Sam Tighe looks ahead to the visit of already-relegated Fulham to St Mary's in Southampton's latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
The writing had been on the wall for a while, but Monday’s 2-0 home defeat to Burnley confirmed Fulham’s relegation from the Premier League with three games to spare.
Southampton are the first team to face them since that was mathematically confirmed, making this a curious clash which is difficult to forecast. Perhaps the Whites play with freedom, with an unchained relief; perhaps they do the opposite. Perhaps they switch the XI up, perhaps they don’t.
This is one of those rare occasions where points may not be the ultimate prize on the day (though of course they’re always welcome). Here are three keys to both a Saints win and a productive 90 minutes for the future of the club.
It won’t have surprised many to see Burnley get a lot of attacking joy on Monday by utilising direct, longer passes out from the back – after all, that’s their calling card. It may have surprised to see Fulham struggle so much with it, though, as goalscoring – rather than defending – has been their downfall this season.
Matěj Vydra was able to scamper in behind, bring a long ball down, pause and feed Ashley Westwood for the opening goal. This comes a week after a loss to Chelsea, in which the opening goal saw Mason Mount bring a long ball out of the sky and feed Kai Havertz.
Conceding from these situations has become something of a theme for Scott Parker’s men. Defensive leader Joachim Andersen’s form has tailed off over the last month as the mental fatigue of a relegation battle has set in; where he was once commanding in these situations, he’s now as vulnerable as his colleagues.
A susceptibility to fast, direct attacks that pressure the centre-backs poses a good matchup for Saints, who like to get the ball forward quickly and let the forwards run the channels and link play. There’s a physical battle for Ché Adams to relish and win here.
Another theme of Fulham’s play this past two months has been individual errors, which is no doubt also linked to the mental fatigue of the high-stakes relegation scrap.
Back in March against Manchester City, a loose pass in a dangerous area wrong-footed Andersen, who tried to clear on the stretch but simply hammered it against Rodri. The ball fell to Gabriel Jesus who finished with ease.
A week later, Fulham were caught on the ball in the middle against Leeds United, who needed just six seconds to find the back of the net via Raphinha. Two weeks later at Villa Park, centre-back Tosin Adarabioyo takes one too many touches and invites pressure from Keinan Davis, who dispossesses him, races through on goal and tees up Trézéguet.
The irony of this is that if you were to pinpoint a reason for Fulham’s relegation, it wouldn’t be the defence; they’ve conceded only the 12th-most goals in the division this season. It’s the other end that’s doomed them, with just 25 goals in 35 games a paltry tally.
But as the season has faded, the defence has too. And any side who make a habit of being dispossessed in dangerous areas, or make errors in possession, are one who Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men will enjoy facing.
With Southampton safe from relegation but mathematically unable to finish in the top half, these final three fixtures will likely present an opportunity or two.
First, the Saints can pick up some momentum, building off a really impressive win over Crystal Palace on Tuesday night. If the 2019/20 season taught us anything, it’s that finishing strong can play a big role in instilling confidence for the following campaign.
Second, the likes of Nathan Tella and Mohammed Salisu – two players who figure to be a real part of the club’s future – may be able to pick up some consistent minutes and further bed into Premier League life. Michael Obafemi’s injury hell is over and he might be able to grab some too.
The same principles apply to Fulham. Their squad has seven loanees in it, almost all of them consistent starters or even key men, and their relegation means they’re unlikely to retain any of them. Good planning for 2021/22 likely involves bringing in fringe players and assessing them ahead of August.