball, set pieces as well,” Silva said of the Portugal international after his debut. “It’s good to see the players take positives from something that we spent a long time on in the week.” Palhinha, an instant hit with supporters and player personnel at Craven Cottage, boasts an impressive advanced statistics résumé, provided by Wyscout.
When asked about his defensive midfielder’s strike versus Nottingham Forest, Silva added: “To see our No. 6 arriving to score that goal shows our philosophy and shows our ambition as a team. The work [our midfielders] do without the ball is really important, too.” Palhinha has proven to be a steal for Fulham, not least due to his role in unlocking Reed, who scored the match-winner in the East Midlands.
The play starts with Mitrovic corralling possession on the halfway line. Reed (FUL 6) senses the opportunity to break into the final third once Bobby De Cordova-Reid (FUL14) receives the ball and chargers towards the penalty area.
Seconds before the cross is played, Willian (FUL20) swaps positions with Reed and runs towards the near post. The Brazilian’s movement occupies McKenna and Renan Lodi (NFO32), granting Reed freedom of the far post in the process. De Cordova-Reid’s cross is perfect. Reed scores.
Fulham, on the evidence of their first seven matches of the season, are a team on the rise under Silva. They have learned from previous mistakes, developed into a tactically cohesive unit, and push into the second phase of the campaign under relatively little pressure.
After the international break, the Cottagers have a rare opportunity to consolidate their top-half position. They face Newcastle United next, with fixtures against West Ham, AFC Bournemouth, Aston Villa, Leeds United, and Everton to follow. That’s six winnable contests in a row.
With that said, Fulham could be all but safe in time for the World Cup – such has been the scale of their improvement this season. While there is still work to do for Silva and his squad, their trajectory is promising. Welcome to a new era of stability at the Cottage. It’s been a while.
By: Luke James / @LukeJames_32
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Gualter Fatia / Getty Images