|FRIDAY 17 JANUARY 2020|
SHOTS (on target)
Fed up in Fulham
The matches seem to be coming thick and fast at the minute as Boro stayed down in London and headed across the City to Craven Cottage this evening in the Championship under the Sky cameras. It looked like everyone came through the midweek cup replay against Spurs uninjured so no fresh concerns for Woodgate in terms of available personnel apart from Randolph departing which while disappointing wasn’t a huge shock. Fulham on the other hand would be missing their talismanic Striker and of course ex-Boro target Aleksandar Mitrovic.
It could be argued that Boro without Assombalonga added up to pretty much the same thing or at least that what we were hoping Scott Parker would be seeking solace in. Reality was that whilst Fulham had an unhealthy overdependence on Mitrovic the same certainly couldn’t be said about Boro and Britt or even Boro and goals in this season’s Championship so far.
Arguably an entire first choice Boro defensive unit was missing with Shotton, Ayala, Friend and Dijksteel all injured. Parker had a few other concerns himself with midfielder Harrison Reed out with a calf problem and Mitrovic’s possible replacement Aboubakar Kamara struggling with an ankle injury. Boro hadn’t come out victorious against Fulham since February 2016 although Fulham hadn’t actually beaten Boro at the Cottage since April 2015.
There were six changes in the Boro line up from the midweek Cup game with the most notable absentees being Wing and Fletcher. Mejias, Johnson, Liddle and Nmecha all dropped out with Gestede, Saville, Coulson, Roberts, Pears and Tavernier all starting. Reid was starting as the main Striker for Fulham with Cavaleiro and Knockaert providing the threat down the flanks.
Ref David Webb blew for Fulham to kick off and almost immediately putting the ball out of play. Fulham were spraying the ball around with confidence and aplomb but were forced back into their own half before regrouping and getting back up the pitch. Despite all the flair and endeavour when the final ball came it ended up being comfortably collected at waist height by Pears. Fulham swiftly came back again, this time with Knockaert being closed down by Coulson before shooting well over.
A Tav cross in the fourth minute was headed by Hector clear and over Gestede but Spence arrived deep on the far side but hit his shot well wide of Rodak’s goal. On seven minutes a devilishly simple low cross from Bryan on the left was delivered in and met by Knockaert for a simple tap in having lost his marker Coulson. For the second time in a week in London Boro found themselves a goal down in the opening minutes. In fairness Fulham were good value for their goal and not to put too fine a point on it had looked by far the sharper side. Too many white shirts were finding acres of space with Boro slow to identify, pick up, close down, mark and allowing them far too much time to build up momentum.
Onomah had a shot outside the Boro eighteen-yard box which to our relief went wide with Boro now reduced to literally chasing shadows, being pulled all over, losing shape and with it their own game plan, second and sometimes even third to every loose ball. Fast, high tempo, slick passing and energy and movement off the ball meant that Fulham were ripping Boro open with ease as once again Onomah should have put the Home side further ahead the fourteenth minute. Thankfully his shot was low and weak allowing Pears time to get down and smother it. Boro were sitting far too deep, unable to mount any offensive with their attackers isolated yet again while the Cottagers swarmed forward with impunity.
Despite Boro sitting deep, camped in the last twenty yards of the pitch, Fulham looked like they had twice as many players as they were finding space everywhere and anywhere they wanted to play it. Those fleeting seconds that we did have on the ball we took far too long and had no movement off it and with twenty minutes gone Fulham had the opportunities to have been three up.
Tavernier, Roberts and Gestede had been anonymous at this stage with Fulham simply bypassing them. It was like watching a boxer with a six inch longer reach than his opponent, picking them off with ease. A corner won by Knockaert off Coulson on twenty minutes was delivered to the far post where Onomah stood completely unmarked and should have hit the target. Next a ridiculous looped clearance from Pears handed Fulham the initiative and as Reid was about to blast it past the unprotected Pears, Howson somehow got a block in to put it out for a corner. Whatever the Form table might have said beforehand on this showing Boro looked relegation fodder and Fulham every inch promotion candidates with just twenty-five minutes expired.
Roberts eventually worked a break all by himself winning a corner for Boro to ease the ongoing relentless pressure. It was delivered in by McNair but Fry got underneath it, looping it back off his head back into the six-yard box but went out via Gestede’s head aimlessly for a goal kick. As well as the front three Clayton and Saville had been anonymous in the game. Even a free kick in the twenty seventh minute was woefully executed with a lumped ball up to Fry in the Fulham box from which Fulham immediately attacked with Cairney and Cavaleiro breaking and the Fulham Captain testing Pears. Shocking that we could actually turn an attack into being ripped apart with ease yet again so quickly.
On twenty-nine minutes Tav fed Coulson out wide who chipped in a cross that was deflected and Rodak was nearly caught out as the ball spun out for a corner. The corner came in and Tav met it at chest height with his left boot raised when it needed a diving header and as a consequence went out harmlessly for another Fulham goal kick. Gestede chased down a weak back pass as Boro finally started to show some intent with the home side looking tired from their high tempo start with thirteen minutes of the first half remaining.
Our wing-backs had been starved of both service and of protection, Saville and Clayton’s roles seemed completely detached from what was going on around them. Then it was the up until then camouflaged Saville who cut out a crossfield ball on the half way line, advance and managed a shot that went out for a corner. The corner was half punched clear by Rodak with Reid back defending clearing the disappointing set play. A break involving Tav, found him getting a cross in to the far side of the six-yard box to Gestede, stretching, he headed it back into the box but there was zero support and it was cleared with embarrassing ease.
A badly skewed cross from Spence in the fortieth minute summed up Boro’s lack of composure throughout the first half. Then a free kick from the half way line from McNair blatantly lumped upfield was a perfect illustration of how agricultural we had become playing Gestede up front on his own. His lack of movement meant we couldn’t play slick, fast paced balls up front and the immobility of the Benin striker was just one of several reasons why our tactics were failing miserably. Howson, Fry and McNair done what they could but they were woefully exposed by ineffective wing backs, soporific midfielders and a non-existing attacking threat. The half ended with more comedic stand-off hesitant defending which eventually Pears got down to once again smother the threat with help from Howson covering his keeper.
Woodgate’s half time team talk seriously required a major rethink and reshuffle. Nothing was working and how the scoreline had remained the solitary goal was down to poor finishing and incredible luck. As a half of football, that was right up there with the worst of them this season. I suspect it was only the tiredness with Fulham after their blazing start that had allowed Boro to have a few efforts rather than as a result of anything we were doing. Gestede is an impact Striker at best or played or as part of a front two. Playing him as a lone Striker wasted what skills he does have and failed to offer any threat whatsoever. The midfield was less than dynamic and the two youngsters playing at wing-back we were struggling up against Knockaert and Cavleiro with Clayton and Saville both ominous by their absence.
The second half got under way with Boro attacking the travelling army. Boro had a few attempted attacks but they lacked any real belief, zeal or serious damage. We looked to be playing with a back four now with Spence pushed further up. Still we endured hoofed balls out from an over worked Boro defence and simply didn’t look to be going to able trouble this Fulham side. A rare run from Roberts in the fifty-first minute ended with Saville tackling McDonald in the Fulham box to concede a free kick. In the second half Saville was seeing more of the ball but to no great effect whilst Gestede and Clayton were passengers. Ten minutes gone in the half and Woodgate needed to change something quickly. Watching Boro players trying to find a red shirt was painful to bear, the only consolation was that Fulham were being infected with the same disease now. Tav was starting to become more involved and instrumental in any Boro forays. Spence was then hacked down by McDonald taking one for his team. Bizarrely Woodgate then brought off Tav for Wing as the free kick was being readied. How he left Clayton, Saville and Gestede on the pitch and took Tav off was baffling.
A break from midfield by Roberts on sixty-one minutes was played out wide to Coulson winning a corner in the process. When it came in it glanced off Gestede and went out for a goal kick in another wasted set piece. That substitution was having no effect at all on proceedings with Wing sitting too deep. A weak handball shout from Gestede setting up Spence was waved away by the Ref. A Boro corner was overhit with Roberts alert to picking up the loose ball but then dribbled his way into trouble in the “D” and allowed Fulham to break with numbers before Spence and Wing managed to combine to thwart the danger. Sixty-six minutes gone and another free kick was wasted by McNair as it was poorly placed to Fry who couldn’t reach it and was easily blocked off. So far, all our set pieces had been extremely poor but at least Fulham had slowed things down a bit and we looked like we might be lucky and nick something if we could just move the ball around quickly instead of playing balls that were already read in last week’s zimmer frame digest.
Bryan then had an effort after cutting inside from Spence but Pears got down to his near post as there wasn’t much pace on it. A Coulson cross was then deflected up into the arms of Rodak on seventy minutes. As the ball was played out of their defence, Fulham passed their way up the pitch quickly and it was Knockaert who had a cheeky twenty-five-yard shot which went wide. McNair was then booked for ripping the shirt off Cavaleiro’s back and it was Cavaleiro who took the free kick himself. A cleverly worked, curved ball dropping into the box for Odoi to head home only for the slow-motion linesman to flag offside by what must have been an elbow. A very fortunate let off for Boro. Seconds later Fulham carved Boro open again and a cross went across invitingly Pears’ six-yard box but it went out without any white shirt sliding in.
Seventy-five minutes had elapsed and Boro were hanging on as Fulham rejuvenated turned the screw and upped the ante once more. The same failed long hoofed hopeful balls were returned with interest as Boro’s frailties hadn’t been addressed either by tactics or by personnel. Reid won a corner off Spence after the youngster was caught ball watching. The resultant corner saw penalty appeals by the Home fans firstly for an alleged hand ball and then a Coulson foul on Knockaert on the edge of the box saw a theatrical dive just the right side of the white line. The free kick incredibly found an unmarked Onomah again but as previously his finishing was poor. A double sub from Boro then saw the two dead legs in midfield leave for Fletcher and Nmecha in a last-ditch attempt to rescue a very undeserved point.
Ten minutes remained and the best we could muster was Wing hoofing long balls that were impossible to reach. Arter had a good shot blocked by Howson after another fast, slick, break down their right. A long ball on the turf out of defence from Wing saw Nmecha give chase but he ran straight into Hector who stood his ground. Five minutes now remained and we looked a disjointed anomaly of parts and not all of which seemed to fit. McNair went down rather easily on the touchline from Knockaert’s attentions and as he swung in his own free kick Rodak got his fingertips onto what suspiciously looked like another miss-hit far post ball. The subsequent incoming corner which resulted was predictably overhit to nobody and easily cleared. A half-hearted penalty claim after Hector collided with Fletcher in the box was ignored as Fletcher seemed to be going down before the challenge came in.
Five minutes came up on the fourth Officials board as Spence frustratingly claimed a throw in that went the other way near the Fulham corner flag. Mawson then came on for Knockaert who had terrorised us all evening with a suspicious looking hamstring suddenly flaring up as he limped off the pitch eating up seconds. A long throw from Coulson down the touchline up to Gestede saw the big Striker control it with all the athleticism and finesse of Bella Emberg, putting it out for a Fulham throw in.
A late, well worked piece of play saw Spence hit a cross headed out by Hector that was delivered to, yep you guessed it, the far post again but it did at least go out for another corner which Pears advanced up the pitch for but the delivery was predictably hopeful rather than creative. Fulham won a throw and as they once again penetrated the Boro box with haste the whistle went to end a miserable week in the capital. MOM was Howson but tactically overall it was a throwback to September/October. That was rank bad with no redeeming features other than we battled more in the second half but never remotely looked like scoring.