Welcome to Fulham 2.0 – a new, grittier team allowing their fans to ‘dream’

Resilience. That was the word Marco Silva said he turned to in the team hotel before Tuesday’s away victory over Leicester City. He would repeat it at half-time to his players, as Fulham held a 1-0 advantage and braced themselves for a wave of pressure from their hosts.

It was the quality that would be required on a testing night in the East Midlands. And it was a quality that Fulham would show in abundance to make it three wins out of three since the end of the World Cup break and lift themselves to 28 points, creating a cavernous gap to a relegation zone that is swiftly becoming a dot in their rear-view mirror.

Preparation is everything, and Fulham seem to have most bases covered on what is their third return to the Premier League in five seasons.

Against Southampton on Saturday, it was seen pieces that proved decisive; in the game before that, at Crystal Palace on Boxing Day, it was their on-the-ball quality — their precise patterns of play, honed over the past 18 months under Silva — which made light work of ill-disciplined opponents.

This trip to Leicester would require another skill set.

It would need the intangibles that rely less on tactical nous, and more on collective mindset. In the second half, as a minimally rotated team began to tire and Leicester took charge of the contest, Fulham had to dig deep. They would need a fair bit of luck, they would need to be smart, but they needed to be dogged and determined too. That’s how you grind out a 1-0 win away from home.

Silva’s team have drawn plaudits for their entertaining style of play and their willingness to play on the front foot this season, but that was not going to be enough on its own last night.

“Our first half was a very, very good level,” Silva says. “The second half was completely different (to the first). They (Leicester) reacted and they did really well to push us back — further back than I would like to see with our team. I believe that one more day of rest made a huge impact in the game. They played before us (against Liverpool on Friday) and, in this festive period, one more day has a huge impact. In that second half, they were more fresh than us.”

Fulham had to slow the game down. So they dallied on the ball. They took yellow cards for halting counter-attacks and time wasting. They sifted through the book of dark arts to prolong the home side’s agony. For all their exciting football, Fulham are not afraid to get their hands dirty. Only six teams have scored more Premier League goals than their 30 this season. But only one, Manchester United (43), have more yellow cards than their 42.

Leicester had control for 20 minutes at the start of the second half, with Youri Tielemans as their conductor. They were creating chances regularly; Brendan Rodgers switched to a back three and Fulham needed to adjust. That took time. But Silva’s side lucked on. They repeatedly interrupted the flow of the game. They showed a willingness to adapt, and saw out the final 20 minutes, including stoppage time, with a back five of their own.

“We were able to win the match to get the three points, the third win in a row and two away games with a clean sheet,” Silva says. “I think this shows the quality in some moments, and after the organization and the resilience that we have to show at this level.”

Fulham were helped by Leicester’s wastefulness in front of goal. But the visitors also played this game like a fiddle.

Current form means anxiety bubbles under the surface at the King Power Stadium. Those in-game stoppages heightened frustrations. Each miss garnered more pressure.

A 3-0 home defeat by Newcastle on Boxing Day, with two goals scored inside the first seven minutes, meant any early signs of home frailty would be met by groans on the terraces. So what did Fulham do? They stirred the pot of disquiet and started impressively.

“I have to highlight the way we started the game,” Silva says. “Our first 20, 25 minutes were brilliant. In the first 10 minutes, we created two, three chances to score. We were dominant.”

Grit and determination were married with moments of quality, in both boxes.

At one end, Willian narrowly missed two good openings before finding Aleksandar Mitrovic with a smart cross from the left. The striker made no mistake, taking his season tally to 11 league goals — that matches his best-ever single-season return in the Premier League and we aren’t even at the halfway point of this one.

At the other end, Fulham were indebted again to Bernd Leno, who made outstanding saves to deny Harvey Barnes, Jamie Vardy and Tielemans. His role in Fulham’s recent form cannot be overstated and his signing from Arsenal last summer, for an initial £3 million, looks like the bargain of the year.

“He was impressive — he has been all season,” Silva says of the Germany international. “He’s a top, top goalkeeper and he’s performing at a very high level in my opinion, which is not a surprise. All the fans should enjoy having a goalkeeper like him in their team.”

The consequence of all this was an away end in a buoyant mood at full time, freed of the tension that had characterized the second half.

Their team has picked up nine points from nine available since the season was paused for the World Cup. They have not conceded from open play in that time. With 20 of the 38 games still to play, they have already matched the points total achieved during the entirety of their last Premier League stay, in 2020-21, and are only placed behind Liverpool, who are in sixth by goal difference.

So the away end sang of touring Europe, and the players celebrated with them.

European qualification is not the actual target for Fulham and Silva this season, but it is now no longer seen as beyond the realms of possibility.

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“The next game is the most important one for us,” says Silva, whose next fixture is a nostalgic trip to face Championship side Hull City, his first English employers six years ago, in the FA Cup on Saturday. “It does not make sense to define different targets.

“The fans are dreaming of winning something. I think that’s important. They can dream. We are here to work really hard to achieve important things for the club and, right now, the main thing for us is to remain in the Premier League.”

Harder tests await.

Fulham’s next four league fixtures are against Chelsea (twice), Newcastle and Tottenham. It would be a surprise if games like that didn’t slow down their remarkable progress.

But, as illustrated at Leicester, with the team displaying an array of qualities to win matches, no challenge feels unsurmountable.

(Photo: Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)

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