Tactical Watch: Free-scoring Fulham can be exposed

2022-23/Matchdays/20230218 Chelsea vs Southampton/20230512_Stuart_Armstrong_Chelsea_us7fau

Tactics writer Sam Tighe looks ahead to Fulham's visit to St Mary's in the Premier League, with Southampton set to face Aleksandar Mitrović on his return from suspension.

Fulham’s first season back in the Premier League has been a success with safety already secured. What kind of test will they offer?

As one of very few teams safely distanced either from the relegation fight or the European chase, and with season-ending injuries piling up, you could forgive Fulham for letting off the gas a little.

Instead, they’re competing as hard as ever, giving Manchester City and Liverpool good games and putting five past Leicester City on Bank Holiday Monday.

The Whites are playing with an attacking freedom and joy that perhaps can only come with safety secured, and with their only real remaining goal to finish above local rivals Chelsea. That kind of care-free flow makes them a dangerous opponent this weekend.

What threats must Southampton be wary of?

The biggest piece of team news for this game is Aleksandar Mitrović’s return from suspension. He’s missed the last eight games as punishment for pushing a referee in the FA Cup and will finally be able to join the matchday squad for the first time since March.

Manager Marco Silva described the punishment as tough not only on the player but the whole club, and despite likely lacking sharpness, no one would be surprised to see him take up a starting role.

Mitrović changes the threat level of this Fulham team, operating as both a foil for the attacking midfielders and a primary goal source himself. His back-to-goal link play is hard to defend, while his penchant for a back-post header is almost unrivalled.

In addition to the Serb, club captain Tom Cairney has rejoined the starting XI in the wake of injuries and is scoring goals, while Harry Wilson is in exceptional form on the right flank too.

How can Southampton trouble Fulham?

Fulham haven’t kept a clean sheet since February 28th, conceding at least one goal in each of the 11 games since. They’ve also conceded four penalties in the last three games alone, with defensive mistakes creeping in and the issue exacerbating in the wake of defensive leader Tim Ream’s recent season-ending injury.

They are not dealing with balls into the box with their usual efficiency, with miscommunications and, perhaps, some overcompensating from goalkeeper Bernd Leno, leading to some rash moments.

Southampton must play positively and put Fulham under pressure in the same way Leicester did on Monday – but complement that by defending against counter-attacks much more decisively.

Predicted XI (4-2-3-1): Leno; Tete, Diop, Tosin, Robinson; Reed, Palhinha; Wilson, Cairney, Willian; Mitrović.

-Carlos Vinícius has stood in well for Mitrović and would deserve his spot in the XI if Silva opts to stick with him
-With Ream and Andreas Pereira out, Tosin and Cairney have fresh importance to this team
-Harrison Reed and João Palhinha are tough to out-fight and outwork in the midfield zone
-Leno has been one of the best in his position this term, saving close to 10 goals more than statistically expected based on the shots he’s faced