It was with some sadness that I learned last night that Ryan Fredericks’ three-year stay at Craven Cottage had come to an end as the Fulham full-back had agreed a deal to sign for West Ham when his contract expires at the end of this month. The pacey full-back had proven instrumental in the back four as well as providing an extra outlet for the likes of Tom Cairney and Kevin McDonald to be as effective as possible. His speed and sense of adventure made him a horn for many Championship defences and it will be interesting to see how he fares in the Premier League next season.
Even though he had only spent three years at Craven Cottage, Fredericks saw seen plenty of changes on and off the pitch and quickly became a popular figure with the supporters. He soon established himself as the first choice right back and was a natural fit for Slavisa Jokanovic’s style that asked an awful lot of the full-backs. His defensive contributions shouldn’t be overlooked either, especially during the 2017/2018 campaign when the Whites became a particularly miserly side. It seems slightly odd to me that Fredericks would want to be the club’s highest-paid player, as some reports on his departure have claimed, especially as he seemed fully committed to the cause of winning promotion in the closing weeks of the season.
Fredericks’ time at Fulham has ultimately been a huge success for the player and the club. With Jokanovic insisting on playing fast and fluent football, pace on the wings became essential to unlocking some tightly-packed defences. There are very few full-backs – even in the modern game – who can get a fan out of their seat but Fredericks’ lung-bursting runs down the right offered a sense of exhilaration and added an extra dimension to Fulham’s attacks. His partnership with Sone Aluko during the 2016-2017 season was almost flawless as the pair dovetailed brilliantly, almost from day one.
Upon losing a player, your thoughts always turn to how they might be replaced. There has been a bit of speculation that Fulham might enter the transfer market to supplement their squad, but I feel like we have a like for like replacement in Cyrus Christie. The Irish international was obviously bought in with an eye to succeeding Fredericks when he had refused to agree a new deal around Christmas time and I’m sure he’ll relish the prospect of playing Premier League football next season. Christie can provide more security against the aerial threat of attacking teams and he is versatile enough to play in a number of other positions if necessary. Fulham also have two very promising right backs in the shape of Marlon Fossey and Steven Sessegnon and Jokanovic has been more than willing to blood academy prospects during his time at the club.
As we reflect on Fredericks’ time with Fulham, the abiding memory will be that magical day at Wembley last month when the Whites regained their Premier League status. He was a pivotal part of a side that went 23 games undefeated – something which Fulham will probably never repeat – and gave 38,144 fans a day that they’ll never forget at Wembley. I wish him well for the future and send my sincerest thanks for helping get Fulham back to where we belong.
This evening at Craven Cottage marks the start of Fulham’s sprint to the Championship finishing line. It might be trite to call Fulham’s remaining five fixtures Cup finals, but it feels like that there is what they are. If last weekend was as close to perfect as possible – with Cardiff losing at home to Wolves on Friday night and Slavisa Jokanovic’s side claiming an important three points at Sheffield Wednesday, then tonight offers a massive opportunity to ramp up the pressure on Neil Warnock’s men.
There is, of course, a chance that the Whites could end the night in second having beaten Reading. That scenario depends on Cardiff slipping up again – this time at Aston Villa, whose own automatic promotion hopes might have been extinguished by their defeat at Norwich City on Saturday lunchtime. While Jokanovic has so far succeeded in keeping the focus solely on Fulham’s next fixture, some of the players did admit to feeling a little more pressure last weekend – and considering the implications of thee crunch games is only natural, after all.
For Fulham to obtain an automatic place in the Premier League in May, they will probably need to extend that phenomenal nineteen game unbeaten run by another five matches. Reading might be struggling – a shadow of the side that beat us in the play-off semi-final last year – but they won’t be a soft touch tonight. Sone Aluko, who was so pivotal to Fulham’s success last season, will be eager to prove a point on his first return to Craven Cottage and his team-mates will be wanting to impress new manager Paul Clement, who has taken over from Jaap Stam at the Madjeski Stadium.
At their best, Jokanovic’s side have looked mesmerising this season. During that outstanding unbeaten run since mid-December, Fulham have brushed aside the likes of Cardiff, Wolves and Aston Villa. There is an even a school of thought that the Whites’ dominance in some of these matches has not been reflected in the scoreline – for instance, Fulham could certainly have scored far more than just Aleksandar Mitrovic’s goal that edged them past Sheffield Wednesday at the weekend. In a tight run in where goal difference could become crucial, the Whites need to be ruthless in front of goal.
What was most pleasing about the win over the Owls was the patience Jokanovic’s side showed once it became clear that they weren’t about to blow Wednesday away. The composure of the likes of Kevin McDonald, Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen, who kept the midfield ticking over when the temptation must have been to go for broke at times in the second half, was ultimately rewarded. It could well be another tense evening under the lights at the Cottage tonight – and the home fans will need to play their part. This Fulham side is full of confidence and have complete belief in their style of football and they should relish the opportunity to go out and prove their Premier League credentials.
Nothing is won yet. There could be twists and turns ahead in the next few weeks, especially with two tricky London derbies against Brentford and Millwall, who have their own promotion ambitions to further, looming on the horizon. As Jokanovic has said, all his team can do is win their games and keep up the pressure. Let’s hope that the Whites can clinch another valuable three points tonight.
Stefan Johansen’s celebration after clinching Fulham’s win over Nottingham Forest last month set a few tongues wagging. The Norwegian midfielder wheeled away to the Hammersmith End with his finger to his mouth, which reminded some Craven Cottage regulars of how Bobby Zamora reacted to scoring for the Whites – and might have been a retort to some criticism of his displays earlier in the season. Given the all-action midfielder’s energy was pivotal in Slavisa Jokanovic’s side reaching the Championship play-offs last year and he played through the pain of a groin injury for much of this campaign, I believe Johansen’s industry as the beating heart of Fulham’s midfield trinity isn’t lauded loudly enough.
The Norwegian captain would freely admit that he’s struggled to hit the heights that he reached at the end of last season. Even whilst he was considering to be underperforming last year, Johansen’s quality and drive still saw him a regular on the scoresheet. For a while – with those superb free-kicks at Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest – he might have usurped the likes of Tom Cairney and Ollie Norwood as the first team’s dead ball specialist. His ability with the ball at his feet is not in doubt, but some of his work out of possession doesn’t get the same recognition. In recent weeks, his hassling and harrying of opponents has unsettled Aston Villa and Wolves, who both arrived in the capital full of confidence.
As Jokanovic’s designated box-to-box midfielder, Johansen has consistently covered every blade of grass almost effortlessly. That coolly taken clincher against Forest encapsulates his tireless running as pinched the ball from Joe Worrall on the halfway and raced in on goal having looked out on his feet only seconds earlier. Johansen’s energy enlivened a midfield that looked a little one-paced prior to his arrival and the man himself has come a long way since his debut, when he was hauled off after just 32 minutes after a home defeat by Birmingham City.
Beloved for his brilliance at Celtic, Fulham moved quickly when it became clear that Johansen had fallen out of favour in Glasgow. Whilst Cairney – and more recently Ryan Sessegnon – have hogged the headlines for their goalscoring contributions from midfield, Johansen’s sixteen goals in 64 appearances – a return of one in every four appearances – is remarkable. Even when he isn’t popping up with a winner – and his precise finish to beat QPR at Loftus Road still sticks in my own memory – Johansen often pops up with a match-winning moment. Two of those came last weekend against the league leaders when he twice found Aleksandr Mitrovic in shooting positions and tilted the contest away from Wolves.
Johansen wasn’t the only Fulham player to start this season slowly. Indeed, many of the first-team squad might be wondering whether the Whites could have been closer to second-placed Cardiff City, if they could have found greater consistency in August and September. But, as the old adage reminds us, form is temporary and class is permanent. Watching Johansen’s insane intensity, commitment to the high press that would border on the suicidal if lesser mortals tried it and will to win, it isn’t difficult to see why Jokanovic rates his Norwegian tyro so highly.
Captaining his country, it is clear that Johansen is highly thought of in his homeland. He’s a role model off the pitch, as demonstrated by his commitment to equal pay when he signed a historic agreement with the Norwegian women’s captain Maren Mjelde in Trafalgar Square in December. Fulham fans will hope he will be as fondly remembered as his compatriots Brede Hangeland and Erik Nevland. If he can can continue to have a major say in the Championship promotion race over the remainder of the season, then Johansen will be able to write his own chapter in Fulham folklore.
Fortress Fulham is back. This weekend saw another home game, another top side make the trip to Craven Cottage full of confidence and head home having fallen victim to the free-flowing Whites. Slavisa Jokanovic’s men might have had to wait until their fourth home game of the season to taste victory, but they are making the most of their home comforts as the season moves into the final street. Yesterday’s formidable filleting of league leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers made it eight consecutive home wins and kept that second automatic promotion spot a real possibility.
The confidence that has come from the twelve game unbeaten run since that wretched defeat on Wearside by Chris Coleman’s Sunderland is oozing through Jokanovic’s side right now. Once they edged ahead of Wolves courtesy of Ryan Sessegnon’s lightning reactions, they looked like a team that wasn’t going to relinquish the lead without a scrap. And credit to Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves, who came to west London intent on playing football rather than engaging in the physical battle Bristol City preferred in midweek.
The visitors are justifiably top of the league – having played splendid football throughout the season that has put them streets ahead of the rest of the Championship. They have players who can change the course of a game in a blink of an eye – and Wolves looked lightning quick on the counter-attack. Like the fans, Fulham were up for this huge test and they started at a real rate of knots, never letting Wolves settle. The Whites dominated possession and didn’t look in too much danger until that glaring miss from Diogo Jota late on.
The team’s performance was faultless from front to back. Everyone in the white shirt was excellent, but Aleksandar Mitrovic – who scored the splendid second goal that knocked the stuffing out of Wolves – Ryan Fredericks and Tim Ream are worthy of particular mention. Fredericks’ display has to be one of his best in a Fulham shirt. His defensive work was superb – with his sheer determination to win every 50/50 shining through from the off. Ream’s performance has to rank alongside the ones we became used to watching from Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland and the American is now the rock of Jokanovic’s back four.
But it would be remiss not to highlight the excellence of Stefan Johansen in the Fulham engine room. He has brought energy and no little quality to the midfield since his arrival from Celtic last August and he seems to be hitting the heights of last season again after enduring a few ups and downs earlier this term. Irrepressible displays like last night’s show just why Johansen is captain of his country. He was all over Wolves from the off, regularly turned defence into attack with a telling intervention and played an underappreciated part in both goals. As well as the eye-catching moments, Johansen’s endeavour also gives his fellow midfielders Kevin McDonald and Tom Cairney the freedom to play to their strengths.
The big games keep coming with three tantalising tussles against Derby County, Preston North End and Sheffield United – who are all likely to be in the promotion picture until the final weeks of the season – looming large. They certainly won’t fancy facing Fulham with Jokanovic’s charges in such imperious form and the run-in promises plenty of excitement.
Fulham go into tomorrow evening’s televised clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers seeking to round off an excellent week with a win. It certainly won’t be easy as Wolves have stamped their class all over the Championship this season, but the Whites’ superb home form, which has seen them record seven straight wins at Craven Cottage, should give Slavisa Jokanovic’s squad plenty of confidence. The Serbian has plenty of potential options for this mouthwatering encounter after a successful end to the January transfer window and, after he rung the changes ahead of the trip to Bristol City in midweek, I can see further alterations to the starting line-up tomorrow.
The most worrying moment at Ashton Gate was watching Matt Targett limp off with an ankle injury. The former England under-21 international has been sensational since his arrival on loan from Southampton and his seamless integration into the side has allowed Ryan Sessegnon to slot into the left wing position where the teenage protege has proven so dangerous. Hopefully, Targett’s injury is not serious because, if it proves to be, Jokanovic will have to mull over whether to deploy Sessegnon or Denis Odoi at left back. I’d prefer to see Sessegnon stay higher up the pitch – and Tomas Kalas could be restored to the heart of the defence, with Odoi filling in at full back. Should Targett recover from that nasty looking knock, it goes without saying he should resume that promising partnership with Sessegnon down the Fulham left.
Jokanovic also brought in Cyrus Christie and Lucas Piazon with contrasting results at Ashton Gate on Wednesday night. Christie was included to negate City’s potent threat from long throws as well as countering the direct approach towards Famara Diedhou up front as he is significantly taller than Ryan Fredericks, who has sometimes by targeted under the high ball by the opposition. While the Irish international did well – and made the Fulham goal with a wonderful assist for Aleksandar Mitrov – I’d be looking to bring back Fredericks because the Whites look a far more threatening proposition when he flies up the right flank.
Piazon struggled to have much of an impact against Bristol City – and it was probably only Targett’s untimely injury that meant he was wasn’t replaced by Floyd Ayite in the second half. The Brazilian looked leggy towards the end and, against the league leaders, I think Fulham will need to positive and take the game to the opposition. Ayite will occupy a Wolves full back and has the pace to hurt the opposition in behind and I would be looking to include him on the right wing. Piazon has proven himself to be an excellent impact substitute in the past – and, however Jokanovic selects his starting eleven, Fulham’s bench now looks as strong as it has since relegation from the Premier League.
If it is at all possible, I’d keep the central midfield trio intact tomorrow. Fulham look a far better side when Kevin McDonald, Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen are all together in the engine room as was the case when the Whites proved so devastating towards the end of last season. The captain didn’t have his most influential game against Bristol City, but he is still regaining match sharpness after a spell out injured. Fulham look less predictable with Cairney in the side – and one moment of magic from our playmaker might prove decisive this weekend.
Mitrovic showed us all what he was about at Ashton Gate – with a performance full of strength, power and desire. He took his goal very well (and might have scored more) and I would be minded to reward him with another start against Wolves. The Serbian can do what he always do – wage a real battle with the centre backs for an hour and then be replaced by the likes of Aboubakar Kamara or Rui Fonte. Mitrovic has plenty of incentive to perform well, with a World Cup on the horizon, and I feel that the goals may flow now that he’s opened his Fulham account.
Selecting the team can always provoke a myriad of opinions: so why not let us know what your line-up to take on Wolves would look like in the comments?
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Odoi, Ream; McDonald, Cairney, Johansen; Ayite, Sessegnon, Mitrovic.