Fulham’s defeat by Chelsea was the worst kind of derby loss. Not because it was inflicted at home, or that it dashed all that pre-match cautious optimism. But because it was gift-wrapped — an occasion handed to a rival desperately in need of a lift.
Chelsea were vulnerable as they wandered down the Fulham Road.
They had not beaten a team who started above them in the table on the day of the game since May 2021, and not scored from their last 47 attempts on goal before the 18th minute at Fulham. The visiting players had arrived at the stadium to find a fast food company taunting them with a billboard displaying the number of pizzas sold since they had last found the net in the Premier League. The total was fast approaching 10million.
But at Craven Cottage, Chelsea were given sanctuary from their troubles. They were handed two simple goals and a comfortable victory, then departed more confident and optimistic about the future.
For Fulham, that was the worst possible outcome.
The game was lost because of errors in a 90-second period in the first half. First, Mykhailo Mudryk ghosted beyond Issa Diop to score. Then Tim Ream lost possession to Cole Palmer and, in the panic that ensued, ended up kicking the ball into Armando Broja to send it flying into the Fulham net. They were soft goals and momentum swingers, setting Chelsea on the path to victory.
Fulham, though, never looked like hurting the visitors and that is the lingering concern.
In the first half, they struggled to control midfield, a rare criticism for a team who pride themselves on their thunderous duels in that area of the pitch. Time and again Chelsea waltzed through the centre of the field, clear of Fulham shirts. This was in part because of the slickness of Moises Caicedo and Enzo Fernandez, players signed for £220million ($265m) combined, but that pair’s movement, along with the energy of Conor Gallagher and Palmer, helped the visitors dominate.
But Fulham also pressed haphazardly. The intent was to take the game to Chelsea with a high press, but it was muddled. On the one hand, they were not aggressive enough. “We were too flat in some moments,” said Marco Silva. “Too passive as well.”
On the other, Fulham’s off-ball work was disjointed. Chelsea frequently found a spare man in central areas, often aided by Palmer drifting off the right wing and sitting narrow. Fulham’s attempts to press Chelsea high and go man-for-man were then undone in the first half either by uncertain pressing triggers from their forwards, or untracked midfield rotations.
Here Palmer turns Antonee Robinson and, in the process, takes out the Fulham midfield who have pressed high.
Once the first press was beaten, there was an ocean of space to exploit. This happened often in transition.
“(Harrison) Reed and Joao (Palhinha) were too often on the same line and that creates a perfect scenario for (Fernandez) or Gallagher to come forward and play behind them,” admitted Silva. “We have to be much more aggressive when pressing a team high like Chelsea. In some moments we did it, but most of the time we didn’t.
“The goals didn’t come from that — (they) were much more situations where they beat our first pressure. When that happens, it is more difficult for us to believe. Players then have some doubts: should I go or not? Their goals took some confidence from us. We planned the game to be pressing high, and be more aggressive. It didn’t work out.”
That Palhinha made the fewest tackles and participated in the fewest number of duels in a league match in which he has started this season told its own story about Fulham’s lack of midfield influence, at least in the first half.
The concern shifted after the interval to the final third and those horribly familiar deficiencies. Only three teams have scored fewer goals or have a worse expected goals return from open play than Fulham, according to Opta. All three are newly promoted from the Championship.
That felt relevant here as Fulham took one shot in the first half and required 74 minutes to muster a shot on target. Harry Wilson could not find his way into his favoured positions behind the opponent’s back line, while Willian struggled to affect the game. This was a match where wide positions had the potential to be decisive as Chelsea were not full strength at full-back. Injuries and suspensions meant that Marc Cucurella played out of position at right-back, while centre-back Levi Colwill continued his adaptation to life at left-back.
Yet Fulham, whose build-up play was so effective in wide areas last season, could not refine their end product.
Like his wingers on either side, Andreas Pereira lacked the zest and ingenuity that marked him out last year and Fulham’s impetus only arrived once Tom Cairney and Alex Iwobi came on. There is depth now in these positions and the case for rotation is growing.
“The (decision-making) has to be better,” said Silva. “That was the the biggest difference between both sides. When they arrived in certain areas, they created chances. We arrived so often in the (final third) and our decision (making) was not at the speed it should be.”
Conversations about creativity will not help deflect questions about Fulham’s new-look attack and what it lacks in the post-Aleksandar Mitrovic era. All of the above, from a disjointed press to better decision making, can be brought into the striker debate.
The reality is things are not clicking for Fulham in the final third. It may just be teething issues as new players become accustomed to each other, learning new patterns and refining their approach. It may be a question of time. But until this team summons a performance to show they can overcome this attacking hurdle, all the doubts will persist.
For now, there is only the anticlimax of defeat to Chelsea to digest. That is not new ground. But the circumstances around this latest setback to their neighbours will make it sting just that little bit more.
(Top photo: Rob Newell – CameraSport via Getty Images)