There are certain clubs that neutrals find themselves predisposed to root for, and Fulham are towards the top of any list. It’s a great away day, they are a historic English club and in recent seasons they have usually at least attempted to play football in what most would define as ‘the right way’.
But Fulham are blowing their chance to stay in the Premier League. Newcastle United’s underperformance in 2021 offered Scott Parker salvation; Fulham have let that slip and have wasted most of their goodwill too. They have scored fewer goals than West Brom and taken one extra point than them in their last 15 league matches.
Against Wolves and Aston Villa, we have seen the worst of Parker’s Fulham. They lack the guile to create enough clear cut chances, the prolificacy to score enough of those that do come their way and the defensive resilience of February has been lost on the wind. Fulham have conceded nine goals in their last four league games.
Their final-day fixture against Newcastle United offers hope of redemption (and they do have a better goal difference than Steve Bruce’s side), but the fear is that relegation will be confirmed before then. If you can’t put serious pressure on this Newcastle team in this form, you don’t deserve to stay up.
Until a fortnight ago, all of Thomas Tuchel’s improvements at Chelsea had been witnessed in their own half of the pitch. Their defensive record was the best in the Premier League during his tenure, but that improvement had coincided with a final-third bluntness that made Chelsea a difficult — if highly effective - spectacle to watch.
Now there are signs that Tuchel may be finding an answer to that problem, even if the heavy defeat to West Brom offered a warning that progress will come with occasional setbacks. Chelsea have scored 12 goals in their last five matches in all competitions. At Selhurst Park on Saturday, we saw evidence that Kai Havertz as a false nine is worth persevering with if Tuchel can get Chelsea’s attacking midfielders close to him.
It’s amazing how quickly Chelsea have become the second best team in the country during Tuchel’s tenure — hence the West Brom result being such an outlier. He really did take over a team tenth in the Premier League and have them on the cusp of a top-four finish while leading them on a march to a first Champions League semi-final in seven years. Chelsea could be serious title challengers next season.
The one criticism of Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds this season is that they shunned pragmatism in favour of entertainment. Even that seemed misplaced: Football is at least partly about entertaining supporters and Leeds’ attacking intensity has hardly been unsuccessful. But against Tottenham and Manchester United in particular, some pundits believed Bielsa guilty of naivety.
And there’s the emphatic answer. Leeds were fortunate that Manchester City missed chances at 0-0 and 1-1, but that good luck will always be required when a non-financially elite team meets a super club. Leeds defended brilliantly with ten men and took both chances that came their way. Find yourself a manager that can do both, as Leeds supporters might say.
Do not underestimate Leeds’ over-performance this season and do not be tricked into thinking it was inevitable because they are a traditional heavyweight of the English game. To break into the top ten of promoted clubs in the Premier League era you need to record 1.34 points per league game; Leeds are currently on 1.45 points per game.
Of the matchday squad who faced Manchester City on Saturday, eight played a part on the first day of Leeds’ Championship season in 2020 (and Jack Harrison would have done were he eligible). There is a reason why Bielsa is adored as a king and a saviour.
It isn’t easy being a Premier League footballer at the moment (those words alone will draw winces and rolled eyes from various readers). You’re being asked to perform during a global pandemic, you haven’t had a rest in far too long and you aren’t allowed the freedom to do the activities that would normally allow body and mind to relax and prepare for the incessant run of fixtures.
But the rules are clear. And if James Maddison, Ayoze Perez and Hamza Choudhury did attend a party and thus break Covid-19 rules, they are astonishingly dim.
Partly because they knew exactly what they were doing and knew that they were overwhelmingly likely to get caught. And what if they hadn’t been and passed on the virus to their teammates.
Brendan Rodgers has little choice but to bring those three players back next week, because Leicester need them and their top four place might depend upon it. But he must be seething that such gross indiscipline platformed a defeat that puts their top-four place in doubt. And those players have a huge amount of work to do to atone for such stupidity.