To read this Premier League season by its baseline statistics, you would think Fulham were a mid-table team. Their average possession of 49.5 per cent ranks 11th. They are 14th for expected goals and 11th for expected goals conceded. You have to scroll to ‘miscellaneous’ to find Fulham among the outliers: they are second for nutmegs behind Leeds, and are first for fouls – the latter surprising and perhaps evidence of a team built in their manager’s image, to be fiercely competitive under that neatly coiffed exterior. But in the main, Fulham are average, middling, unremarkable.
Yet they have been relegated with only 27 points, and their season brings to mind one of Pep Guardiola’s favourite mantras that “football is what happens in the boxes”: a coach can give his team the tools to build through the thirds, to hunt possession and gain territory, but ultimately results reflect the players’ success in the penalty area. Scott Parker said as much on Monday night after the damning 2-0 defeat by Burnley, which wore all the hallmarks of Fulham’s strengths and struggles. “If you’ve not watched us this year and you watched that game tonight, that has probably summed up our year really. Very good at times between the boxes but we’ve just fallen short at both ends.”
Fulham’s blunt finishing has been the running theme throughout a season which can be broken into three parts: a calamitous start, a promising but frustrating middle, and a meek ending. Only Brighton have a worse conversion rate than Fulham’s 25 goals from chances worth a healthy expected goals value of 38. Last season’s top scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic has only three goals, January signing Josh Maja offered a more mobile threat but also has only three, while leading scorer Bobby Decordova-Reid has scored only five.
The dramatic drop in Fulham’s quality and composure when entering the box was encapsulated by Mitrovic’s performance at Sheffield United in October. It was only game five but both teams had lost their opening four and it felt like a relegation shootout. At 0-0 Mitrovic ballooned a penalty over the crossbar, and later he threw a careless high boot to concede a penalty and gift the Blades’ late equaliser, causing Parker to pinch his forehead like an exasperated substitute teacher.
It was one of three penalties missed in their first nine games, and each told a story. Mitrovic laid bare Fulham’s attacking bluntness. Ademola Lookman’s injury-time Panenka demonstrated the naivety of the second youngest squad in the league. And Ivan Cavaleiro’s slip in his run-up against Everton illustrated their moments of misfortune. No one incident in itself cost relegation, but the demoralisation of a missed penalty lingers unlike other chances, damage which can last well beyond the full-time whistle, and from this shambolic start Fulham never recovered.
It is a cliche but momentum is a useful thing in football, something built on hard work and talent which after a while begins to glide of its own free will. Fulham never really had any, and it is tempting to wonder if one of those penalties might have been a turning point. What if Mitrovic, for example, had found his groove and produced an 11-goal season like he did the last time he was in the Premier League? It wasn’t enough in 2018-19 but it may well have been in a team with more cohesion, and an in-form striker might have turned some of those mid-season draws into wins.
Perhaps that momentum would have come had they signed key players sooner. Parker’s makeshift side had already lost four games and conceded 11 goals when eventual centre-back pairing Tosin Adarabioyo and Joachim Andersen arrived. They were already playing catch-up when Ademola Lookman and Ruben Loftus-Cheek joined on loan to invigorate the attack. Parker admitted afterwards that there were lessons to be learnt in preparing for the Premier League just as much as playing in it.
Parker himself will have learnt plenty from his first full season in the top flight and it would be a mistake to cut ties with a manager showing promise, one who steered Fulham to promotion only nine months ago. On that August night at Wembley he gave a passionate appraisal of his team and he was equally emotional on Monday evening as he processed Fulham’s return to the Championship. Fulham have a coach who cares, and Parker will surely get the chance to bounce back and right the wrongs of this campaign. If and when he does, you suspect he will think inside the box from the start.