While Liverpool were far from their best, Fulham and Aleksandar Mitrovic may have finally demonstrated that they have risen to the required level.
That felt like the most significant aspect of this hugely entertaining 2-2 draw at Craven Cottage, even if most of the talk will be about how Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have already fallen behind in the title race. That was because they couldn’t keep up with Fulham for long stretches of the game. Marco Silva’s team were anything but a pushover in this game, taking the game to Liverpool. Silva got it right, and his team deserved more.
Mitrovic, on the other hand, completely seized the game, personifying so much of this. He even humiliated Virgil van Dijk, resulting in the penalty for his second of two goals. Klopp had to bring in his own big forward in the form of expensive new signing Darwin Nunez to level the score and secure a point.
He scored the first equalizer and caused enough havoc to ensure Mohammed Salah got his usual opening-day goal.
Liverpool may have felt they could have had more, especially after Jordan Henderson smashed the crossbar late on, but it would have been unfair to Fulham. The Reds were also let down by an opening-day injury to Thiago Alcantara, who was replaced shortly after the game began.
Opening days can be deceptive, as clubs ranging from Blackpool to Manchester United have discovered, but there appeared to be genuine substance to Fulham’s game.
For a manager who faces as many negative assumptions about him as his club and striker, Silva demonstrated some of the qualities that once positioned him as one of the game’s best young managers. For long stretches, his team was the better team. They were frequently winning 50-50 balls and pressing Liverpool all over the field. Silva executed an excellent game plan.
Despite the abrasiveness, there were some moments of accuracy. In the same way that Fulham’s pressing unsettled Liverpool, disrupting their shape and rhythm, Silva’s players were aware of when to shift gears when a gap presented itself.
The first goal was a powerful example of this. Kenny Tete took advantage of the space behind Andy Robertson before Mitrovic took advantage of Trent Alexander-persistent Arnold’s defensive laxness. Tete’s cross was as inviting as it was unsettling, and Mitrovic matched it with a powerful run, leaving Alexander-Arnold standing and hammering a header past Alisson.
Aside from two Luis Diaz moments, Fulham deserved to win.
Throughout the game, Silva’s team appeared more committed and cohesive than Liverpool’s, but there was also something off about Klopp’s attack. It was the reason Nunez was so effective. It shifted the entire gravity around the pitch’s end.
While Roberto Firmino tried to move between the lines and provide the occasional touch – one of which was an admittedly fine through ball for Salah – Liverpool actually became easier to defend against. They were attempting to make something out of nothing.
Nunez, on the other hand, was all presence. He wasn’t perfect, to be sure. He should have shot instead of passing to Luis Diaz for his first big moment, and some of his touches were shaky. The fact that he squandered a chance with one flick and then scored with the next, on the other hand, was the best indication of a player adapting and willing to persevere.
The fact that Salah found him so easily was also an indication of something else that changed everything about the match.
In contrast to Firmino’s frequent disappearances and reappearances into space, Nunez provided his own gravitational pull. He attracted not only the ball, but also three Fulham defenders. This had the multiplier effect of also freeing Salah, from whom the equalizer came.
Silva was the only one in the foreground. Mitrovic continued to demonstrate that he is ready to make the step up to the Premier League with a performance that was about much more than his physical strength.
There was also finesse and sleight of foot as he first got Van Dijk into a one-on-one situation and then lulled the great defender into the clumsiest of fouls for a penalty, perhaps the biggest surprise of the day, beyond even Fulham’s goals.
Mitrovic stepped up and defeated Alisson. It was all the more impressive because it came at a time when Liverpool were in command and riding a wave.
Fulham, on the other hand, had the upper hand. However, the playing pattern had already been skewed.
One constant criticism leveled at Silva has been that he does not respond adequately to circumstances, which could be seen here with the pattern of the game and how limited and late his substitutions were. It may have cost Fulham the victory here, though that is a little harsh given that Liverpool eventually won thanks to superior players.
Fulham had done everything they could, as evidenced by some of the tired attempts at intervention that led to Salah’s eventual equalizer. The ball was deflected away from goal, bounced off Nunez, and there he was.
Salah has scored on the first day of the season for the sixth consecutive season. That was one of the few aspects of a fantastically entertaining game that actually worked.