Aleksandar Mitrovic may have returned to the Fulham set-up at Southampton, but the Serbian’s eight game ban has seen the side, and certain individuals, demonstrate intriguing facets not often seen in his presence.
There’s no doubt Mitrovic has been key to Fulham’s success this season, not only being the club’s top goalscorer (13 in all competitions), but also integral to the side’s preferred style of play.
A focal point in attack, the 28-year-old has an impressive knack of dropping deep to drag defenders out of position as well as hold the ball up to link play and bring others into the game.
Mitrovic’s lengthy ban, for pushing Chris Kavanagh during the Cottagers’ FA Cup defeat at Manchester United, initially opened the door for Carlos Vinicius to stake his claim as the side’s main attacking threat.
However, nondescript performances in consecutive losses away to Bournemouth and at home to West Ham led head coach Marco Silva to introduce a false-nine formation, bringing about instant results.
The system saw plenty of choices for the role with Harry Wilson, Dan James and Bobby De Cordova-Reid all able to work in that space while Manor Solomon, in fine goalscoring form at the time, another possibility.
Solomon could be seen as unlucky not to be given a chance centrally with Silva preferring the Israeli to remain on the wing and using his one-on-one ability out wide to pose more of a threat with his pace, power and trickery.
It was James, a peripheral figure this season, who got the nod away to struggling Everton, running the channels and frequently dropping deep, supported by the wingers who cut inside so the full-backs could push up the pitch.
The tactic worked to perfection with Fulham running out comfortable 3-1 winners in a game in which James not only found the net but arguably played his best game for the club so far.
With James ineligible to face his parent club in the following game against Leeds, it was the turn of De Cordova-Reid to step-up, finding space between Leeds’ defensive lines and working well with on-rushing wide men Harrison Reed and Andreas Pereira in a 2-1 win.
Speaking on the false-nine at the time, Marco Silva said: “I am here to try to give different solutions.
“With Dan James and Bobby (De Cordova-Reid) there is a bit more pace and dynamism in the attacking line – more when we are under pressure and we want players to link the play, to be stronger in that first contact and hold the ball a bit more.”
The formation hasn’t been all plain sailing though with Fulham struggling to retain possession and finding no attacking outlet when it was implemented at Brighton in February with Reid deputising for the injured Mitrovic.
Ironically, it was the introduction of Carlos Vinicius in the second period and a tactical switch to the traditional centre-forward which led to an unlikely winner as the Brazilian threaded the ball to Solomon to score late on.
The Brighton game could have been in the back of Silva’s mind after the false-nine winning streak came to a sudden halt with the 1-0 at high-flying Aston Villa where the hosts swamped the midfield to leave false-nine James isolated and Fulham never looking like scoring.
Games against Manchester City and Liverpool followed, as did a return to playing with target man Carlos Vinicius – scoring an equaliser against Pep Guardiola’s side and being a constant nuisance throughout both matches as Fulham forced both games to be played in tight areas in the centre of the pitch.
Although both games ended in narrow defeats, Silva had seen enough to keep with Carlos Vinicius to devastating effect as the Cottagers smashed five past Leicester City as the forward not only found the net but also claimed an assist.
Last weekend’s win at Southampton once again reinforced Silva’s preference to play with a target man with Carlos Vinicius opening the scoring before being replaced by Mitrovic to seal the win with a second.
With both players available, the false-nine set-up is likely to remain a ‘Plan B’ but what it does prove is that Fulham, although having a preferred style, have the flexibility and durability to mix it up as and when they have to.
What is perhaps more intriguing now is who is the preferred personnel to lead the line – with Carlos Vinicius slowly finding his feet and, with long-term question marks around Mitrovic’s temperament and future at the club, it is a question likely to be answered in the summer.