Written by Charlie Ellis and Rhys Desmond.
Preceding one of the most dominant Championship seasons ever, Marco Silva’s Fulham have shown plenty of promise on their yo-yo return to the Premier League. 106 goals in 46 matches was superior of any second-tier side since Manchester City in the 2001/02 season, but their offensive strengths had been heightened by their ex-Portuguese star, Fabio Carvalho. As he begins a new chapter at Anfield, the rest of Silva’s side have reset, and look well-prepared for a high-tempo season in the top flight. Peculiarly, they’ve shown more defensive promise so far even with the explosive start to the season from their Serbian record-breaker, Aleksandar Mitrović. New additions like that of Joao Palhinha and Bernd Leno have had a positive impact on the defensive stability of the team, leading to 5 points in 3 games and an unbeaten run to start the season. Here is our tactical analysis of Marco Silva’s Fulham at the start of 2022-23.
Style of Play: 4-2-3-1
Despite the tactical nuances between attacking, defensive and transitional shapes, the Cottagers most frequently line up with their systematic 4-2-3-1 formation. Andreas Pereira’s fluid positioning makes it an awkward shape to pinpoint on the defensive end, but Silva’s men block in a well-organised 4-4-2 to 4-4-1-1 system, where the dynamic Brazilian advances forward, to enact a man-oriented press from the front, alongside Mitrović. Back on the ball, he operates firmly in between the lines in seeking space wherever available, whilst Harrison Reed’s box-to-box presence often pits him ahead of Palhinha, and the team begins to resemble more of a 4-1-2-3 shape. All of Silva’s attacking and defensive principles do however remain expected modifications of a 4-2-3-1, and the team are more rigid than fluid on that particular tactical spectrum.Embed from Getty Images
Beginning at the back, Marek Rodak was given two games to hammer down the number one spot and even though he did a sterling job, Bernd Leno may be the man to take the prestigious position in the future. After all, the Slovakian doesn’t offer anything extra in terms of distribution, and Leno is world-renowned for his shot-stopping abilities, whilst also performing admirably as a sweeper keeper against the Bees.Embed from Getty Images
On the left of the back four, Antonee Robinson looks comfortable enough and set to nail down the slot for another season in the Prem. He maintains his position well and avoids excessively overlapping, staying prepared for quick counters Fulham may face. On the other side, Kenny Tete plays an even more defensive role, constantly readying himself for incoming attacks. Defensively speaking, he’s one of the most resilient full-backs in the league, and despite an intelligent attacking presence, it’s evident where his strengths lie. Tosin Adarabioyo meanwhile looks comfortable carrying the ball, and has shown his extensive influence in and out of possession. Rounding up the defensive line is loyal leader, Tim Ream. He played a career-high 98% of league minutes last season and even at 33, proved invaluable to Marco Silva’s side.Embed from Getty Images
Doing the same again, one year older and in the Premier League, will be a tough task but one the American looks equipped to take on. Quite positively from Fulham’s perspective so far this season, three of their four defenders have made more interceptions than any other player in the league this season (Ream – 17; Robinson – 14; Tete – 13). In some ways this is down to their low possession stats, but it also provides credence to the argument that the Cottagers’ have been up to their defensive tasks.Embed from Getty Images
Ahead of the back-line, Silva has built a formidable central-midfield duo between Joao Palhinha and Harrison Reed. The former operating in a deeper-lying, more defensively-focused ‘Anchor’ role, as the latter bursts up and down the pitch as a quintessential ‘Shuttler’. Together, they keep Fulham compact, and can provide necessary passes on the counter. When not played into the big man up top, these passes tend to veer towards Bobby Decordova-Reid and Neeskens Kebano on either flank. The two wide men provide both a direct presence down the wing, and the capacity to drive inside and attack the goal. The space for them to move into is often vacated by star signing, Andreas Pereira, who has quickly proven to be an intelligent Raumdeuter of the Thomas Muller mold.Embed from Getty Images
But Fulham’s survival push would be nothing without their star man – Aleksandar Mitrović. Silva has harnessed Mitrović’s physical presence, extending his involvement in defensive phases, whilst maintaining the brilliance he can exude in the attacking third as that focal point up top. Fulham still have a few kinks to work out in fully enacting his brilliance at top flight level, but their start to the season has been incredibly encouraging from all sides, particularly in getting the best out of their star centre-forward in ways the Cottagers failed to accomplish last time out in the Premier League.
Build upEmbed from Getty Images
During the first two games of the season, where Rodak started as keeper, Fulham limited their passing out from the back to reduce the risk of conceding easily-avoidable goals. In fact, just 5% of Rodak’s attempted passes were short, and this perhaps links to his lack of composure with the ball at his feet. Despite the Cottagers setting up the team to pass the ball out in a 2+3 buildup, the keeper would always opt for a long goal kick towards one of the front three. In some ways this accounts for a recognition of Mitrović’s unbelievable aerial strength; but in other ways it pinpoints their inferiority to play out from the back at the top level.
Nevertheless, with Bernd Leno in net against Brentford, Silva’s side found greater comfortability in playing short passes through the thirds, starting in a diamond shape between Palhinha, Tosin, Ream and Leno. Harrison Reed can be an excellent progressor of the ball, and Joao Palhinha will make safe passes that help to keep the team ticking along. But the Cottagers will have to harness their ability out from the back more regularly moving forward in order to achieve greater success, particularly in not just thrusting the ball forward before their attackers are ready to receive. Fulham have completed just 68.2% of their passes this season, the lowest in the league.
Despite their relative lack of success, the Cottagers have the tactics and personnel in place to rise up the passing & receiving tables in the future. As previously mentioned, the Cottagers build out from the back in a 2+3 shape, with Robinson and Tete achieving symmetry on either side. This then leaves Joao Palhinha as the central man between the lines; used to draw out the opposition’s midfield men, thus creating space for Pereira to roam. As shown below, Mitrović also still supplies a direct option where required.
As the games have gone on, ex-United man, Andreas Pereira, has shown his desire to get involved in early build-up phases. This entails coming deeper and into the left half-space to support players playing out from the back. The Brazilian has proved he’s an intelligent mover and distributor, finding pockets of space to either act as a pivot or collect the ball and drive. Even better, he commonly acts as the catalyst to speed the play up and play the penetrative pass into the final third for Fulham’s rampaging front-three.Embed from Getty Images
Fulham may have three talented midfielders in Palhinha, Pereira and Reed but they prefer to build the play out wide; accentuating the directness of their initial build-up play. To support that directness out wide, Reed will often shift to the right-hand channel to support the fluidity between the thirds of Kebano and Tete; and Palhinha may drop in between the two centre-backs to help regulate the play. Harrison Reed himself has even been seen dropping between the centre-backs to support progression phases, as Fulham try and gain some sense of control over their matches.
The more direct approach to move the ball ‘route one’ style has also shown success for Fulham. Of course, launching passes long is never going to be the most attractive way of progressing the ball but can always be effective, particularly with that focal point up front. The problem for Fulham has been playing the long pass at the right moment, particularly in moments of transition where Mitrović may still be in a defensive mindset. Having Leno now in goal, Fulham fans could see more variation in their build-up play moving forward.
Attacking PrinciplesEmbed from Getty Images
Throughout the attacking phases of play, the Lily Whites tend to be systematic with their setup. They have a few key mechanisms for breaking through the thirds and creating chances, all of which involve Andreas Pereira’s space seeking in between the lines, and Mitrović’s powering presence up top.
Fulham have scored many of their goals this season through the sheer pace and power out wide of Kebano and Tete, where both are often looking to get forward and deliver a back-post cross to the big Serb. Mbabu also proved to be a capable crosser in his fifteen-minute spell against Brentford, creating 2 chances and assisting the winning goal from a deep cross. Having Mitrović as the focal point up top means that the Cottagers can consistently use his aerial presence from anywhere on the pitch, whether it be in transition, from crossing opportunities, or set-pieces. He’s won 25 of his 50 aerial duels this season, nine clear of the next highest competitor.Embed from Getty Images
But as mentioned, Fulham need to be careful about playing the ball too early into Mitrović’s path too soon. He’s often energetically pushing the envelope to come all the way back in defensive phases, and wants to get involved in every situation. But the key task of any ‘Target Man’ is to balance the line of contributing in positive and meaningful ways across the phases of the game, whilst still remaining the key focal point up top. The Serbian striker has balanced that line to an extent, but Fulham’s poor passing percentage and inability to receive progressive passes paints a different story. The fact that they’ve kept just 39.1% of the possession this season illustrates the quickness of their play that can so quickly go wrong, and the opposition have recovered more loose balls against Silva’s side than any other in the league (103 per 90).Embed from Getty Images
It’s a natural approach to prioritize quick attacking transitions and the use of Mitrović as a ‘Target’, but quite a few others have already showcased their quality this season. Fulham could harness the dynamic mobility of Harrison Reed as he carries the ball forward from midfield, or Andreas Pereira’s incredible skill to beat players and win fouls for his team. Palhinha’s top notch positioning allows greater flexibility for Reed and Pereira to contribute positively to the attack, as he rarely evacuates his holding position in the centre.Embed from Getty Images
As demonstrated against Liverpool, the Cottagers can be deadly in transition, both through the pace and power out wide, and the speed and skill of Andreas Pereira through the middle. Silva’s men could therefore keep hold of the ball for longer periods of time, whilst still prioritizing a vertical approach, before playing the killer pass into Mitrović’s path later on in moves. The Big Serb doesn’t yet possess the genius close control to compliment Andreas Pereira’s incisiveness, with 5.33 miscontrols per 90 this season (more than any other player in the league). Fulham’s opening goal against Liverpool perfectly showcases the potential here to push their fullbacks into attacking phases and progressively play into their star striker at the end of moves.
Improvements aside, we’d be foolish not to mention the attacking brilliance of Fulham this season, particularly in recognizing their strengths and making attempts to tailor style of play to suit those needs. Their grit and determination on the break has resulted in the joint-second highest xG so far this campaign (5.3, tied with Arsenal, according to FotMob).Embed from Getty Images
They’ve backed that up by scoring 5 goals in 3 matches, even despite boasting the second lowest possession in the league. This showcases their ability to get from back to front quickly and successfully, where the likes of Pereira and Mitrović can cause havoc to opposition sides on the break.
Defensive PrinciplesEmbed from Getty Images
Now for the highlight of Marco Silva’s start to the Premier League season – Fulham have been incredibly organized to kick off this campaign. Accumulating just 39.1% of the possession sounds like a nightmare for Marco Silva’s men, but they’ve conceded just 1.3 goals per game this season, operating in an organized 4-4-2 shape.Embed from Getty Images
From back to front, Fulham have pressed the opposition in a well-oiled fashion, accumulating the highest tackle success in the league (51.3%), the most interceptions (76), and impressively – the highest number of times catching the opposition off-side. This proves Fulham to not only be capable of winning the ball back anywhere on the field, but also remaining disciplined in their defensive stance, stepping up at the right moments to play opposition players offside.Embed from Getty Images
Transitionally, Fulham commit few men to counter-pressing the opposition and prefer to regain their shape first. Reed and Palhinha lead the charge in immediately regaining compactness, with the Englishman making more recoveries than any other Fulham player this season (37). Reed may even stay a tad higher in those initial moments of possession losses, aiding the ability of the team to stunt play closer to the opposition’s goal.Embed from Getty Images
At the front end of the pitch, their man-to-man press is often guided by Pereira, as he urges his side to press more intensely. In rare moments, Joao Palhinha may even step up to reduce the opposition’s ability to play out from the back, forming a temporary front-three.
The team will then settle into more of a 4-4-1-1 in defensive phases, always keeping one of the front two high in moments of transition. Harrison Reed will shift wide to limit half-space penetration, and Tosin and Ream can often be seen shepherding the defensive line up at the moment where an opposition player has time and space to play a progressive pass in behind.
The ability of the defense to step up at the crucial moment has been an imperative feature of Fulham’s play so far, particularly in limiting the need for Bernd Leno to race out of his goal and act as a sweeper. When done incorrectly, the Cottagers could easily be exposed this season, and Leno will need to be up to his tasks.
ConcluSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Arguments are being fashioned across the footballing globe about who could possibly be relegated from the Premier League this year, with so much talent on show. It’s extremely difficult to pick out three teams worthy of playing Championship football next season and fortunately for Fulham fans, the Cottagers shouldn’t be one of them. Excellently shifting and shuffling off the ball, Fulham’s stern 4-4-2 has prompted the most interceptions and offsides against this season in the league. Simultaneously, they’ve accumulated the joint-second highest xG going the other way, through prioritizing quick attacking transitions and the use of Mitrović in the air. Moving forward, Silva’s side will just need to ensure a greater balance is met in finding the big Serb with progressive passes at the right moments, or counter-attacking over greater distances first, releasing him in front of goal later on. They will also need to ensure a continued balance is met in their successful high-line and offside trap, without leaving too much space for Bernd Leno to manage. If they can accomplish both of these tasks, Marco Silva’s Fulham could be set for their best Premier League season in years.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Fulham, from the minds of Charlie Ellis and Rhys Desmond. Be sure to check out more of our tactical analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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