Chelsea’s Under-21 team suffered a 3-1 reverse away to Fulham at Craven Cottage on Friday night to extend their winless run to four games in a season which has seen just one win to date.
The Cottagers frustrated their local neighbours for long periods but were rarely dominant; instead taking advantage of opportunities which were presented to them and making them count to full effect. Marcello Trotta’s brace added to Charles Banya’s opener, meaning Billy Clifford’s first-half equaliser was a mere consolation effort.
Despite a number of regulars having travelled to and played in Russia in the NextGen Series just 48 hours previously, Dermot Drummy included them from the off. Conor Clifford and Lucas Piazon replaced Jeremie Boga and Islam Feruz in the only changes from last week’s defeat at home to Middlesbrough.
Fulham, as has been their style this season, gave playing time to a host of fringe players from their first team squad including over-agers Philippe Senderos, Ashkan Dejagah and Mickael Tavares, who was only confirmed as a signing earlier in the day.
With Hungarians, Turks, and Italians amongst their ranks it was truly a multi-cultural selection but it was one of their home-grown talents who was responsible for the game’s first incident of note. Captain Alex Smith’s deft free kick from the edge of the box hit the outside of Jamal Blackman’s post and fell to safety.
The relentless rain falling in West London was having a major impact on proceedings, as although the pitch held up in pristine fashion, players were less sure of their touch and footing, and were less inclined to play quick, one-touch football in tight areas.
Looseness in possession therefore resulted in an attritional feel at times, with tackles sliding in at a regular rate. With Conor Clifford and George Saville in the engine room for Chelsea, they were winning their fair share.
Saville was playing further forward than he has so far this season, with Drummy adjusting the team’s shape to resemble more of a familiar 4-3-3 from the previous era. It provided a greater potency in central attacking areas, and only a fine tackle from Senderos denied Patrick Bamford a certain goal.
Fulham took the lead just before the half hour mark and did so in some style as Banya connected with a long raking pass by guiding an agile volley over Blackman’s head from an improbable angle. There was a hint of offside about it, but the goal stood as called.
It took less than ten minutes for Chelsea to equalise, and when they did they owed a great debt to Fulham goalkeeper Csaba Somogyi. Billy Clifford’s free kick as smart enough, but the Hungarian stopper spilled it through two strong hands and watched it squirm into the open net behind him.
A draw at the break would have been a suitable outcome but once more, some sloppy play at the back cost Chelsea dearly. Blackman sold his defender short with a pass out from the back, allowing Kerim Frei to pounce and set up Trotta for a tap-in.
The big forward has been a prolific scorer at junior level for some time and quickly doubled his tally within a few minutes of the restart. Once again it was Frei who provided it, swinging a free kick in towards goal which just required him to flick it towards goal for 3-1. It wasn’t particularly well defended once again, with Trotta all too easily getting across his man to glance home, but such is his physical prowess that matching up against him is rarely easy.
By putting daylight between themselves and their visitors, Fulham were able to compact themselves into a highly organised shape and demand that Chelsea break them down if they were to get back into the game. Anchored by experienced new man Tavares, they were solid and disciplined, and kept Chelsea to the periphery, with efforts limited to speculative ones from long range.
Drummy made two changes within a minute of each other, taking off Conor Clifford and Alex Davey –the latter one of those who had been to Russia – and bringing on Feruz and Andreas Christensen. Feruz slotted in behind Bamford and Billy Clifford dropped back to pair up with Saville as the team took on a more familiar 4-2-3-1 look.
With one free kick having already been scored and another bouncing back off the woodwork, it seemed a night for dead ball situations. Unfortunately for Chelsea, they saw two second-half efforts collide with the frame of the goal, as first Lucas Piazon and then Lewis Baker were denied with Somogyi nowhere to be seen.
Boga then replaced Aziz Deen-Conteh to set about a rather unusual tactical reshuffle. Drummy’s decision to gamble and go all out in terms of attacking personnel left something resembling a 3-1-4-2 formation, with Todd Kane joining Christensen and Nathan Aké in a back three, Saville ahead of them, and the remainder of the attacking talent ahead.
Fulham were a tough nut to crack though, and for all of their potential, Chelsea couldn’t get a real shot away. Feruz and Piazon skied waywardly into the Putney End, and when Bamford got one on target, Somogyi was able to make the save.
A flurry of bookings late in the game came largely due to the growing frustration amongst the Blues’ ranks, as Feruz was cautioned for a late tackle and both Saville and Piazon for dissent.
Fulham threatened again late on through Kasami and Kavanagh but didn’t need to add to their scoreline, running out comfortable winners in the end. It wasn’t a dominant performance, but a professional and dutiful one as they suffocated their opponents for most of the night.
From a Chelsea point of view, it’s another disappointing result with goals given up too easily once again. There are positives for sure, most notably the continued good form of Saville, but there are concerns at both ends of the pitch which need addressing. They’re not particularly huge issues, rather subtle concerns relating to tactics and the ups and downs of youth development, so hopefully an upturn in form isn’t too far away.
Chelsea: Blackman, Kane (c), Davey (Christensen 55), Aké, Deen-Conteh (Boga 65), C.Clifford (Feruz 54), B.Clifford, Saville, Baker, Lucas Piazon, Bamford
Subs not Used: Beeney, Nditi
Goal: B. Clifford
Booked: Feruz, Piazon, Saville