“Money, Money, Money, Mo-ney!” sing not only the The O’Jays but the EFL as well- the allure of money that comes with promotion to the Premier League money not even being the deciding factor in this instance, with the TV deal with SkySports to crucial to miss out on. Down with the PPG (points per game) rubbish that will (most likely) decide the fates down in the dark depths of League One and League Two- prepare for masses of relentless live football on balmy nights in July.
The EFL’s announcement late on the 31st May that the Championship season would resume on the 20th June, just 3 days after the resumption of the Premier League produced a mixed reaction among Championship teams, ranging from Preston and their manager Alex Neil’s support behind the plan to QPR’s chief executive, Lee Hoos, stating he was “appalled” by the plan.
Ironically, QPR are one of the teams who may benefit the most from the 3-month hiatus. It gives them a chance to start fresh after a topsy-turvy season which they left by being unbeaten in 6 games – a chance to refocus, set in stone playoffs as the target and to play their free flowing football without the potential angst of their crowd. Brentford, another London club profiled by Roar in the past, similarly may benefit from the pause. Whilst it’s a tragedy they won’t get to say goodbye to Griffin Park in front of their riled up home faithful- the meticulous nature of the club means they will have almost certainly been ready to go the moment the whistle blows on the 20th June, unlike other clubs in the mix which are more of a basket case such as Derby County. However, one club where it is difficult to see whether the break will be a positive is just over 5 miles away from Griffin Park, that being Fulham FC.
Fulham, to all intents and purposes, have had a bang average season. Plenty of their squad have regularly put in sub-par performances, which have morphed into some terrible performances which have, at times, put manager Scott Parker’s position in doubt. Upon discussion of Fulham’s 0-0 draw away at Charlton on the Kingsway Kickabout, the overriding feeling of Louis Jacques, Akshat Chandel and myself was that Fulham hadn’t considered lowly Charlton “worth their time” with a tongue in cheek “West London attitude” to match.
Yet Fulham still find themselves 3rd in the Championship table, seemingly locked in for a playoff place where they’ll likely play the side finishing in 6th, likely to be a very winnable tie against a side scraping through the backdoor given the plethora of teams vying for the marooned position (of which QPR and Millwall are two). Leeds and West Bromwich Albion are seemingly galloping away in the two automatic spots, but if Fulham can finally put a consistent run of results together, as they did in at the tail end of their promotion season in 2017-18, the momentum off them may similarly carry them over the line.
However, other parallels with that successful season are absent. Where they were free flowing in 2018 under Slaviša Jokanović, they have been stodgy and rigid under Parker. Where they had blooded creativity throughout the side under the Serb (Ryan Sessegnon, Tom Cairney, Matt Targett), they are worryingly overdependent on Ivan Cavaleiro and Tom Cairney now. And it’s not as if the squad hasn’t been there to work with for Parker- they have arguably the best squad in the Championship. One certainty is that they have underachieved this season- largely due to the tactical deficiencies of Parker.
He has done certain admirable things- introducing 23-year-old goalkeeper Marek Rodák over the more established Marcus Bettinelli has proved dividends, and centre forward Aleksandar Mitrović is top scorer in the league this season with 23 goals. These aren’t without caveats however- ‘Mitro’ is far too good for this level and Rodák’s impressive form is arguably only down to an extraordinarily leaky defence in front of him which allows so many shots at goal- a 3-0 home to defeat to relegation favourites Barnsley is testament to this. In addition, creativity stems almost entirely from just a few individual sources. Anthony Knockaert hasn’t been able to replicate his form which earned him Championship player of the year in the 2016-17 season for Brighton, Tom Cairney has had to deal with a large amount of chopping and changing in the midfield three, and a lot of the time Parker’s tactics seem to be little more than getting it to Cavaleiro on the left hoping he cuts in to shoot into the far corner (such as away to Huddersfield in August) or deliver a wicked ball to Mitrović (also discussed on the Kickabout). Poor results for a side that has had an average of 58.8% possession this season, implying a lot of sterile and impotent attacking, meaning the (isolated) calls for Parker’s head have a certain merit.
Hopefully, the break has allowed Parker to have a tactical re-think. Attacking ideas should be easy to come by- not only are the goalscoring wingers and midfielders there, but building a team designed to get the most out of Mitro is hardly the worst idea going. Defensively the issues are clearest though. Parker must settle on a back four, and more importantly a midfield anchor in front of them to reduce exposure during defensive transition (Fulham were ripped apart here against Barnsley) and to be a metronomic figure continually feeding the better creators of Knockaert, Cavaleiro, Cairney and Bobby Decordova-Reid.
From a neutral perspective, Fulham are often an infuriating watch. One hopes they rediscover their vigour of 2 years ago, otherwise the playoffs will likely be a chastening experience for them, with the boys just down the Thames ready to pounce.
Stats thanks to the brilliant WhoScored.com