Looking to build on first win under Lambert
Finally, after more than two months of trying, we finally got a win last week against QPR. It wasn’t always pretty, we were hanging on fairly desperately towards the end, but we just needed three points by whatever means. I’ll leave Ian Holloway to come up with a vaguely misogynist analogy for all that. The challenge now is to push on from that win, as I mentioned last week, December does not represent an overly daunting set of fixtures. Should we be able to form some kind of footballing identity – as opposed to the shapeless mess that was most of October and November – the rewards are there to be had and we can pull ourselves away from the indignity of performing at around the same level as an Owen Coyle team. Our home form throughout the whole of 2016 has been absolutely dismal – just six wins all year and 22 goals scored in 20 games – so it would be nice to round off a shocking year with strong performances and results in our final three fixtures at Molineux.
After the debacle at home to Sheffield Wednesday a fortnight ago, at Loftus Road Paul Lambert went back to the 4-1-2-3 shape used by his predecessors for the bulk of the season. It’s a formation which presents as many problems for us as it solves; we had the familiar issue in the first half of the two midfielders ahead of Romain Saiss not contributing anything tangible in either an attacking or defensive sense, and the defence continues to look ultra-shaky with only one player in front protecting them. In the longer term a different set up is surely the way forward – my own suspicion is that eventually Lambert will want to play with two strikers with whatever configuration of midfield behind them – for now he needs to find a way of marrying the threat we posed in the second half last week (albeit against ten men) with not allowing the opposition to play through us at will.
Discussions about formation notwithstanding, the Conor Coady/Dave Edwards axis in midfield presents a personnel issue in itself. Edwards is at least finding the net on a pleasingly regular basis at the moment – he’s on one of his occasional goalscoring streaks where he goes on a little burst before quietening back down to normal for a few months, there are good reasons why he has never scored more than six goals in a season above League One – but Coady just doesn’t offer enough of anything. If you’re not really doing that much in the way of tackling, pressing or covering the back four, and you clearly can’t pass or shoot to any kind of acceptable degree, the question is what the point is in him occupying a shirt. At the moment, he’s the midfield equivalent of Russell Howard on a comedy panel show; ubiquitous but no-one seems to quite know why.
Jack Price was praised by Lambert prior to the QPR game yet missed out due to a slight hamstring issue (one we were not willing to risk given his limited game time and residual lack of match fitness from earlier in the season). Lambert has once again praised him in the last couple of days and it may be worth exploring whether he can play a little further forward than his normal berth; although he’s not going to provide much of goal threat of his own, his passing can be incisive at times – going to a gold shirt more often than not is an improvement on what Coady offers – and it seems to be about the best of our limited options at present, with Lee Evans and Prince Oniangue only just returning to training. It was good to see Romain Saiss have a good outing at Loftus Road as there is little doubt that he is our best defensive midfielder by some distance. We don’t have the luxury of leaving out players like that by choice.
It was far from a perfect outing for Ivan Cavaleiro last time out, his Jeremy Helan-style understanding of the offside law being a particular frustration. However he does provide us with a genuine outlet down both sides of the pitch which stretches the opposition, stops them doubling up on Helder Costa and prevents their full backs from relentlessly pushing on. He simply must continue to start as this is the only way he’s ever going to learn what the league is all about, as Lambert repeatedly states he needs to – it’s not clear how much he’s learning from watching George Saville do as convincing an impression of a left winger as Liz Kendall. Nouha Dicko should retain his place as we look for our front three to build an understanding – we’re a long way from Afobe/Dicko/Sako territory at this stage, but if they don’t play then they’ll never get there – though there were decent signs from Jon Dadi Bodvarsson in his late sub appearance that he too is slowly getting back to the form we know he’s capable of. Joe Mason, like Evans and Oniangue, has only just returned to training this week so is unlikely to be considered, while elsewhere Paul Gladon – remember him? – notched a hat trick for the U23s last Friday which may have helped his prospects of getting a move elsewhere in January if nothing else. It remains more likely than not that he’ll remain ostracised from the matchday squad, free to dick about on Instagram to his heart’s content.
Under the terms of his loan agreement, Richard Stearman is ineligible to play against his parent club. Insert your own hackneyed, hilarious, sub-Radio WM phone in “joke” here about how Fulham have made a massive mistake on that front. Kortney Hause will almost certainly step in to replace him on our season-long run of rotating centre half partnerships. Mike Williamson has returned to first team training with presumably no-one bothering to tell him that the story of Lazarus isn’t a Christmas themed one. It’ll be a real bonus if he is ever fit to play a part for us again, but after over a year out now it’s going to be some way off even if he can continue his progress. Elsewhere, while I refuse to believe that ex-Atletico Madrid, Benfica and Portugal full back Silvio is a worse option than Matt Doherty, Lambert appears to disagree on that front as the former hasn’t even made the bench in any of his three games in charge. So unfortunately, we are stuck with Doherty as our only option, and we’ll just have to hope he doesn’t hack into ridiculous penalty box challenges like he did against Sheffield Wednesday, or indulge in his own patented world of having five attempts to clear a ball and taking none of them as he did against Leeds, or go punching the ball away inside the area like he did (without punishment) at QPR. A left back is one of our key priorities in January; it is genuinely unacceptable that we’ve gone an entire calendar year using a low quality right back in that position.
After a superb showing on Monday in the Checkatrade Trophy, Bright Enobakhare should get a place on the bench; there isn’t really room for him in this formation (another reason to ponder whether it’s the right fit for us long term) but his fearlessness off the bench in a tight game may well prove to be an asset. Carl Ikeme will be assessed right up to kick off in his recovery from an Achilles problem; of course he should start if fit as no-one of a gold and black persuasion wants to watch Andy Lonergan try to kick the ball if it’s in any way avoidable.
Carl Ikeme/Andy Lonergan
Dominic Iorfa – Danny Batth – Kortney Hause – Matt Doherty
Dave Edwards – Jack Price
Helder Costa – Nouha Dicko – Ivan Cavaleiro
Subs: Andy Lonergan/Jon Flatt, Aaron Simpson, Conor Coady, Christian Herc, Joao Teixeira, Bright Enobakhare, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson.
Fulham’s 13 year tenure in the Premier League came to end in 2014 and their return to the second tier has been a torrid one. Designs would have been set on an immediate promotion back to the top flight – as evidenced by the sum splashed on Ross McCormack in their very first transfer window in the Championship – but in both of the last two seasons, they have been dragged into an unseemly relegation fight, finishing with 52 and 51 points and firmly lodged in the bottom third of the table. Their struggles under owner Shahid Khan have shown up that for all that he’s a delusional crackpot with a messiah complex and some extremely dodgy personal positions, Mohamed Al-Fayed was a bizarrely decent football chairman. Khan’s tenure has been chaotic, no more so when employing Felix Magath who is one of the few managers who could out-weird Nigel Pearson. Slavisa Jokanovic does have a great deal more credibility than either Magath or Kit Symons and as such Fulham’s prospects this season do seem brighter, although results remain inconsistent and those Premier League days are becoming an ever more distant memory; at present, the Cottagers seem likely to settle down to second tier anonymity in the medium term as better run and better resourced clubs surpass them.
Much attention will be focused on the return to Molineux of Kevin McDonald following his summer move to south west London. After two largely excellent seasons at Wolves, McDonald’s attitude and performances last year declined to the point where few fans were sorry to see him go in the end. Whatever his gripes may have been regarding our tactics, the direction the club was going in or the size of his own pay packet, there is simply no excuse for approaching Sky Sports News in an unsolicited manner and complaining about contract offers made by the club in confidence. At times he was fairly brazenly angling for a move away from Wolves – it’s highly likely that Fulham were the club most persistently chasing him at the time – and there were several occasions last season where he openly gave up in games when things weren’t going his way. More inexcusable behaviour especially as this still manifested itself after he’d signed a new deal. He was last sighted at home to Bristol City in mid-March failing to contest 80/20 challenges in his favour. It is a real shame that things ended in the way they did and that his legacy is now an extremely mixed one, as in terms of natural talent he is easily one of the better central midfielders that we’ve had in the last 20 years. It doesn’t seem especially likely that he’s ever going to harness that talent and consistently deliver, which ultimately will be to his own regret ahead of anyone else’s. In terms of this weekend, we are at least well placed to know how he can be targeted and it may be left to Dave Edwards to press him high up the park and expose his lack of pace and chronic one-footedness. If we allow him space, we know all too well how he can hurt teams. If he can be bothered.
Chris Martin leads the line for Fulham having been strongly linked with a move to Molineux over the summer. After a slow start, he has started to warm to life at his new club, knocking in six goals in his last eight games. He has very obvious limitations – this being one of the few games where we can state in advance that Danny Batth shouldn’t be troubled by his direct opponent in terms of pace – but when on form there are few better target men and focal points in this division and we know from his time at Derby that if we don’t get to grips with what he has to offer, he will hurt us. Along with not allowing him to receive and knock the ball off at will as we have on previous occasions, it is imperative that we don’t concede cheap free kicks within 25 yards as we did on at least four occasions at QPR (fortunately Tjaronn Chery had his Gabor Gyepes boots on that night).
Scott Malone is another making a Molineux return while Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen offer plenty of quality in midfield. Sone Aluko has been in fine form in recent weeks although at the back, a centre half partnership of Tim Ream and Tomas Kalas does not appear the most solid and could be exploited by our front three’s pace. Ryan Sessegnon may be on the bench to give a doubly whammy of a classic Football Manager regen name and serving to make everyone feel extremely old given he was born in May 2000. As in, a year after Steve Bull played his last game for Wolves.
Last line-up (vs Reading (H), 3.12.16, W 5-0): Button; Fredericks, Kalas, Ream, Malone; McDonald, Johansen; Aluko, Cairney, Ayite; Martin.
Top scorers: Chris Martin (6), Sone Aluko (4), Tom Cairney (4)
Top assists: Sone Aluko (4), Kevin McDonald (3), Stefan Johansen (3)
Tuesday 12 January 2016: Wolves 3-2 Fulham
This was a bit of a crazy game where neither team seemed particularly interested in any defensive work in any area of the pitch. Fulham sent out a team in a 4-4-2 shape with four attacking midfielders and predictably enough we were able to walk through them for much of the game. It genuinely could have finished 9-5. Michal Zyro made his league debut for us and scored twice, abetted by the aforementioned non-existent defending and Matt Doherty scored what proved to be the winner with a 30 yard strike out of absolutely nowhere. Please Matt, don’t try that again tomorrow, history doesn’t repeat itself. Somehow this was our fourth successive league win despite the hotchpotch nature of our team 12 months ago (Conor Coady on the right of midfield for this one) though we were soon to be brought down to earth with a long winless streak. A night of rare entertainment in the context of 2015/16, even if much of it bore more resemblance to a playground game rather than organised, professional, supposedly high level football.
Team: Ikeme; Iorfa, Batth, Ebanks-Landell, Doherty; Coady, McDonald, Edwards, Graham (Byrne 86); van La Parra (Le Fondre 89), Zyro (Henry 83). Unused subs: Martinez, Golbourne, Saville, Price.
2015/16: W 3-2 (H), W 3-0 (A)
2014/15: W 3-0 (H), W 1-0 (A), D 0-0 (A, FAC), D 3-3 (H, FAC, lost on pens)
2011/12: W 2-0 (H), L 0-5 (A)
2010/11: D 1-1 (H), L 1-2 (A)
2009/10: W 2-1 (H), D 0-0 (A)
2003/4: W 2-1 (H), D 0-0 (A)
2000/1: D 0-0 (H), L 0-2 (A), L 2-3 (A, LC)
1999/0: W 3-0 (H), W 1-0 (A)
1997/8: W 1-0 (A, LC), W 1-0 (H, LC)
1995/6: W 2-0 (H, LC), W 5-1 (A, LC)
Wolves 2-1 Fulham (Dicko, Cavaleiro)
I predicted us to lose at QPR a) because I thought we would, and b) because I hadn’t put us down for a defeat in any preview this season and that wasn’t going too well. But I can’t bring myself to repeat the dose here. Wolves win. Because if you can’t have a bit of blind faith at Christmas time, when can you.