Story of a Match: Fulham
I hope you all had a splendid New Years Eve. Mine certainly improved at around 4:50pm when 4 foot 8 inch Simeon Jackson did what Holt and Morison struggled to do all game: beat Hangeland and Senderos to a header. It rescued a point for Norwich in a game a lot of fans (rightly or wrongly) expected three from. So how did it come about?
This really changed the contest. I don’t know exactly how Fulham would have approached the game if they weren’t leading from the seventh minute, but I doubt they’d have surrendered the pitch quite as much, let Norwich play and tried to grind out a narrow win. After Sa’s goal, they were content to let us play on our terms and threaten on the break, happy to use their tall, strong centre backs to knock away any crosses.
The goal itself was a great finish but came from two pieces of poor play. The first was from Johnson who, to his credit, went on to have a very good game. He allowed Dembele to get past him all too easily and struggled to match him for pace. Once the ball was passed off to Sa, Whitbread responded by .. well, I’m not quite sure. He goes to dive into a tackle but doesn’t go to ground. Nevertheless, the gets completely done on the turn, opening space for Sa to shoot and fire it past Ruddy. I noted Zak’s problems in the last report, and chalk this up with them.
Following this, the first half was a bit give and take. Fulham were more or less happy to let Norwich play but they had chances themselves, especially hitting the bar and Naughton clearing Sa’s shot off the line.
This allowed Johnson and Fox to get a foothold on the game and build attacks. Fox, despite being taken off after 45 minutes, completed more passes in that first half than Hoolahan did the entire game, despite the latter having a good match. While Fox wasn’t the player I’d have taken off for Holt, I can see the logic behind it; too much of our play was in midfield and then on the flanks, with little threat coming from Morison on his own up front. Holt was needed to get more bite and a bit more shape, and so it came down to which midfielder to sacrifice. With Johnson having a good game and probably offering more defensive cover, Fox was sacrificed. That isn’t to say we didn’t have our chances first half. We had a great spell of pressure that resulted in several corners, one of which resulted in a header that hit the bar, and Morison had a couple of chances. We were getting into good positions but Morison looked tired up front, frequently out of position on the flank. When he’s out there, our nominal 2nd striker is Hoolahan, and he isn’t going to win any headers vs Hangeland.
Second half was a different story as Norwich had their foot on the pedal throughout. It’s worth remembering that Fulham were content to sit deep, and their fans made a few noises of discontent during this, seemingly frustrated at not pushing more men forward to take it to us.
As you can see from the passing chalkboard above, Fulham really didn’t do a lot in the final third, and especially not in front of the centrebacks. They tried to get the ball wide to Frei and Dempsey but didn’t get the ball into the box much and Ruddy had very, very little to do. In midfield they got close with Dembele and Murphy, and later Etuhu, but they were happy to surrender possession.
This was ideal for the centre backs, Whitbread and Ayala. A lot of positive comments have come out of the game regarding both centre backs, though in the case of Zak it is tempered by his shocking defending for their goal, but it’s worth nothing that Fulham didn’t try to get a second goal at all. As Huckerby said on twitter, it’s easy to look good when you’re playing against no-one. Ayala came out of the game with a lot of deserved credit for his composure on the ball and ability to pick a pass, and as you can see above he was excellent in distribution, completing 45 of 50 passes. Defenders that can pass are vital at this level and this is a side of his game that will please many. On the defensive side, however, he remains untested and it’s worth remembering this before we christen him the new Baresi. An encouraging performance, but not a complete one.
Further into the second half Simeon came on for Morison, and eventually pressure told when he grabbed the equaliser deep into injury time. The buildup was good as Bennett dummied past a defender and put in a great left footed cross that Jackson attacked from deep. It was no less than Norwich deserved as they’d banged on the door all second half, going close through Naughton, Morison, Surman and Holt. It was hard to argue with the removal of Morison though, and a few people have suggested a bit of a rest for the front man after a couple of poor performances. After the Spurs game a few fingers were pointed, which I addressed in the report. It’s hard when in comparison with Holt, but Morison did often seem disinterested, out of position or unwilling to attack and press a defender.
The difference in his play can be seen above. The top chalkboard shows his tackles yesterday, the red ones were unsuccessful. He was frequently unable to win headers or beat players, and was generally less involved. The bottom, during his spell of good form against QPR, shows many more blue, successful tackles. Here he was frequently winning aerial battles, beating defenders and wasn’t afraid to get stuck in. Morison has been a very positive signing since he joined and I think it’s fair to say his form has dropped. Like others in the squad, it’s about time this was recognised and he was given a rest, giving others a chance.
On the whole, it’s hard to argue with the 1-1 scoreline. We were the better side but didn’t make our chances pay until late, and Fulham defended well throughout. With a bit of tweaking the team was more than able to make chances and taking the game to Fulham, and there were encouraging signs. Jackson’s second goal in three games gives him a strong claim for a start tomorrow against QPR, perhaps alongside Holt, while Bennett had a good showing from the bench. Both fullbacks were outstanding, especially Naughton, and as said, Ayala looked good on the ball. Unfortunately this game was never a walkover like some fans expected. Players like Hangeland, Frei, Dempsey, Duff, Dembele and Etuhu would get into the Norwich side without a second thought and they’ve had European football for a couple of seasons now. No games are bankers and expecting any just breeds complacency. Lambert was spot on when he said on Match of the Day that the fans should recognise this, and we should do the same tomorrow. QPR may be in 17th but to underestimate them will only bring disappointment.
As ever, chalkboards courtesy of the Guardian.