Following Tuesday’s demolition of crumbling Charlton Athletic – put to the sword even more emphatically at Hull this weekend – Fulham provided starkly contrasting opposition and the energetic Londoners proved to be equally as good at the pressing game as Town, and sometimes their superior.
It is something of a mystery how the visitors find themselves in an uncomfortable position in the Championship – though distinctly average at the back, which Town were largely unable to exploit, they have genuine quality further forward and they proved to be the more composed side in a contest which lacked thrills but not interest.
Town’s propensity for slow starts is a concern; a suicidally misplaced pass across his own area by Hogg to Fulham’s leading scorer in just the 2nd minute interrupted a passage of meaningless keep ball which had begun with the kick off. With his, and his team’s, first touch of the game, McCormack, a regular nemesis, swept in the opener to the dismay of the expectant home crowd.
The error – Hogg intended to clip the ball across field but mishit it badly – had the consolation of being very early and recoverable but self inflicted wounds are hugely unhelpful in an unforgiving division where such moments can be the difference between success and failure.
Fulham, who combined a similar pressing game to their hosts with crisp passing, were much the more coherent team in the first half and Town were grateful, for once, to McCormack for drifting offside in the lead up to a well constructed but disallowed goal, to the referee (again, for once) for ignoring a challenge by Hudson on the troublesome Scot which could have been punished with a penalty and a diving block by the captain from a McCormack drive.
Before his goal saving intervention, Hudson had levelled the game when he latched on to an excellent Huws delivery from a free kick, stretching to divert past Lonergan as the Londoners’defence was caught flat footed.
Earlier, a rare flowing move from the home side involving debutant Husband, Wells and Lolley freed Paterson to send a superb curling shot past the visiting keeper only to hit the post. Lolley was unable to control his follow up shot.
Wagner had warned before the game that Fulham’s style was similar to his own and their high pressing severely disrupted the hosts with possession and poise at a premium. It made for a somewhat dull spectacle and many of the hallmarks of previous displays were missing from Town’s game with reduced time on the ball.
Going in to the break level felt like something of a bonus – Fulham had been the more effective team for the most part with Town unable to achieve fluency or control in a tough encounter.
While the home side adapted to their mirror image better in the second half and looked far less vulnerable to the crisp passing of their opponents, they were forced in to playing too many long balls, and Wagner will have to find different ways to counter teams who adopt the same energetic approach.
With the evergreen Scott Parker adding a further touch of class to Fulham’s passing game, Town did well to restrict their opponents to a few wayward shots and one clear opening – substitute Dembele should have done much better with an unopposed header he steered over the bar.
Despite their labours, Town did fashion the best chance of a winner when Wells wriggled clear in the box only for Lonegran to be equal to his shot and, more impressively, he was back in position to save smartly low down from Bunn after the ensuing melee.
The second period had seen Town dispossess Fulham more regularly than the first but their failure to capitalise on that possession was epitomised when Wells eschewed the opportunity to set Paterson free on the right – his hesitation summing up a largely ineffective performance by the striker and exposing Wagner’s lack of options up front which remains a big hole in his armoury.
At the death, an over hit pass from Bojaj failed to find fellow substitute Holmes when a tiring Fulham back four were exposed, but a winner from either side by that point would have been harsh on the victim.
Both of these teams will finish in lower mid table positions but for different reasons. Fulham’s quality is undermined by inelegance at the back and, despite Town’s inability to cause them enough problems, the Achilles heel was evident. For Town, another striking option is clearly needed with too much responsibility resting on Wells’ shoulders.
While the official man of the match award went to Paterson (who was certainly the pick of the offensive players), it should have gone to Hudson who lead his team by example and seemed to stop every threat that Fulham posed as well as grabbing the equaliser.
Debutant Husband was quiet going forward but defensively sound against his erstwhile employers and needs to be judged in a better team performance than this one.
Importantly, Town’s unbeaten run continues and a similar challenge to the one they faced against Brentford was far more successfully negotiated.
The flat track bullying of woeful Charlton may have inflated expectations beyond the current squad’s abilities but this was a point gained against good opponents who are likely to improve quickly under their own new manager and though it wasn’t much of a spectacle, a solid second half performance demonstrated tactical adaptability on which to build.