Sam Tighe looks ahead to Southampton's Premier League trip to Fulham on Boxing Day in his latest Tactical Watch column, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Early on this season Fulham looked like the easiest game around; they shipped at least three goals in their first three fixtures and had to wait until matchday seven to pick up their first three-point haul—a 2-0 victory over the equally embattled, embroiled West Bromwich Albion.
But a November transformation has seen them improve in every single area of the pitch and they now pose a legitimate threat to any side.
They’ll spend Christmas Day in the relegation zone, but having taken four points off Leicester City and Liverpool in the last month, they’ll be confident of earning the kind of result against Southampton that puts an end to that.
Here are the three keys to beating the Whites and delaying their ascent up the table a little longer…
Handling an unorthodox formation
A key part of Fulham’s recent improvement has been the development of a solid but slightly unorthodox system.
They’re using a system that tilts from a back three to a back four depending on if they have the ball. When attacking it looks closer to a four, with Bobby Decordova-Reid tearing forward into the space ahead, but while defending deep he settles into a wing-back cover role, helping Ola Aina who slides inside to right-centre-back.
Reid is one of Fulham’s clear danger men in attack, and when he bursts into space Saints will need to get tight to him. His spectacular strike against Liverpool is evidence of his goal threat and he’s always buzzing around looking for ways to hurt teams.
The other clear danger man is Ademola Lookman. No Fulham player has created more chances than him, operating from the left flank and utilising his weaving, dribbling skills to create openings.
Stop Frank, stop Fulham?
Reid and Lookman are tricky, fast and look to hurt teams in two distinctly different ways, but perhaps the key to truly stopping Fulham is to stop midfield engine André-Frank Zambo Anguissa.
He’s enjoyed a sensational season so far, standing out in almost every conceivable way: he leads Fulham in touches (837), dribbles (37), tackles won (26) and loose balls recovered (136), while he’s second only to Lookman in goals created (four).
A powerful force in the centre, he can break pressing structures with penetrative dribbles, lead lethal counter-attacks, pick good passes and make life hard for opposing attackers trying to find a way through.
Saints’ meeting with Anguissa coincides with Oriol Romeu’s suspension, meaning that for the first time this season, the Romeu-James Ward-Prowse midfield pairing will be broken up. Ralph Hasenhüttl will likely select Ibrahima Diallo in his place, and what a test it will be in the Frenchman’s first Premier League start for the club.
Catch them in transition
The source of Fulham’s formation unorthodoxy – where it switches from a back four to a back five – can be found in Decordova-Reid and Aina’s area on the right.
That’s an area worth targeting for Southampton, as if you catch it in transition, you may be able to target Aina one-on-one before Decordova-Reid can filter back to help out.
Saints have the right mould of forwards to attack that area aggressively – both Theo Walcott and Ché Adams can split into that channel and look for the ball in behind – while if Moussa Djenepo is selected on the left, he can make direct runs from a different, wider angle.
Transitions are key across other areas of the pitch, too. Fulham have been pretty solid of late –they haven’t conceded an open-play goal for close to 360 minutes – so pressing hard in the centre and trying to catch Anguissa or familiar face Harrison Reed on the ball is a clear avenue to unsettling them.