Anyone who has watched Fulham this season will know how much Marco Silva’s team use width to create chances.
No Premier League team has attempted more crosses than Fulham (736) this season and, according to Opta, Fulham attack through the middle of the pitch less frequently than every other team in the division at just 22 per cent.
When the aerial threat of Aleksandar Mitrovic is at head coach Silva’s disposal, it is easy to understand why Fulham prefer to create from the flanks. But even while Mitrovic served his recent eight-game suspension, Fulham still sought to build from wide areas — albeit in a slightly different way.
More recently, the key commonality in these chances has been their quick switches of play — either through deep crosses into the box or raking cross-field passes to stretch defences.
Given Fulham have six wingers in their squad, it makes sense for them to build play on one side of the pitch before diverting the focus of their attack to the opposite flank. This allows the likes of Willian and Harry Wilson to be isolated in a one-v-one battle against their full-back in space, rather than being outnumbered and pressed up against the touchline.
Once the winger has the ball in space and the opposition are stretched and shuffling over, the options to either cut inside and fashion a shooting opportunity or send the ball back into the gaps created by the initial switch are much more presentable.
This ploy was used to good effect in the 3-1 win away to Everton on April 15.
After the visitors win the ball in midfield, Harrison Reed quickly switches the direction of play out to Wilson on the right (just out of frame in the screengrab below). Notice how compact Everton’s defensive line is on the far side of the pitch as Reed plays his pass.
Left-back Vitalii Mykolenko moves out to challenge Wilson, which stretches Everton’s back line horizontally, allowing Reed to run forward into the gap between the centre-backs.
Wilson opts to jink inside onto his stronger left foot and go for goal, with his curling effort hitting the post. Meanwhile, four white shirts flood the box at the moment Wilson decides to shoot — with Dan James looking to make it five.
James stumbled over the loose ball, which fell fortuitously to Reed in the box, who scored. But Fulham made their own luck by stretching Everton’s defence, getting Wilson isolated against his full-back and running into the gaps created by Reed’s initial switch.
The reason these switches are key to such moves is that it gives the winger on the receiving end a range of outcomes to choose from, and enough time to make the right decision.
In the build-up to Carlos Vinicius scoring the opening goal in the 2-0 win over Southampton last weekend, the move came alive with that familiar switch but ended with more of a collaborative flourish. This time, Tom Cairney swings the ball out to Wilson on the right as Fulham looked to converge on a disjointed defence.
But instead of trying to score from long distance, the Wales international slips the underlapping Reed into the box.
Notice how Southampton’s defence have shifted their focus onto the far side of the pitch as Vinicius, Willian and Cairney angle their runs into the other half of their penalty area.
Reed stretches to reach Wilson’s pass, squaring the ball to an unmarked Vinicius…
… who scores what is surely one of the easiest goals of his career.
The amount of variation in this tactic is not limited to what happens after the switch either.
In the same Everton game mentioned above, Fulham also switched the play with deep crosses rather than long passes across the middle of the pitch.
In the example below, right-back Kenny Tete’s cross loops over the hosts’ entire back line to Willian. Everton’s midfield cover drift over to the right, leaving a big space just outside the penalty area for potential midfield runners.
As Ben Godfrey tries to close Willian down, the Brazilian winger plays a first-time pass back across goal for Wilson. By now, the gaps that original Tete cross created in Everton’s defence are too big to close…
… and Wilson finishes emphatically into the bottom corner.
With Mitrovic back in the side last Saturday, Silva will be keen to ensure his top scorer makes use of the space created by Fulham’s switches so he can end the season with a flourish.
That their next opponents, Crystal Palace, have conceded the fourth-most crosses into the penalty area in the 2022-23 Premier League suggests the Serbia international could continue to profit from what has been an effective plan of action for Fulham this season.
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