It ended still worse than it began for Fulham. Their third spell in the Premier League started with a home defeat and a run of six games that yielded a solitary point. It concluded with a Craven Cottage loss that meant their last seven matches had brought the same meagre haul. Their last three are irrelevant. Fulham are down.
In between the inauspicious start and the anticlimactic end, Fulham took 25 points from 22 games. They looked a good team. They were often described as a good team. They got results against many who meet the definition of good teams; wins away at Leicester, Everton and Liverpool and draws with Liverpool, Tottenham and West Ham.
In the Fulham table, of their 25-game spell of respectable form, only five teams lost fewer games, only two conceded fewer goals and their points tally was just two behind Liverpool’s. Over a season, however, they are the second lowest scorers, with the joint fewest wins. Ultimately, they out-Brightoned Brighton, getting more compliments than wins. There was evidence of coaching prowess and inventive thinking, a defensive excellence that meant they conceded fewer goals than sides much further up the table. But too often they have failed at the fundamental duty of beating enough other teams.
Footballing orthodoxy states that the best way to stay up is to win home games. Fulham have a 100 percent win record against Craven Cottage against clubs who will be in next season’s Championship but a 0 percent success rate against those who will be in the Premier League. To put it another way, they have defeated West Brom and Sheffield United but no one else. They have scored nine goals at Craven Cottage this season; a final-day hat-trick by a Newcastle player would probably render him the joint top scorer at Fulham’s home this season.
Cliché has it that goals win games; so do goalscorers. Fulham have had more shots than Tottenham and scored 36 fewer goals. Their dismal six percent chance conversion rate explains their shortcomings. It lends itself to mentions of the frequently omitted Aleksandar Mitrovic, even if he only scored from five percent of his shots. Bobby Decordova-Reid top-scored while operating as a wing-back, winger and No. 10. Fulham had more flexibility and fluidity without Mitrovic; benching him gave them an extra player in most elements of the game and Scott Parker found ever newer ways of reorganising his band of midfielders and wingers. Opponents were confounded, but did not always concede. Manchester City mastered the art of getting goals from a revolving cast of technical and wide players; as Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Ruben Loftus-Cheek had 69 shots between them and scored once, Fulham did not.
They felt insufficiently pragmatic, though that needs the caveat that pragmatism probably would not have kept them up either. Certainly their shambolic start made the subsequent revival admirable. Parker attracted a growing band of admirers for the way he seemed to turn a bunch of late loan signings into an impressive unit. Yet they ended up underlining the hoary old statements about winning being the hardest part and goalscorers being worth their weight in goal, relegated by a Burnley side with less ambitious ideals but a blueprint for securing enough victories. While Fulham rank second only to Brighton for draws, Sean Dyche’s team have twice as many wins as Parker’s; Chris Wood has as many goals as Fulham’s top three scorers have between them.
Autumn’s bizarre parade of penalty misses is a reason for relegation; so, too, that slow start as Championship stalwarts looked exposed. The fine middle to the season offered a mirage of safety being secured in striking fashion. But part of the problem, which was exacerbated by costly late concessions to Aston Villa, Wolves and Arsenal, was that Fulham did not strike often enough. Those last seven games produced just three goals: one from a defender, one from Mitrovic and one from the penalty spot. It amounted to a missed opportunity. After winning at Anfield, Fulham were level on points with Brighton. They got into a position to achieve their goals. They could not finish the job. It was the story of their season.
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