Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Claudio Ranieri all but banished his “Tinkerman” moniker upon leading Leicester City to improbable heights in 2016. The over-rotation of his Chelsea tenure gave way to consistency of selection at the King Power Stadium, much to the surprise of Ranieri’s many media detractors. But tinkering, apparently, is a habit that’s hard to break. And, much to West Ham United’s delight, the Italian very much fell off the wagon at half-time here.
Ironically, Ranieri also stood guilty of not tinkering enough before kick-off, enacting only two changes from the abject 4-1 reverse at Manchester United. Both were enforced, with Ryan Sessegnon and Zambo Anguissa succumbing to injury and suspension respectively.
Oh dear, Odoi
That meant Denis Odoi, a centre-back by trade, retained the right-back berth, one week after suffering a for-the-ages roasting at the hands of Marcus Rashford. And keeping faith with the Belgian did not exactly pan out well for the Cottagers; to say the least.
Culpable for both of United’s opening two goals last weekend, Odoi repeated the feat here, helping to gift West Ham two against the run of play. Restricted to counterattacking by Fulham’s midfield superiority, the Hammers duly sought to exploit the not insignificant physicality at their disposal. And, while long balls arced down the inside-left channel for Michail Antonio to chase often proved too tempting to resist, West Ham did get their fast-breaking act together on two occasions. And two occasions, to Fulham’s eternal shame, is all Manuel Pellegrini’s fortunate side needed.
Intent upon playing out from the back, in the face of Ranieri’s not-yet entirely cohesive press, West Ham twice beavered the ball Felipe Anderson’s way. His minder Odoi foolishly went to ground on the first occasion, and failed to close down the cross on the second. Robert Snodgrass and Antonio did the rest, the latter facilitated by Javier Hernandez’s aerial victory over 6′ 1″ Tim Ream.
Antonio was left free at the back-post by Joe Bryan’s walkabout, the ex-Bristol City left-back guilty of following Snodgrass all the way over to the inside-left pocket. Sticking tight to one’s winger in such a manner makes sense when one’s defence is facing a solitary striker; not so when the threat is two-pronged, as West Ham’s was here.
As was Fulham’s, Ranieri deviating from the 4-2-3-1 that flopped against United back to the 4-4-2 that served him so well at Leicester. And if Fulham’s defence had occasional issues with the Hammers strikeforce, they had nothing on Pellegrini’s panicked backline.
Neither Kamara nor Aleksandr Mitrovic are, shall we say, shy about using their powerful frames to their benefits. And the pair linked up to devastating effect at times in the first-half. Unfortunately for Ranieri, who wisely paired them together in the first place, the burly frontmen combined to waste three big chances before half-time, handing the initiative — and ultimately the game — to West Ham.
Kamara was particularly culpable in Fulham’s profligacy, the Frenchman twice thwarted by the ever-impressive Lukasz Fabianski. An early, wasted, one-on-one stood out as the more obvious miss, but heading an Odoi cross straight at the Pole when unmarked was arguably worse. Odoi and Fulham made plenty of attacking ground down the right-flank, as Tom Cairney’s tendency to tuck in inspired Fulham’s slight midfield edge. But here again the Belgian proved a square peg in a round hole, wasting several opportunities afforded by Anderson’s inability to defend effectively and Arthur Masuaku’s usual ineptitude.
Unsurprisingly, Ranieri acted accordingly at half-time, introducing Cyrus Christie for the red-faced Ream and returning Odoi to the more familiar environs of centre-back. But the changes the Fulham boss enacted higher up the pitch were significantly more difficult to fathom.
Breaking up Kamara’s burgeoning relationship with Mitrovic made little sense, especially as doing so entailed shifting the pitiful Andre Schurrle into a more central role. With Kamara neutered by his new left-wing posting, Pellegrini’s side predictably saw out the second-half comfortably, shipping no shots on target whatsoever and only one effort from inside the Hammers box. The Chilean even felt comfortable to let Anderson stay high in the defensive phase and lead several ultimately fruitless counterattacks, that the sometimes-frustrating Brazilian spurned with poor decision-making.
West Ham duly secured a fourth consecutive Premier League win, for the first time since February 2014. But, as against both Crystal Palace and Cardiff City, the Hammers were exceedingly lucky to extend their winning run here. Pellegrini’s decision to do away with his seemingly balanced 4-3-3 system after last month’s disappointing draw at Huddersfield may come to be seen as unwise in the long run. For now, however, everything seems to be going the ninth-placed side’s way.
For Fulham, however, the exact opposite is true. The Cottagers’ wait for a clean sheet goes on, and Ranieri must surely take at least four points from upcoming Christmas clashes against Newcastle, Wolves and Huddersfield to stand any chance of survival. His side were better than West Ham today, but the Italian’s failure to keep the faith with that unarguable fact cost him and his new charges dearly. Old habits die hard, I guess.
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