Every vantage point in Craven Cottage has its pluses and minuses. I used to sit at the back of Johnny Haynes and from there I felt I had a really good appreciation of the game overall. Then we found a loophole that presented the chance to sit at the front of the Riverside at bargain prices. This meant a loss of overall perspective but a real sense of the game’s hurly burly, how physical it is, how little time there is. I once sat by the dugout on the halfway line and that brought home just how bunched the game is, how congested the middle third can be.
On Sunday we were right behind the goal and this showed me how little room for error there is in the penalty box. Split seconds determine absolutely everything. I’m a naturally worried person when teams attack Fulham so on a number of occasions early on I thought Fulham were in big trouble, only for someone to intervene at the very last moment.
The trouble is, “the last moment” can vary. I’ve harped on in the past about how goalkeepers can mislead us. Slow footwork from the outset can give the impression that a shot couldn’t be reached. But a good goalkeeper will be well positioned and well set so early that he might have made the save comfortably. This is how Kasey Keller, who never seemed to move, and Antti Niemi, who was an acrobat, can end up conceding about the same number of goals. One is in place early and doesn’t need to dive; the other isn’t but is agile enough to compensate. I haven’t mentioned him for a while, but this is partly why our old friend Paul Robinson routinely led the league in being beaten from outside the area. Robinson was world class close in but awful from distance. (Fulham never once tested him on this either.)
Anyway, I digress. One of the reasons Fulham have let in 80+ goals this season is that the last moment is too late now. With the lack of midfield protection our defence are being drawn into situations they don’t like. Our midfielders, who are under pressure, too, aren’t closing down quick enough. We’re too porous.
It’s not a massive thing. My sense is that the players are just a second too slow, a fraction under-organised, half a yard out of position. These are the margins you’re working to. Palace’s first goal on Sunday was typical. A free shot on the edge of the area, a centre-forward who was both unmarked and onside deep in the area, and in. There are no blunders there, but there are probably three or four small things that ought to have been done better. And again, that’s all it takes. Football is a very complex game and goals are rare, and as many teams are finding, the fine line between success and failure is tiny. Fulham were just off the pace in too many ways, a second too late to everything. This has been Fulham’s problem. It’s not the obvious mistakes that everyone said Philippe Senderos made – those were rarer than advertised and not usually costly – it’s the little things, those hundreds of moments where a good team gets things right and a bad team doesn’t. That’s how you concede 80+ goals a season.