West Brom, led by former West Ham boss Slavan Bilic, held a decent defence to limit their visitors to only a handful of chances. In the opposite dugout stood Scott Parker, who spent the majority of his playing career in the Premier League, who knew a victory could have taken Fulham into the third whilst reducing the hosts hold on second, held instead at the Hawthorns as the Baggies inched ever close to the top division.
This left the door open for fellow promotion pushers, Brentford, to close the gap on the two frontrunners with a game in hand. Fulham now look unlikely to squeeze into the automatic promotion places, whilst West Brom will struggle to drop back into the playoff zone. The Cottagers had gone into the fixture with four successive wins under the belt against a home side who had lost just once in seven league outings prior, albeit three of those were drawn.
This tactical analysis will observe the tactics of both teams throughout the match, with analysis on how they managed to cancel each other out, largely through organisation and compression through the middle of the pitch.
Both Bilic and Parker opted for a variation on a 4-2-3-1 formation that they both utilised during their respective previous matches, with fresh faces on the field in either camp. However, Harrison Reed was often the deepest midfielder for the away side, meaning at times Fulham set up more like a 4-3-3, with Josh Onomah and Bobby Reid playing slightly more central with Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro wide forwards.
West Brom reinstated Ahmed Hegazi at the heart of the defence alongside regular centre-half Semi Ajayi following their 1-1 draw with Blackburn Rovers. Goalscorer Filip Krovinovic dropped to the bench in place of Grady Diangana to add more trickery to the Baggies attack in an attempt to break down the Fulham rear guard.
After defeating Cardiff City, another of the chasing promotion pack, Parker understandably chose a virtually unchanged line up. The only alterations were Dennis Odoi at right-back for Cyrus Christie, arguably losing a forward threat for greater defensive stability. This was balanced by replacing Harry Arter with Cavaleiro to create an extremely attack minded midfield to support top scorer, Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Lack of chances caused by lack of space
Thanks to the circumstances of the tie and the pressures riding on the final result, the first half was predictably cagey. West Brom and Fulham, the league’s third and fifth best defensive outfits, set up to block space through the centre of the pitch. Therefore, the more accessible options were in wide areas and crosses into the box, which both sets of defenders will have felt largely comfortable in dealing with.
Fulham have been built into a possession-based team under Park, typically working the ball from the back into the front line. Evidently, Bilic had done his homework and set Matheus Pereira the task of shepherding Reed’s every movement as to deny him the chance to turn and pass further afield.
This left January signing from Chelsea, Michael Hector, and Tim Reem having a considerable amount of touches compared to their team mates as they assessed their options. Generally, they were forced into a sideways pass to the full-back or a diagonal pass to the wings.
When Fulham did manage to move the ball away from the Baggies attention, it was generally Knockaert who would be the provider of any creativity. Here, he drags two West Brom players into his vicinity, only to create enough space for himself to cross the ball into the box and create a decent chance for the visitors.
These opportunities were few and far between, however, as West Brom remained compact in the midfield, dragging in Diangana or Grosicki if required or using Charlie Austin and Pereira as the first line of defence.
Even the Baggies striker, Charlie Austin, chipped in with his defensive duties, taking over the job of smother Reed when Pereira pushed forward.
Both sets of star strikers, Austin and Mitrovic, were rarely able to stamp their authority on the game. However, whilst the later appeared totally isolated, Austin constantly ensured he was involved in the play by tracking back and disabling the supply line to his opposite number. Below, Austin has stationed himself directly between Knockaert’s passing line to Mitrovic, forcing him instead to come back inside as the Baggies regroup.
The visitors were patient in possession, waiting for a chink in the West Brom armour, yet they found very little cracks as the Baggies rarely pressed during the first 45 minutes with the pressure firmly on Fulham to force the issue.
As to avoid gaps in behind their backline, Fulham sat off the Baggies, allowing their opponents to ease forward and reorganise into their rigid formation.
Danger men drifting inside
From this lack of space centrally came greater freedom out wide, particularly down the West Brom right. Diangana often drifted infield to involve himself in the play, leaving room for Dara O’Shea to advance and look for a cross.
There was also a sense pre-match that the game could be decided by a piece of individual quality, which the West Brom winger clearly had in abundance. After picking up the ball just over the halfway line, he evaded the challenges of several Fulham players and managed to get a strike away.
Knockaert was Fulham’s equivalent to the Baggies bright spark, fashioning a similar shot after coming in off the right onto his favoured left foot.
If it wasn’t Diangana, it would be Pereira who could fashion an opening, despite the Brazilian having a tame opening period due to his tight nature of the occasion. He did link up with his fellow quick-footed associate on one instance to give a glimpse of the harm they can cause. Pereira dropped deep as Diangana pushed forward as the two interchanged passes, allowing space once again for O’Shea to advance.
Predictably, the second half became a lot more open as West Brom turned on the heat having soaked up most of the Fulham resistance in the opening exchanges.
Within the first five minutes, they had already delivered three crosses into the area as they pressed far more intently with Bilic aiming for an early upper hand. The Baggies boss also made a substitution, bringing on Matty Philips in place of the unproductive Grosicki.
Philips switched sides with Diangana as to pit the young Congolese against the aged Odoi. Instantly, Philips looked for one of those crosses as a warning of how West Brom were going to approach the remainder of the fixture.
He also must have been keeping on eye on the room O’Shea had been offered down the right as he too drifted infield to allow the full-back the freedom of the channel.
Far and away the clearest chance of the entire afternoon arrived from the typical pattern of the proceedings. Philips laid off O’Shea on the right flank, who delivered a cross to the back post for the arriving Diangana, drifting in from his flank once more. He sent one defender sliding across the turf but found his goal-bound effort narrowly deflected wide and out for a corner.
West Brom could smell blood, or at least three points, and remained on the front foot, working numerous crosses into the area but unable to find a man in a black and white jersey.
After a conservative start, Bilic pushed Jake Livermore closer to his attackers in order to pen Fulham back and limit their passing patterns.
Fulham’s flip in fortunes was partly down to mainly exhausting the threat of Knockaert because of his endeavours in tracking back and bolstering the defensive line.
Inevitably, the Frenchman did fashion Fulham’s only real sight of goal in the second period. Mitrovic finally evaded the keen eye of Algazi, managing to nod the ball into Knockhart’s path having floated in off his flank. On the half volley, he rattled the crossbar of Sam Johnstone from 25-yards with a spectacular attempt, worthy of winning a fixture of such magnitude.
The quality possessed in either camps simply cancelled one another out, with Parker and Bilic taking their turns to meticulously make their chess move. A cautious affair would have been expected, certainly the order of the first half. As the afternoon wore on, the Baggies began to flex their forward muscles as Fulham will have rued themselves for not taking advantage of their earlier domination in possession.
At least one seems destined to return to the Premier League, whether that be West Brom or the Cottagers, and whoever does cash in their winning lottery ticket, they will be a good value for money on this display at the Hawthorns.