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Willian revival mission keeps Fulham on road to history

Willian of Fulham during the Premier League match between Fulham FC and Nottingham Forest - Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Willian of Fulham during the Premier League match between Fulham FC and Nottingham Forest - Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

This win, like most before it this season, was marked by the simple cohesiveness of Fulham’s attack. It was detectable in Aleksandar Mitrovic’s link-up play, which renders him crucial even during this seven-game streak without a goal. It was detectable in how well Bobby Decordova-Reid and Kenny Tete interacted on the right. And it was detectable in Andreas Pereira’s passing, which brought late reward when he teed up substitute Manor Soloman for the second goal.

Most of all, it was detectable in Willian. At Arsenal in 2020/21 Willian resembled a ghost, his influence scarcely extending beyond a fine display at Craven Cottage on his debut. But, aged 34, Willian is a player transformed.

Willian’s agility, two-footedness and rapport with Antonee Robinson on Fulham’s left means that he can beat defenders on both sides. Renan Lodi learned as much in the 17th minute. First Willian cut outside with his right foot, leaving Lodi marooned on the floor. Then he switched inside, taking the ball onto his left foot – nominally, his slightly weaker foot – and curled the ball into the top corner to beat Keylor Navas: a shot befitting defeating such a renowned goalkeeper. Not content with his left-footed strike, Willian later hit the post with an attempt from outside the area with his right foot too.

Willian curls the ball into the top corner to beat Keylor Navas - Paul Childs/Action Images
Willian curls the ball into the top corner to beat Keylor Navas - Paul Childs/Action Images

“He doesn’t need to prove anything – everybody knows his quality,” manager Marco Silva purred. “Willian is a top-class player, plays with a smile on his face. If I had doubts I would not sign him.

“What he’s doing for us – it’s not a surprise at all. You can see it week in and week out. I’m a privileged guy because I can see it every day.”

And so Fulham’s gambit, to summon Willian from Corinthians when he seemed too old for the demands of the Premier League two years earlier, has been emphatically vindicated.

Willian’s solitary season at Arsenal brought just one goal; in fewer minutes so far for Fulham, he has already tripled that tally. He is also dribbling more – and, when he does, more often beating his man; Joe Worrall and Felipe, thrust together for the first time as a centre-half pairing after both Willy Boly and Scott McKenna went off with separate injuries in the seventh minute, could certainly attest to as much.

Another telling change is that William regained possession in the final third just six times for Arsenal; for Fulham, he has already done so 14 times. For all the attractiveness of Silva’s side, he demands that his artists are artisans, too.

The only fear for Fulham was the sense that they had inserted the knife but neglected to twist it: by an hour, their superiority could have been reflected in much more than a mere goal advantage. Nottingham Forest then enjoyed their best passage of the game, emboldened by the introduction of Emmanuel Dennis. Bernd Leno – at least as important as Willian in Fulham’s form – tipped Serge Aurier’s close-range header over the bar.

Brennan Johnson sees his shot is saved by Bernd Leno - Clive Rose/Getty Images
Brennan Johnson sees his shot is saved by Bernd Leno - Clive Rose/Getty Images

Once again, Leno would not be breached. From conceding 26 goals in their 15 Premier League games until the World Cup break, Fulham have now yielded just four in eight league games since the league resumed. There is steel to go with their silk – and perhaps it will lead to a best-ever points haul in this division.

In the top tier, Fulham have never amassed more than the 53 points that Roy Hodgson’s side won in 2008/09. After this victory, Fulham now need 19 points from 15 games to overhaul that number. In 2009, Hodgson’s side came seventh, the prelude to Fulham’s stirring run to the Europa League final. Seventh this season, as Fulham now are, would lead to European football once again.