It is a measure of how well Fulham are playing at the moment that I was surprised that only two Fulham players featured in the WhoScored Championship team of the month when it flashed across my phone this morning. Such has been Fulham’s flawless form since the turn of the year, you could make a guess for most of Slavisa Jokanovic’s first eleven being considered the cream of the crop.
Fulham’s rise to fifth in the table has got the media crowing about the quality of football being played beside the Thames again, as many observers did towards the tail end of last season when the Whites were sweeping all before them on their way to the play-offs. The press plaudits are certainly well deserved, but I prefer it when Jokanovic’s men are accumulating points under the radar and progressing up the table almost by stealth. With the likes of Ryan Sessegnon and Tom Cairney being linked with moves away from Craven Cottage constantly during the January transfer window, I suppose Fulham fans will have to get used to the glare of publicity – both good and bad – for the foreseeable future.
Sessegnon’s inclusion in the statistically-assembled line-up was hardly a surprise given that the teenager surpassed even his own high standards during January, just as the red tops and Sky Sports were desperate to sell him on to ‘a big club’. His deployment at left back suggests this wasn’t a line-up based around the positions players occupied for their clubs as last month was the one where the terrifically talented teenager completed the transition from someone learning the full-back role to fully fledged left winger.
When watching the composed nature of Sessegnon’s displays, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he had been playing at this level for a decade rather than bursting onto the scene as a sixteen year-old a year ago. His consistent ability to read the game and pick up the right positions in the final third suggests he might mature into the type of footballer who could play anywhere across the front line – and his goalscoring ability is already striking fear into defences up and down the land.
Sessegnon’s six goals were crucial in January – it’s worth remembering that nobody else in the league, including a number of much-vaunted forwards, got close to matching this total – and his displays were so dominant, it was almost a surprise to see him have a quieter afternoon against Nottingham Forest this weekend. Given his work ethic and veracious appetite to learn more, you can rest assured the teenager will keep on improving right before our eyes; and that is something to savour when you remember just how good he is right now.
The WhoScored metrics also picked out Kevin McDonald as one of the most consistent midfielders in the division. No-one who has watched Fulham over the past eighteen months will disagree with that. The Scot has adopted a different role under Slavisa Jokanovic than he had earlier in his career, but he’s made the difference to a midfield that appeared gung-ho in its previous iterations. If Tom Cairney remains Fulham’s classiest operator, McDonald is the club’s most important fixture – the ballast in front of the back four, who organises and cajoles his team-mates into striving for more. The former Wolves midfielder might do the unflashy work off the ball, but he is no stranger to making important interventions at the other end of the field and his scrappy goal at Barnsley turned a point into three, which might be vital come May.
There are several other members of Jokanovic’s side who might have featured on the list. As Alan noted in his article yesterday, both Fulham’s form and defensive resolution has improved since Marcus Bettinelli was brought back in goal. His crucial saves both at Barnsley and during the weekend win over Forest were vital in preserving precious clean sheets. I suspect Fulham’s defence feel far more confident with the voluble Bettinelli between the sticks – although there isn’t any objective data to test that assertion. No article complimenting the Whites marked recent improvement would be complete without a word on Tim Ream’s continued excellence at the heart of the defence. The American’s transformation from recklessness to reliability is an enduring example of how Jokanovic, like Jean Tigana and Roy Hodgson before him, has been able to turn Fulham stalwarts into far better players through hard work down at Motspur Park.