Chelsea faces a Fulham side that defends like mad and hopes to get something on the other end. What tactics can the Blues expect from their rivals?
When Fulham was first promoted back into the Premier League with Slavisa Jokanovic, they came out if the Championship wilderness with a narrative of free flowing and “beautiful” football. And like many other teams that had that work for them in the Championship, they quickly found out the Premier League doesn’t play that game with newly promoted clubs for the most part. Sure, there are the occasional Bournemouths, Huddersfields, and Leeds that kick about for a bit, but in general the Premier League eats those clubs and spits them back out into the Championship.
So when Fulham stuck by Scott Parker, there was an understanding that the Championship was one beast and the Premier League was another. Parker managed to get Fulham back into the Premier League at the first time of asking, but few will have said their promotion was well earned. Parker had made Fulham more pragmatic and masters of the grind. In hindsight, it may be exactly what the London side needed to ensure a stay in the Premier League this time around.
After a rough start, Fulham has started to show that the grind that got them into the Premier League may be able to keep them there. Since a loss to Manchester City at the beginning of December, Fulham has drawn every league game since. City had been the first team since Aston Villa in September to defeat Fulham by a margin of more than a goal as well. Pragmatism and grinding out every inch is the name of the game for Fulham this time around and that is sure to cause Chelsea headaches.
Fulham does not really have a set formation. They largely tinker about a midfield pivot with 3-4-3, 4-2-3-1, and 4-4-2 all being featured this season. Occasionally, they’ll have a 4-5-1 or 3-5-2 to really flood midfield, but that is about as daring as they get.
Fulham is very much a defense first team this time around. They are not averse to possessing the ball but without it their primary focus is on packing it in and protecting the goal rather than trying to regain possession right away. Given how few of their matches have more than a goal deficit, it is surely working.
Most teams looking to counter quickly play with a pivot due to the natural “spring” the shape tends to give the wings. Fulham is no different. When they win possession, they will quickly look to get it up the flank. Generally, teams will play a high line against them because of how deep they sit, so they leave themselves plenty of space to exploit on these counters.
That’s not to say it is particularly effective given Fulham have the third fewest goals scored in the Premier League. It is mainly about how it is very hard to play a tight and compact defense and then play a possession game and then be able to shell up again without leaving gaps. Is it pretty? No not at all. Is it something that might mean the difference between another relegation or a Premier League stay? Yes, almost surely given how the teams around them are in even worse predicaments.
Fulham is the exact type of opponent that frustrates Chelsea the most. The Blues, for all their attacking talent, still struggle to break down teams. The Blues are less susceptible to the counter now but they are not impervious from it.
This match will very much come down to the front three being able to craft chances and, more importantly, take them. Frank Lampard will need to pick the right players for this and inspire them with the right ideas. Otherwise the Blues will simply become another notch on Fulham’s string of draws. Or worse.