The West London clubs face off at Craven Cottage on Saturday with the in-form Cottagers backing themselves against the Blues
If there was ever a near-perfect representation of the oft-repeated ‘game of two halves’ in football lexicon, the encounter between Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham on Wednesday would be a good example.
Spurs dominated the opening half, missed a glut of opportunities — scoring just one through Harry Kane — only to be pegged back after half-time as the Cottagers rallied following Scott Parker’s half-time pep talk.
Perhaps, the telling difference for the West Londoners was Ademola Lookman, strangely left out of the action until the 67th minute. The impact of the Anglo-Nigerian in those subsequent 23 minutes on the pitch raised questions about why Parker left out the RB Leipzig loanee in the first place.
Lookman not only registered the assist for Ivan Cavaleiro’s headed equalizer after brilliantly skinning Davidson Sanchez but he also very nearly set up what could have been the winner had Ruben Loftus-Cheek been sharper in front of goal. He may have even settled the game himself late on if Aboubakar Kamara raised his head to see the attacker in oceans of space to his left, almost begging to be played through.
In only 23 minutes, Lookman was involved in three shot-creating actions, only Antonee Robinson & Loftus-Cheek with four had more, led the way for chances created with three, while only Bobby Decordova-Reid (three) played more accurate passes into the Spurs area.
That assist made Lookman Fulham’s highest goal contributor with five, and expect him to start against Chelsea on Saturday, particularly with RLC ineligible to face his parent club.
His direct running is likely to trouble a Blues backline and goalkeeper that’s looked extremely brittle in recent weeks, with Edouard Mendy coming under pressure for varying reasons, from his suspect sweeping ability to now-unconvincing shot-stopping.
It remains to be seen if Frank Lampard starts primary right-back Reece James, who returned to training this week or opts for club captain Cesar Azpilicueta. The Spaniard looks to have lost a yard of pace and could, in theory, have a torrid time against the rapid Lookman, by and large also the Cottagers’ most-threatening and creative forward.
Of the attackers in the Fulham side, Lookman ranks highest for key passes per 90, shot-creating actions per 90 and goal-creating actions per 90. If leaving out the on-loan 23-year-old from the XI against Tottenham was odd, making the same call after his showing off the bench and, especially, against a struggling Chelsea team will prompt even more criticism of the head coach.
If Lookman’s ability and delivery makes him the hosts’ top attacker, Andre Zambo Anguissa could pass as the leading midfielder for the relegation-threatened side.
The all-action midfield man packs a punch and is nearly unstoppable when he’s in full flow, gliding and weaving past opponents like they aren’t there. His already high value in this Fulham team increases when you realise the level of effort the Cameroon midfielder also puts into the blue-collar aspects of the game.
Anguissa made a stunning 17 recoveries against Tottenham and was one of the team’s top pressers against Jose Mourinho’s men. Unsurprisingly, the Central African completed a game-high six dribbles from eight attempts and equally helped to fashion out shooting opportunities, ranking joint-third along with Lookman for shot-creating actions.
Be that as it may, the two games that perfectly demonstrate what the 25-year-old is all about were those against Manchester City and Southampton in December.
Despite losing 2-0 at the Etihad Stadium, he was always positive in his play, evidenced by his forward-thinking passing and ball-carrying. Aside from completing all seven attempted dribbles against Pep Guardiola’s men, the Indomitable Lion was involved in the highest volume of offensive actions leading to a Fulham shot (three).
Against Saints, Anguissa topped for combined tackles and interceptions (10) as he did vs City weeks earlier while ranking third for loose balls recovered (13) against the side from the south coast — narrowly beaten by Bobby Reid and Joachim Andersen (both 14).
He wasn’t dispossessed all game despite a high level of involvement and general keenness to carry the ball upfield against a side that presses as effectively as Ralph Hasenhuttl’s troops.
It came as no surprise to see that both he and Lookman ranked in the top two for shot-creating actions, successful progressive passes and progressive ball-carrying. Indeed, the pair will be vital to Fulham’s approach against their neighbours, who will look to the talismanic Hakim Ziyech to deliver at the Cottage as they seek to arrest troubling run.
The Morocco star missed the majority of the Blues’ slump and only returned in their embarrassing 3-1 defeat by Manchester City. His tendency to attempt risky passes to open up the pitch or fashion out opportunities add a unique dimension to Lampard’s side and they benefitted from this last time out in the 4-0 FA Cup success over Morecambe on Sunday.
Admittedly, Fulham will pose a much sterner test than the League Two side but it was a good run out for the North African, whose high-risk high-reward style unites a Chelsea attack that looked sterile without him early in the season and unproductive for the majority of their December slump.
As for Fulham, while many observers feel their improvement began in that 1-1 draw vs Liverpool, that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. Rather, they’ve tightened up after losing their first three games 3-0, 4-3 and 3-0 to Arsenal, Leeds United and Aston Villa respectively, with those seven goals accounting for 30 percent of their 24 goals conceded.
Interestingly, while they’ve lost the expected goals battle nine times in their 16 fixtures, only five times have they been defeated by a wide margin (Arsenal, Villa, Crystal Palace, Man City and Spurs). This further strengthens suggestions that Parker’s side have been unlucky in some fixtures or made bad decisions at times, with Lookman’s failed Panenka vs West Ham United probably a fitting example.
14 points separate the sides in the table, but Anguissa’s drive and menacing Anglo-Nigerian threaten to ramp up the pressure on a currently struggling Chelsea side and under-fire Lampard.