Slick, ruthless Fulham exposed the latent weaknesses of a Town side who have punched well above their weight for much of a memorable season.
The loss of key players for periods on the final mile of the marathon has caused disruption in more ways than just absence. An earlier, enforced, break up of the Mooy/Hogg axis has been superseded by a voluntary and tactical hiatus which continues to backfire very badly. With the foundation stone of many victories removed because no other answer to the number 10 role has been tried, David Wagner’s insistence on playing to one particular style has started to look less brave and more obstinate.
He wasn’t helped by Kachunga’s absence through illness; made doubly hazardous by a naive performance by Lolley which more than indicated that the Brummie is some way out of his depth, both in thought and execution.
It all started so well. Retaining possession with some ease against the initially lethargic visitors, a superb cross-field ball by Hefele was (for once) headed on first time by Van La Parra to the raiding Lowe who was brought down clumsily in the box. After Town’s recent problems with penalties, it was satisfying to see Lowe despatch his with aplomb – a skill which may well be in demand in the not too distant future.
Fulham woke up pretty soon afterwards and began to exploit Town’s right hand side where Malone ruthlessly exploited Lolley’s lack of positional awareness without any sign of response. Smith, hopelessly exposed and performing some way below his season standard himself, lambasted Lolley for his errors but to no avail. The tactical mess on Town’s right was not addressed in a disastrous first half.
On the ball, Town seemed fine for 10 to 15 minutes, but a storm was brewing with Fulham’s extra quality beginning to tell. Comfortable on the ball throughout the team, their sharpness allied with pace and excellent decision making was about to rip the home team apart.
First, lack of effective challenges around the box – Hefele, in particular, made a very poor effort on the edge – allowed Fulham to work the ball out to Malone who outstripped Lolley with ease to fire home into the far corner.
In the face of an energised opposition, Town crumbled. Fulham’s early reluctance to press was swiftly abandoned and coupled with their movement and invention, a chasm in class opened up.
The architects of Town’s opener then combined to make a hash of what should have been a straightforward headed clearance which set the dangerous Ayite free to run at them. Lowe was sidestepped, Van La Parra made a weak attempt at a tackle before Hogg came in to bundle the Fulham winger over for an inevitable penalty which Cairney executed perfectly.
More calamity always looked likely as Fulham slipped into impressive cruise control. Dominating the ball, creating space down the flanks with incisive passing and movement, the visitors looked on a different plane to their shell shocked hosts and a third, deserved, goal was always likely.
There was an element of fortune to the third goal when a Sessegnon shot was blocked by Schindler in to the path of Johansen, but his finish was sharply clinical.
For a brief period after the third goal, Town recovered a little and occasionally put together some decent football – largely instigated by the hard work of Quaner, possibly the only Town player to come out of the game with some credit – and both Schindler and Billing went close with headers which may have changed the course of the game.
Any thoughts of an unlikely comeback were extinguished, however, as half time approached, and it was yet another self inflicted wound. Slipping on an over watered surface (even the external, environmental problems surrounding our pitch conspired against us), Schindler could only play a poor ball inside to a pressed Hogg, who was robbed by Johansen to put the game to bed.
Fulham’s intensity, after a bafflingly somnolent start, had overwhelmed a disjointed, error prone home side, and if there was a consolation, the home crowd (largely) did not react badly as the players trudged off. Some booed, of course, but there was more an air of resignation that a clearly superior side had a winning lead that they had deserved.
The second half is barely worth reporting upon. Fulham slipped back in to a pretty effortless containment while creating some very dangerous moments which could and should have heaped more embarrassment on the home side.
Quaner, whose unusual style is taking some getting used to, worked hard to create two presentable chances but a home goal in a scoreless second half would only have served to apply lipstick on to a pig.
Maybe now, expectations will be moderated to more realistic levels. Fulham look very well equipped both for the play offs and, eventually, the demands of the Premier League. Town looked entirely the opposite.
With Leeds losing, the opportunity for both sets of fans to chant their derision of our neighbours was some consolation, but the schadenfreude seemed a little out of place for home supporters who had seen their team comprehensively dismantled. Still, results elsewhere, including Reading losing, mitigated the loss to some extent, even if it feels like a straw being clutched.
It was also good to see the return of Brown who looked good without excelling – his return should stabilise the midfield disruption Wagner has wrought in a failed attempt to shoehorn Mooy in to the number 10 role.
Two difficult away games now loom – Wolves are a very dangerous side on their day, as Fulham found out recently, while the end of Zola’s disastrous tenure at St Andrew’s may lift the Blues – and Wagner will, surely, play his best eleven to secure the 2 points needed to extend the season.