BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Fulham might very well finish top of the Championship for passing stats this season – but it’s hard to see them doing the same when it comes to points.
And that is the big problem for Scott Parker.
Because a top two finish was probably the expectation of owner Shahid Khan before the campaign started.
The American billionaire was on the Craven Cottage balcony on Saturday and witnessed a toothless display from the west London outfit as Hull City’s clinical counter-attacking saw them head back north with a 3-0 victory.
Even securing a play-off spot could be an issue for Fulham if they don’t defend better.
Hull’s tactics were simple yet highly effective. Soak up pressure and then break in numbers – even before Josh Bowler’s opening goal they had managed to get a couple of overloads which they didn’t quite make the most of.
Forest did a similar job on Fulham in August when Lewis Grabban twice punished sloppy possession mistakes to inflict a 2-1 defeat.
There is a vulnerability about Fulham when they are asked questions defensively.
They were all at sea in the 3-2 victory over Luton towards the end of last month – although they also missed a glut of chances themselves that day in a dominant opening 45 minutes.
It was too easy for Hull. One pass sent Jarrod Bowen through the middle, dropping a shoulder to veer past Alfie Mawson and convert across Marcus Bettinelli.
The Fulham keeper denied Bowen in an almost identical scenario after that, only for the ball to cannon off Tom Eaves and across the goal-line.
“There is no question we’ve yet to see the best from this talented squad,” wrote Khan, over in the capital to see his Jacksonville Jaguars play at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.
How long he will allow underachievement is the question. Even a top six finish probably wouldn’t be deemed acceptable.
That isn’t a case of self-entitlement or arrogance, just a statement of the facts.
You don’t hand new contracts to Aleksandar Mitrovic and Tom Cairney and bring in the likes of Anthony Knockaert, Ivan Cavaleiro and Bobby Decordova-Reid to be scrapping for a play-off position.
Fulham are averaging 143 more accurate passes per match than Leeds, their nearest challengers in that area. And they also average 67.6 per cent possession – again more than Marcelo Bielsa’s team. And yet they are five points behind.
You can tell Parker bristles at criticism of his side’s patient build up play. He seemed keen to bring up that subject in the aftermath of Saturday’s demoralising defeat.
“A lot of people say this team is a possession-based team and they lack an impetus. We are top in this division for shots on goal and shots on target. So we are obviously doing something right. We’re getting the balls in the right area. No other team in this league is hitting the target more than us.
“I can understand people’s opinion – not just how I want to play but the identity of this football team and how I feel is best to win football matches – if we weren’t creating chances, if we weren’t hitting the target.
“The finger has been pointed at me since the first game regarding it.
“We have the ball a lot and that’s the way I want us to play. Ultimately I feel if we carry on like that, then it will turn for us. That’s the team I want us to be.
“I will stick with it – 100 per cent.”
The worry is that Fulham have tougher assignments ahead. Of their last eight matches, only three of those opponents are in the top half of the table.
And they still managed to make a fairly exclusive list of clubs which Nathan Jones managed to beat before he was fired by Stoke.
Fulham have failed to score in three of their last four Championship games, although the stalemate at lowly Middlesbrough did see them play most of the contest with 10 men after Marek Rodak’s red card for handling outside his penalty area.
Before Christmas comes home matches against Bristol City, Leeds United and QPR as well as away tests at Swansea, Preston North End and a rapidly improving Brentford.
Call me a pessimist, but I can see plenty more points being dropped over that period as well.
No team in the last six years has finished in the top two winning less than 26 games.
Working on that stat, it means Fulham have to win 20 of the last 31. Under Slavisa Jokanovic they won 21 and drew six of the last 31 before eventually gaining promotion to the Premier League via the play-offs in 2018.
Back then it was lovely football to watch but a white-knuckle ride due to defensive vulnerabilities.
It could very well be the same again, only this time more of Fulham’s possession seems to be in safe areas of the pitch.