Tactics writer Sam Tighe previews Southampton's New Year's Eve trip to a Fulham side who have impressed on their return to the Premier League.
In a Premier League year as competitive and talented as this, 22 points from 16 games for a newly promoted side is a fantastic return.
Fulham began the campaign with a point against Liverpool that probably should have been three, and have used that as a springboard to consistently churn points. Despite a difficult summer in which signings did not come easily or quickly, head coach Marco Silva got his team ready to go from day one and they haven’t looked back.
Games involving the Whites have typically been full of goals: They’ve scored the sixth-most in the league (27) and conceded the seventh-most (26). Just four clean sheets have been banked (for either side) in 16 matches so far.
Any conversation surrounding Fulham’s attacking threat starts with Aleksandar Mitrović, whose 10 goals in 13 appearances have powered this strong early start.
He’s come on as a player and an all-round forward in 2022, improving notably in the way he pulls wide to combine or even cross, plus the way he drops in, receives the ball and passes around the corner is starting to look a little Harry Kane-like at times.
But even with those extra strings to his bow, his greatest strength remains the back-post header: when Fulham have the ball on the flank, he’ll peel away to the far post, attach himself to a smaller full-back and get up early to head home. It’s been a brutally effective tactic in 2022/23.
It’s not a one-man show – the full-backs push very high up, Willian has found form and plays the game at a classy pace, while Andreas Pereira’s been a mini-revelation as the No 10 – but stopping Mitrović gets you at least 50 per cent of the way to stopping Fulham.
In Premier League years gone by, Fulham have struggled to compete in midfield at this level and that’s ultimately cost them. This season is very different in that regard.
The combination of João Palhinha and ex-Saint Harrison Reed is a busy one in the centre; Palhinha sits a little deeper and screens the back line, which allows Reed to step out and go hunting for the ball.
Fulham generally try to funnel opposition play inwards towards these two, as they back Palhinha and Reed to come out on top in any battle, or to intercept and spark counter-attacks once or twice a game.
It’s certainly something Southampton will need to be wary of, although judging by Nathan Jones’s first three fixtures, a more direct build-up that feeds straight into the forward line may be closer to the blueprint. That may limit just how much of an effect Palhinha and Reed can have on the game.
Leno; Tete, Diop, Ream, Robinson; Reed, Palhinha; Decordova-Reid, Andreas, Willian; Mitrović.
-The games are coming thick and fast but Marco Silva will likely want to stick with the same XI that beat Crystal Palace 3-0 on Boxing Day
-Harry Wilson isn’t fully fit, so is unlikely to steal a spot in the attacking midfield band
-Saints must be wary of Kenny Tete’s good work down the right – and particularly his crosses to Mitrović
-Tim Ream and Issa Diop have formed a strong partnership at the back, providing consistency