Fulham vs Leicester: Familiar flaws

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 5, 2018
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Fulham 1 Leicester 1, Craven Cottage.

Everything has its place, football included. At Craven Cottage on Wednesday, Claudio Ranieri dedicated almost the entire first half of his programme notes to the memory of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the fallen Leicester City owner. Ranieri and Srivaddhanaprabha will forever be intertwined with the miracle of those hazy days in 2015 and so, with the crash which took his former employer’s life just six week in the past, Ranieri’s reappearance in front of the travelling Leicester supporters was always going to lend this night with a sharp perspective.

It’s hardly the point, but Leicester have remained unbeaten since that terrible night. Two wins and two draws in the four Premier League games since has the makings of a solid season, whereas Fulham brought only the most tenuous form to this game. Ranieri’s has started well since replacing Slavisa Jokanovic, winning a ding-dong with Southampton ten days ago and plotting a sturdy performance in defeat at Stamford Bridge at the weekend.

So, a side playing a daze, struggling through a terrible dream, against one who are so early into a new managerial era, that they’re not definitively anything at all yet. It was a strange sort of contest in principle, so too in actuality: a 1-1 draw withour any defining characteristics, and a game of football which didn’t really provoke anything beyond the mildest response. For now, the point was fine for both.

Ranieri has moved quickly to cure the biggest ailment he inherited. Three games into his Fulham tenure, he has started the same back-four on each occasion. The continuity has bred an improvement of sorts, even if it still takes little to expose Fulham’s deeper fragility. Leicester would fall behind before the first-half was done, victims of a patient and violent finish from Aboubakar Kamara, but not before they’d made repeated incursions down the Fulham left. They might also have had the lead themselves, when Marc Albrighton’s flighted free-kick found an unmarked Wes Morgan at the backpost, but his header was rebuffed by a plunging save from Sergio Rico.

Work to do, then. Also, while they took an advantage into the dressing-room, that lead didn’t necessarily come with control. Leicester had enjoyed most of the ball and while their hosts did profit on the counter-attack and create the better chances, Ranieri’s midfield was often outnumbered. These are early days for the unlikely Jean Michael Seri/Calum Chambers combination, but it might already be on borrowed time – and it wasn’t a surprise to see two become three when the teams re-emerged, with Luciano Vietto replaced and Tom Cairney dropped into the deeper role.

Chambers is an interesting player. A tweener, really. He’s not a reliable enough centre-half to be worth a back-four place, but not adequately mobile or finessed to be a convincing midfield option either. Seri is a dynamic player, as rounded a footballer as Fulham could have hoped to sign in the summer, but Chambers is a place-holder, almost a tacit admission of the side’s defensive problems. More troublingly, that deference comes at the expense of a true specialist, a player more comfortable at receiving passes from his defenders and pushing the side up the field. The logic with Chambers is fine, the reality doesn’t make nearly as much sense.

Leicester, it should be said, came to Craven Cottage without Jamie Vardy. His pace isn’t what it once was and his body is beginning to creak, but he remains the dominant personality of his side’s forward line. With him absent, Claude Puel’s players clearly lack their most natural outlet and, talented as Kelechi Iheanacho may be in other ways, he’s so dramatically different – in his runs, his traits, and his tendency to come back for the ball rather than run onto it – that it creates a fracture at the top of the formation. In 90 minutes, he had just 20 touches of the ball. Even though his side had just 46% of the ball, Fulham’s Mitrovic managed 58.

Ultimately, a point was salvaged by James Maddison. His step up from the Championship has been one of the season’s joys. That beautiful goal against Watford at the weekend helped erase the memory of his callous dive at Brighton seven days before, and here he was again, loitering on the penalty spot to side-foot in a cross from substitute Shinji Okazaki. It was the symbol of the game for both sides: Fulham, because there was always a goal to be mined from the gaps in their box, and Leicester, because while one had seemed likely, it was never going to come from a forward.

A further word on Maddison, though, who really is a pleasure to watch. He remains at the embryonic stage of his Premier League career and who knows what kind of fatigue might be lurking ahead, but it’s rare to see someone adapt as quickly as he has. His technique has belonged at this level for a while, but that’s true of many players. Maddison is different because he processes the game so quickly, because – even now, just four months in – he passes the ball with authority, knowing exactly where all the pieces around him are and how to make best use of them. It’s rare. His abilities aren’t, but his swagger is. It makes him mesmerising.

Fulham will be disappointed. Before the lead was surrendered – given up, handed over – Cairney had bent a shot just wide of Schmeichel’s far post and, with the last meaningful kick of the game, Denis Odoi hacked hopelessly over the bar. Schmeichel also made one splendid, fully-extended save in the first-half and on the balance of chances Fulham really should have won. But those skewed ratios are really symptomatic of their state: they need too many chances to score, but far too few to concede. The Premier League table had them bottom on Wednesday evening and that illustrates the extent of their trauma and explains why, even with the Ranieri’s comforting arm now draped around their shoulders, these players will take a while to perform with any sort of conviction. They’re better than they were, but their scars remain plainly visible.

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