Tottenham did not have to lay a trap to catch Fulham out.
The word trap suggests a form of surprise, and Fulham’s defensive mistakes in north London last night were quite predictable. They conceded two identical goals from two forced turnovers, yet it was not a cleverly devised secret strategy from Spurs. If anything, it was signposted.
Losing Issa Diop to injury in the final game on the other side of the international break just ended was always going to cause problems. Heading into this weekend’s round of Premier League matches, only Manchester City’s Ruben Dias had made more progressive carries with the ball over a greater distance (164 over 1,822m) than Diop (125 gaining 1,460m).
It is a statistic reflecting the way Marco Silva wants his Fulham team to play, and the vital role of central defenders in starting attacking moves. “We create space and demand they step into it by carrying the ball,” Silva said on Friday. “It’s a big part of our game.”
The key concern though was balance — Diop’s absence against Spurs meant Fulham had no natural right-footed central defender available, with Tosin Adarabioyo also sidelined with a groin injury.
Before the game, Silva suggested midfielder Joao Palhinha could play the role, as he did during pre-season, and so too could right-backs Timothy Castagne and Kenny Tete, when available. Calvin Bassey, though, was the most likely choice, even though he is left-footed, the same as likely central defensive partner Tim Ream.
Throughout most of his two and a quarter seasons at Fulham, Silva has maintained a right-foot/left-foot balance in the centre of their back line, so the main question was whether this would affect the team’s build-up play.
In the end, it felt decisive. Bassey became a target for the potent Tottenham press. They channelled Fulham’s play onto his right side, forcing him to attempt forward passes with his weaker foot into midfield. Twice, his passes were intercepted, twice Tottenham scored. Final score: 2-0.
“We were punished for the mistakes we made,” said Silva. “What disappointed me more was the second goal. We spoke at half-time about what we should have done differently for the first goal, and then we conceded a similar goal.”
Bassey was not the only one to blame. Fulham did not adapt to his weakness in their build-up play, both in instruction and execution.
“It is our way to play,” added Silva. “It’s the process that we believe will get good results and play good football.
“Of course, we have to be pragmatic. We have to be effective in what we are doing. The second goal, the solution for Bassey has to be completely different, the position of our midfield has to be different, the decision is not the best — not just from Calvin, but the player who should be there to avoid these mistakes.”
That second goal 10 minutes after the interval, which ended the contest, was a sucker punch because Fulham had started the second half positively.
Silva made two changes at the break — replacing Andreas Pereira and Carlos Vinicius with Alex Iwobi and Raul Jimenez — because he felt his team were struggling to transition from defence to attack. “When you are in a low block and playing against a team that press high, the forwards have to be the platform for transition,” said Silva. “We prepared for the striker to be a key player in that and so we were not happy with some of the situations and made a change.”
The subs made an impact, particularly Iwobi, who may well have an eye on Pereira’s place as the Brazilian struggles for form. On Friday, while later clarifying this was not out of the ordinary, Silva mentioned in passing that he had taken Pereira aside for an extended analysis meeting last week.
Despite the positives from the display at Spurs, Fulham found themselves on frustratingly familiar ground.
A lack of killer instinct in the final third continues to plague them, but the match was taken away ultimately by a small detail; Bassey was put into a position of pressure without easy options and tried to play out instead of being more pragmatic. Against the best teams, those mistakes are punished.
It is not uncommon for Fulham to play well against top teams, such as Tottenham, but it is also infrequent that they collect big sides’ scalps.
Reducing the number of errors they make will go some way to changing that; currently, according to Opta, no team has made more that lead to goals than Fulham, with Chelsea, Brentford and Manchester City also fortunate recipients.
Tim Ream gives his thoughts on #TOTFUL. 🗣
— Fulham Football Club (@FulhamFC) October 23, 2023
Fulham will have to adapt in defence in the short term. Diop’s foot injury required a specialist according to Silva, and the time frame for his absence is unclear although he says it is not “long term”.
There is better news concerning Tosin’s situation.
He has been in individual training and Silva said last week he was not far from rejoining the group. The former Manchester City graduate has seen his involvement decline this year, and during the summer when he came close to a move to Ligue 1 side Monaco. But his recent absences have been injury-related, not to do with his transfer near-miss. He was managing a groin issue for much of last season and that ultimately led to minor surgery once the window closed.
While the 26-year-old defender had hoped to leave in the summer, as contract talks broke down with Fulham after rejecting their proposed deal, his circumstances have since changed. A source with knowledge of his situation, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect their relationships, did not rule out a possible resumption of contract talks with his current deal expiring next summer.
For now, though, Fulham have to accommodate their flaws.
Ironing out their foibles in both boxes could potentially propel them to a top-half Premier League finish. But knowing the team could be flying higher only makes results like this one that bit more frustrating.
(Top photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)