You cannot write or talk about Fulham this season without mentioning the giant Serbian-shaped hole in their team.
Aleksandar Mitrovic’s exit has been keenly felt, it is obvious. It is the start of nearly every Fulham conversation. Why? Well, Fulham’s goals have dried up compared to last season, and their attacking numbers have been affected across the board. Last season’s top scorer has not been adequately replaced. To that end, some try to avoid the topic altogether. Even Marco Silva prefers not to say his name in press conferences if he can avoid it.
But while his exit has cast a shadow on this season, a flicker of light was glimpsed on Monday night. Indeed, there is one thing that might have changed for the better now that Mitrovic has sought pastures new:
Fulham have been plagued by penalty pain during their recent Premier League campaigns. They represented a form of purgatory, particularly in those years where the team struggled to sustain their top-flight status.
In 2018-19, under three head coaches (Slavisa Jokanovic, Claudio Ranieri and Scott Parker), Fulham managed to score two out of their four penalties. In 2020-21, under Parker, they netted just three of their six, infamously missing three in succession across three different takers, including a 90th minute failed Panenka-attempt by Ademola Lookman in stoppage time against West Ham. Even last season, despite a record number of Premier League wins, Fulham scored five out of nine in the league.
It was painful. Every penalty was met by a sharp intake of breath and a wave of anxiety, washing away any anticipation. Memories of Danny Murphy’s mundane consistency from 12 yards became a fantastical nostalgic reverie.
3 – Fulham vs Wolves today was just the second time in Premier League history that three penalties were scored in the second half of a game after Everton vs Newcastle United in September 2003. Tense. pic.twitter.com/4KahISohri
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 27, 2023
Mitrovic was Fulham’s primary taker and while he gave the club so much in terms of goals, and memories too, he was never consistent. In the Premier League, it presented a problem for his managers. Parker took him off penalties after successive misses, while Marco Silva did the opposite. They were aware Mitrovic was very much a confidence player, who needed to stay in the goals to maintain his best form in every sense. “Last season it was my decision in certain moments of the season not to change the penalty taker,” said Silva on Monday. “It was a player who needed goals for confidence to score in other moments.”
Mitrovic went on to score 14 goals, which almost certainly would have been more had he not picked up a seven-match suspension as well as a lingering ankle injury. In the process, though, he became the first player in Premier League history to miss four penalties in a single season. Those misses likely cost Fulham four points. In such a barnstorming season as last year that figure felt a little inconsequential but now, at a moment when Fulham were just beginning to feel the heat and needed to respond after four winless games, such points could not be given up so easily.
So, step forward Willian, the 35-year-old man of ice-cool composure, to score not once, but twice from the spot, including a 94th-minute winner.
A penalty saviour has been found.
“It was always Marco (who decides the penalty taker), and always before the game,” Willian said afterwards. “He puts it there in the dressing room. The first one was easier, the second more difficult because the goalkeeper was waiting more. Of course, in these kinds of moments, you have to relax, concentrate, and try to do it well — and I did it.”
The penalties themselves were controversial. They were soft awards, with the second penalty (a foul by Joao Gomes on Harry Wilson), probably the stronger case than Nelson Semedo’s tackle on Tom Cairney.
That Felt Nice… pic.twitter.com/WtC2WnSgPU
— Alexander Iwobi (@alexiwobi) November 27, 2023
But they were given and what mattered is how Fulham responded. In Willian, there was no mistake. His technique involved a stutter in his run-up but it was a perfected one, and he executed his penalties perfectly. Only three players have a better penalty record than Willian in the Premier League now, as the Brazilian has scored all seven of his spot kicks (and nine out of 10 across his career). Those ahead of him are Yaya Toure (11/11), Dimitar Berbatov (9/9) and Ruben Neves (8/8). That is esteemed company and for Fulham, feels like a luxury after recent penalty problems.
They goals were much-needed too. While much of the attention has centred on the absence of a regular goalscorer in Mitrovic’s No 9 role, the burden has also not been shouldered equally among the group. The top goalscorers going into the Wolves game were Bobby De Cordova-Reid and Joao Palhinha, who had two apiece, and Fulham were the only side in the league not to have a goalscorer with at least three goals.
While Willian hit that landmark on Monday, along with Alex Iwobi, who capped another influential performance with his first Premier League goal, it remains a problem to be resolved.
However, this win broke a run of four games without three points and established a reassuring 10-point cushion from the bottom three. This was a big victory, then, led by an impressive Cairney in midfield, and one that acts as a much-needed pressure reliever.
There are still other issues to resolve for Fulham. But they can rest assured that penalties, for now, are not likely to be one of them.
(Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)