Saluting Stefan Johansen – Fulham’s midfield engine

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.

Faultless Fulham firing on all cyclinders

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.

Who should Slavisa Jokanovic pick against Wolves?

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.

Cool Odoi in command for Fulham

Walking away from Ashton Gate last night, the sense of disappointment at Fulham failing to build on a promising start was tangible. However, you have got to be satisfied with a point away at one of top six rivals at the this time of the season. Whilst Slavisa Jokanovic’s side couldn’t built on the perfect start given to them when Aleksandar Mitrovic opened his Fulham account, the fact that a Fulham side defended their long throws and set plays relatively well was a real plus point. As Cyrus Christie said after the game, there’s a chance this could be a valuable result come May.

Like Dan wrote this morning, Mitrovic showed just why he can be a real asset during the run-in. It was fantastic to see him score his first goal for the Whites and he proved a real handful for the Robins’ back four throughout his time on the field. His pure strength made him more than a match for Nathan Baker and Aden Flint, whilst there is increasing evidence of his footballing intelligence with each outing in a Fulham shirt. It is hard to believe the Serbian is still only 23 – and I’m absolutely astonished that Rafa Benitez considers Mitrovic surplus to requirements when his Newcastle side are hardly pulling up any trees in the Premier League.

Bristol City surprised me a little last night. When I saw Lee Johnson’s side earlier in the season, their football was a lot prettier and they certainly worked some lovely passing patterns in their win at Craven Cottage. Instead, City were a lot more physical – and I felt there were a number of rash challenges that went unpunished by a weak referee. As a tall side, City are extremely dangerous at set pieces but I thought Fulham weathered the aerial bombardment pretty well.

Jokanovic certainly raised a few eyebrows – including mine – by picking Cyrus Christie ahead of Ryan Fredericks for his Fulham debut, but the Irish international certainly justified his inclusion. There was a clear tactical element to this choice with Christie’s strength in the air seeing him dovetail effectively with Mitrovic at defensive set plays to nullify the threat of Flint. Aside from a couple of shaky defensive moments, Christie enjoyed a solid debut and I’m confident he will prove to a quality addition.

My man of the match, however, was the Fulham defender I’ve already dubbed ‘Mr. Reliable,’ Denis Odoi. The Belgian was another surprise selection – coming in for Tomas Kalas at centre back, but this was as assured a display as Odoi delivered against Reading and Leeds, with the added difficulty of dealing with Famara Diedhou in the air. Odoi often looks like coolness personified in the heart of the battle and his composure was definitely needed at times last night. The anticipation he showed to make two point-preserving clearances late in the second half proved crucial and you couldn’t fault his desire either. Having not started the last couple of fixtures, it was no mean feat for Odoi to fit so seamlessly back into the back again and he was outstanding throughout.

Whilst we’ve all been pondering Fulham’s big run of fixtures of late, last night’s opponents are heading to another of the promotion contenders on Sunday lunchtime. Bristol City might be looking over their shoulder, with seventh-placed Middlesbrough only two points behind, whilst the Bluebirds have stretched their advantage over Jokanovic’s side to eight points. Fulham might have made up eleven points on Neil Warnock’s men over the last ten fixtures, but we’ll all be watching events at the Cardiff City Stadium very closely on Sunday to see how the promotion picture is affected.

Even though Fulham couldn’t get a second goal to pinch all three points last night, I still feel there are reasons for real optimism when we welcome Wolves for one of the more mouthwatering fixtures in the Football League calendar on Saturday night. Jokanovic’s side remain unbeaten in 2018, having shown considerable fortitude at Ashton Gate to stretch their run to eleven games without defeat, and the Serbian certainly won’t sit back against the league leaders, who will without star midfielder Reuben Neuves due to suspension. Jokanovic has already recalled that Nuno Espírito Santo’s side were the only team to comprehensive outplay the Whites this season – and will be keen to put in a better performance than Fulham’s apologetic effort at Molineux in November.

Fulham shouldn’t fear anyone in the Championship – as they proved against Aston Villa

For my money, Fulham’s 2-0 victory over Aston Villa on Saturday was one of the most complete performances of the season. Everyone expected Steve Bruce’s to try and contain and catch Fulham on the counter attack but, as it happened, Marcus Bettinelli didn’t have too many saves to make. Every man that wore the white shirt on Saturday can be extremely proud of the shift they put in – and the statement that their display sent out to the rest of the Championship.

The scoreline was certainly pleasing but it definitely didn’t flatter Slavisa Jokanovic’s side. If anything, as the head coach suggested after the final whistle, his team would entitled to feel a little disappointed they didn’t grab a third or fourth goal that would accurately reflected the way the Whites ran through the remnants of the visiting defence in the closing stages. Arguably the loss of Jack Grealish and Albert Adomah made a difference to the strength of the side Bruce was able to put out a side in the middle of a seven match unbeaten run were simply second best all afternoon.

I’ve written before about why the Fulham fans have really taken to Ryan Fredericks and the right back was superb both in the timing of his tackles and his contribution in the final third. Fredericks’ driving run down the right was the catalyst for the crucial breakthrough after half time, with a perfectly measured cross finding young Ryan Sessegnon in the sort of space he hadn’t been afforded in the first period. It surprises me that Jokanovic’s tweaking of his tactics at the interval hasn’t been remarked upon more. Both Ayite, who added the initial thrust to the move that led to Sessegnon’s pivotal strike, and Sessegnon drifted inside to create the space for Fulham’s marauding full backs – and the impact both Fredericks and Targett had with their forward runs in the second half was unmissable. With Villa overloaded in the centre of the park as well, it was only a matter of time before their ageing central defensive partnership caved in.

My highlight of the whole encounter had to be how much of a nuisance Aleksandar Mitrovic proved to be for the Villa defence. The Serbian striker might have been a surprise choice to lead the line from the start, but he bullied John Terry and James Chester throughout. His impressive link-up play illustrated how successfully he has settled in already. One of the problems with the January transfer window is how quickly new acquisitions are expected to get up and running, but Mitrovic already looks like he might be the final piece of Jokanovic’s promotion puzzle.

It should go without saying that these three points were simply that – a creditable victory against a promotion rival, but they will deliver another jolt of confidence as Fulham prepare for the next fixture in a pivotal run of matches. Playing to Jokanovic’s blueprint, the Whites shouldn’t fear anybody in the Championship as they showed on Saturday. Bristol City will be another big test tomorrow night, but the one thing you can count on with Jokanovic is that the Fulham head coach will ensure his players keep their feet firmly on the ground.