Jokanovic urges Fulham to end sloppy starts

Slavisa Jokanovic has warned his Fulham side that they won’t be able to survive in the Premier League if they continue to make the kind of sloppy starts that have gifted goals to the opposition over the past two weeks.

Fulham conceded a second-minute opener to Leroy Sane at Manchester City last weekend and a horrible defensive mix-up gave Andre Gray the opportunity to put high-flying Watford in front at Craven Cottage this afternoon. Jokanovic was heavily critical of his side’s disorganised start in his post-match press conference and is demanding an immediate improvement.

We started really sloppy and soft, and gave them so much space to do damage. We encouraged ourselves and in the second half we showed we can move the football, showed attitude and showed character. In the end, we must be satisfied with a point today, and push forward, be brave and improve.

There’s a huge gap for improvement. We must be available to work hard and improve. To start the game the way we started today, or how we started against City, it’s not easy to survive this situation. We must be focused, concentrate – this is the Premier League, the most competitive league in the world. These mistakes and sloppy starts can make it complicated to fix. We must be available to work. We must be available to step up. I need my players to be brave and confident.

The Fulham head coach admitted he still hasn’t settled on his best side but is confident that his summer signings are beginning to gel.

We must be satisfied with one point, but I’m not completely satisfied with our 90 minutes. The satisfaction comes from the second-half. There’s space for improvement, as the gap is huge. It’s my sixth game with 12 new players. Today’s situation is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today. We are in some kind of process and the players are gelling.

Jokanovic was full of praise for centre forward Aleksandar Mitrovic, who grabbed Fulham’s equaliser, and could have pinched all three points in the closing stages.

He’s great, he played well. It wasn’t easy for him, fighting against two Watford centre-backs – [but] he’s strong. He didn’t find the space for many chances, but in the end he had two chances and scored one and hit the crossbar. He did his job and we’re satisfied with his level. He’s a brave man and I know he’s never really satisfied.

Mitrovic nicks a point for Fulham

Given the sloppy nature of Fulham’s start against high-flying Watford this lunchtime, Slavisa Jokanovic would have been mightily pleased with the way he side ended the contest with a point. For the second week in succession, the Whites surrendered an all-too-avoidable goal inside the first ninety seconds and, just as at the Etihad last weekend, Fulham could have been dead and buried within the first half. That they produced a stirring second half recovery, and might have nicked all three points at the death, owed much to the predatory instincts of the inspirational Aleksandar Mitrovic, some real resilience and two decisive half-time changes from the head coach.

Jokanovic selected his sixth different back four of the season, but the hosts’ defensive frailties didn’t take long to come to the surface. From a straightforward throw in, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Calum Chambers, Alfie Mawson and Jean-Michael Seri all squandered opportunities to clear their lines, allowing Will Hughes to poke a ball through for Andre Gray, who gleefully tucked a finish past the stranded Marcus Bettinelli. Gray and the powerful Troy Deeney have struck up a potent partnership that has helped the Hornets surge towards the top of the Premier League table and they looked likely to secure another victory inside a first half that the visitors thoroughly dominated.

Only a combination of the brilliance of Marcus Bettinelli in the Fulham goal and some careless finishing kept the deficit down to a single goal. Bettinelli, who was outstanding in the 3-0 defeat by champions Manchester City last week, made himself big to deny Deeney at his near post and alive to the danger when a woefully short back header from Mawson gave Gray a glorious chance to grab his second – spreading himself to repel the former Brentford forward’s snapshot. In between those two blocks, Fulham escaped unharmed when Christian Kabasele’s bullet header bounced off Ryan Sessegnon’s back and away to safety at a Watford corner.

Mawson and Chambers looked all at sea at the heart of an overworked Fulham defence. Mawson was hauled off at half-time having been booked for a wild hack at Roberto Pereyra, whilst Chambers had donated the ball to Watford in dangerous positions with concerning regularity. Fosu-Mensah was more than fortunate to escape a red card midway through the first period after a late lunge at Deeney and Fulham could count themselves lucky to still be in the contest at the break, although Pereyra was only a yard away from curling in a splendid finish from an acute angle just before half-time.

Jokanovic’s change of shape and personnel proved pivotal at the break. Fulham had threatened only fleetingly in the first half, with Luciano Vietto twice denied by the alertness of Ben Foster, and referee Martin Atkinson waving away a penalty appeal when Mitrovic appeared to have been flattened in the box. They struggled to keep the ball – something that was rectified when the peerless Denis Odoi replaced Mawson – and Jokanovic also gambled by introducing Floyd Ayite for Kevin McDonald to try and give his side another outlet in attack.

It took just four minutes for Fulham to fashion an opportunity far more clear-cut than they had managed in the first half. Andre Schurrle, now operating off Mitrovic, darted into space down the left and delivered a teasing cross that the Serbian striker rose majestically to meet with his head. He was furious that he ballooned it harmlessly over the bar but it sounded a warning to Watford of Fulham’s attacking intentions. Vietto then blazed disappointing in the Hammersmith End after a lightning counter attack before Bettinelli got down sharply to deny Gray at his near post at the other end.

Fulham gradually began to work up a head of steam and stepped up the intensity when Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa replaced the ineffectual Stefan Johansen. Patterns of patient possession football penned Watford back and Mitrovic, who had sent two headed half chances wide, flicked home his fifth goal of the season from close range after fine work from Vietto and Sessegnon down the left with twelve minutes to go. The lively Argentinian scampered away from Daryl Janmaat and had the composure to pick out Mitrovic, who got the deftest of touches beyond Foster at the near post to level matters.

A gripping and open finale ensued. Deeney robbed Chambers outside the Fulham defender’s own box but then lacked the conviction to go for goal himself, overhitting his intended pass for Isaac Success, before the substitute almost found a winner on his own, working half a yard of space beautifully with a shimmy, but Bettinelli blocked the Nigerian’s shot with his legs. It was Jokanovic’s side who almost stole the victory at the death with Foster producing a magnificent save to deny Mitrovic a winner before he thudded a header against the bar. The former England goalkeeper somehow clawed away a curler from 20 yards that looked destined for the top corner but could only watch as Mitrovic clattered the crossbar with a venomous header from the resulting corner.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fosu-Mensah, R. Sessegnon, Mawson (Odoi 45), Chambers; McDonald (Ayite 45), Johansen (Anguissa 64), Seri; Schurrle, Vietto, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rico, Christie, Le Marchand, Kamara.

BOOKED: Mawson, Fosu-Mensah.

GOAL: Mitrovic (78).

WATFORD (4-2-2-2): Foster; Janmaat, Holebas, Kabasele, Cathcart; Capoue, Doucoure; Hughes (Femenia 70), Pereyra (Sema 90); Deeney, Gray (Success 80). Subs (not used): Gomes, Mariappa, Chalobah, Masina.

BOOKED: Holebas.

GOAL: Gray (2).

REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).

ATTENDANCE: 23,418.

Next one up – Watford (H)

The great thing about football is that there is always the next game. At City last week we spent the majority of the game chasing shadows, and while that will be the same story for may sides who visit the Etihad this season, it’s still a memory that I want to eradicate quite quickly! So we move on to Watford tomorrow, a match which both sides will feel that they can win and bounce back from their respected defeats last weekend.

Watford started the season unbelievably well, with the win over Spurs particularly impressive. They have scored ten goals already this season, bettered only by Liverpool and Manchester City. They will also count themselves very unlucky to have lost on Saturday evening against Manchester United, but their second half display just came too late having already been 2-0 down. They are a strong team, and one that shouldn’t be underestimated.

If there is one man who isn’t going to underestimate Watford, it’s got to be Slavisa Jokanovic. Having guided the Hornets to automatic promotion back in 2015, Jokanovic and Watford failed to agree on contract terms and the two parted ways in rather frustrating fashion for both parties. So maybe there will be an added sting (pardon the pun) to this game as Jokanovic faces his old side for the first time since leaving.

It’s fair to say that Jokanovic surprised us all with his team selection last weekend, and while none of Stefan Johansen, Ryan Sessegnon at left back and Denis Odoi played badly, I’m hoping to see some changes tomorrow morning. I have no idea what Joe Bryan has done to deserve to be put out of the team after his brilliant displays against Palace, Spurs and Burnley. Hopefully we see him back there tomorrow. In terms of centre backs, I’d like to see Maxime Le Marchand partner Mawson this week. MLM was my surprise package in the first few games, but it all fell apart a bit when he was moved to left back against Brighton. He is much better in the centre and until Ream is fit again, I think a Mawson-MLM partnership is the way to go.

With Cairney out again tomorrow, I’d have Anguissa alongside McDonald and Seri. I have no doubt that the midfield battle will be key tomorrow, so it’s important that Jokanovic makes the right call with his choices. Anguissa looked very impressive again against City last week when he came on and while Seri was at fault for the first goal, I have no doubt that he will bounce back from that against Watford.

I’m expecting a lot of chances for both sides tomorrow so it could come down to whose attackers are more on the ball. He was an isolated figure last weekend but I feel like this is the sort of game that Mitrovic absolutely thrives on, especially in front of a home crowd. His four goals this season have him joint second in the goal scoring charts, while his shot count is only bettered by Sergio Aguero. We have a player here who is hungry for goals and thankfully Fulham have given him the perfect platform to perform on. At the other side of the pitch our defender will have the difficult job of keeping Andre Gray and Troy Deeney quiet. Deeney reminds me a little bit of Mitrovic in terms of his tenacious attitude on the pitch, and he is a player who seems to always be in the middle of the action. While he only has two goals this season he is still a player to be wary of. Another player to watch out for is Jose Holebas. The defender has an impressive four assists and a goal already to his name this season so is without a doubt one of Watford’s danger men.

This won’t be an easy game but I think Fulham are due a performance tomorrow. Watford are dangerous, there is no doubt about it, but I think that we have the stronger midfield, and if we win that battle, then we will create more chances which Mitrovic is primed and ready to put away. I have a good feeling about this one.

#COYW

Sane strike sets City on easy street

There can be no shame in beaten by this imperious Manchester City side, but given the high standards Slavisa Jokanovic expects of his own team, the Serbian head coach will have been disappointed with how easy the hosts achieved a routine win at the Etihad Stadium this afternoon. Fulham’s fondness for playing out for the back was always likely to invite pressure from such a potent attacking unit and they were up against from the moment a poor touch from Jean-Michael Seri allowed Fernandinho to gallop into the space beyond the visitors back four and hand the returning Leroy Sane a close-range tap in two minutes in.

But for an excellent display from Marcus Bettinelli, Fulham could have been on the receiving end of a cricket score. They did well to keep it to three, although there was the sneaking suspicion that City eased off after Raheem Sterling had added a more convincing gloss to the scoreline early in the second half. The Fulham academy graduate, who won a surprise call up to Gareth Southgate’s England squad last week, made a string of fine saves including two in the space of eight first-half minutes, first spreading himself to deny Sergio Aguero and then brilliantly turning Sterling’s drive onto the crossbar after he had been sent clear by the brilliant Bernado Silva.

Fulham were dangerously close to being swept away by wave after wave of City attacks. Pep Guardiola’s men did double their lead in the 21st minute, however, when Bernado Silva beat Stefan Johansen and drifted dangerously along the by-line. His inviting cross looped up off a Fulham defender and David Silva slammed home off the underside of the bar, with Bettinelli leading unsuccessful appeals for handball against the Spaniard.

The visitors’ commitment to going forward was commendable but they struggled for rhythm and possession as City dominated proceedings. Ryan Sessegnon, who came through a difficult afternoon at left back in credit, did brilliantly to dispossess Bernado Silva and play a forward ball for Luciano Vietto. The on-loan winger ferried the ball on to Andre Schurrle, whose ambitious shot from around 30 yards was always rising and sailed high over Ederson’s bar. The German did draw two excellent saves from the City custodian before the break, though, with the Brazilian beating out a venomous strike before showing great agility to tip over an effort that threatened the top corner.

The greater danger was still be found at the other end. Bettinelli did brilliantly to make himself big and thwart Sane on his near post and then, deep into stoppage time, he somehow stopped a superb run from Sterling with an excellent block when a third goal looked certain. The England international did get on the scoresheet two minutes after half-time, however, applying the simplest of finishes into an empty net from close range after Aguero had tormented Alfie Mawson down the right.

That the scoring ended there was something of a result for Fulham in itself. Denis Odoi bravely blocked a goalbound drive from Bernado Silva, before a brilliant Mawson tackle denied substitute Gabriel Jesus a goal with his first touch. Fernandinho drilled a low strike fractionally wide, before Bernado Silva somehow failed to grab the goal his magnificent display deserved – spooning wastefully over the bar after excellent approach play from Jesus.

The visitors had a strong spell to end the contest. Floyd Ayite made his first appearance since May as a lively substitute and almost marked his return with a goal, but his shot drifted well. The battling Aleksandar Mitrovic went even closer in stoppage time, forcing a brilliant stop from Ederson with a powerful effort from the edge of the box. Guardiola was fulsome in his praise of Fulham’s ambition in his post-match press conference – but in truth Jokanovic’s men were never close to being able to stop the City juggernaut.

MANCHESTER CITY (4-3-3): Ederson; Walker, Delph (Gündogan 67), Otamendi, Laporte; Bernardo Silva, Fernandinho, David Silva; Sterling (Mahrez 74), Agüero (Gabriel Jesus 54), Sané. Subs (not used): Muric, Stones, Zinchenko, Foden.

GOALS: Sane (2), David Silva (21), Sterling (47).

FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Christie, R. Sessegnon, Odoi, Mawson; McDonald, Johansen, Seri (Anguissa 56); Schurrle, Vietto (Ayite 69), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Fabri, Chambers, Le Marchand, Fosu-Mensah, Bryan.

REFEREE: Stuart Attwell (Nuneaton).

ATTENDANCE: 53,307

Next one up – Manchester City

Tomorrow’s game against Manchester City at the Etihad is one of the first fixtures that I looked out for when the fixtures were released last June. Slavisa Jokanovic said in his pre-match presser that it’s games like this that we fought for last season when we won promotion to the Premier League. It’s the chance to test yourself against the very best, and a chance to show just how good we can be.

Now let’s be realistic, there’s a good chance that we will get turned over tomorrow. City won the league at a canter last season and are strong favourites this season as well. Pep Guardiola has won titles in three countries as a manager and his brand of high pressing and attacking football can be beautiful to watch. They can rip teams apart, with Huddersfield Town being the first victims of a big scoreline this season and they are unlikely to be the last. The thing is, when teams try and sit back and defend against City they general fail miserably, so trying to play our style of football could be our best option.

Fulham will have been very disappointed to not go into the first international break with six points on the board, but a poor final 20 minutes or so against Brighton, saw us squander a 2-0 lead. Coming away with just a point was hard to take, especially considering who our next opponents are. In our opening four games this season we have conceded nine goals, and we certainly haven’t looked comfortable there. We have played with two different keepers and have made at least one defensive change for every game. Even the most attacking teams need to have a solid defensive foundation on which to build from, but we just haven’t quite got that yet. However, Jokanovic took the opportunity of the international break to take the players not involved with their national teams away to Spain and the defence was very much the focus. Despite it being fantastic news that Marcus Bettinelli got his first senior England call up, I’m sure Jokanovic was slightly frustrated that Betts wouldn’t be joining them in Spain, as it looks as though he is first choice at the minute so the defence would have benefitted from him being there. However, even with Betts away, an exercise in stabilising the defence won’t be wasted so hopefully we will see a better showing tomorrow.

While the defence will have to be on top form tomorrow, the key battle for me is in the midfield. It looks as thought Cairney will be missing again because of injury, so I expect the midfield three of Kevin McDonald, Frank-Zambo Anguissa and Jean Michael Seri.

Seri, I think, has the ability to really change the game for us tomorrow because he is as important in defence as he is in attack. While he tops the Fulham, charts for passing and touches of the ball, he also boasts impressive defensive stats with seven interceptions and seven tackles. He is very good at reading the game and has so far done a good job in disrupting the play of other teams, winning the ball in key areas and then starting an attack. And if we manage to get the ball to our forward players, with Mitrovic full of confidence and Schurrle on form, we certainly have players to hurt any team.

I honestly believe that we can score tomorrow, but can’t see us managing to hold City at bay. You never know, we have seen a few miracles at the Etihad over the years for Fulham, so who is to say that it can’t happen tomorrow?

#COYW

Marus Bettinelli – 100 not out

What a week it’s been for Marcus Bettinelli. The Fulham man saved a crucial penalty against Brighton in his 100 game for Fulham and then got his first call up to Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the games against Spain and Switzerland. It’s once again proof that persistence and patience pays off as Bettinelli has so often found himself having to fight to regain the first team shirt because of managerial changes and new signings.

The Fulham Academy graduate signed his professional contract back in 2011 and spent much of his first few years as a professional on loan at Dartford and Accrington Stanley. It’s fair to say that he has tasted both the highs and the lows at Fulham, with his debut coming in our first season after relegation. Fulham had lost their first the opening four league games, but Betts was thrown between the sticks for the Capital One Cup win over Brentford- our first victory of the campaign. Bettinelli kept his place for the next game, a draw against Reading, but was dropped for Hungarian Gabor Kiraly the week after. Felix bingo, eh? It wasn’t until Felix Magath was replaced by Kit Symons that Fulham had anything like a structured back line and Bettinelli got his first proper run in the squad. He made a total of 45 appearances that season, conceding 73 goals in a disappointing year for Fulham. We just about avoided being relegated to League One, and his first year playing senior football for Fulham was certainly a learning curve.

In the summer of 2015, Fulham brought in Andy Lonergan from Bolton meaning that once again the role of Fulham’s number one was up for grabs. Lonergan started the season as first choice, but Bettinelli was soon back in the frame. However, early that season Bettinelli faced the first main challenge of his career- coming back after an awful injury. A collision between Bettinelli and Fulham striker Matt Smith resulted in both players having to be replaced, with Betts having sustained a serious knee injury and faced 7 months on the sidelines. It was a testing time for the 23 year-old, but the determination and desire shown to get back is one of the many qualities that I love so much about him.

After fighting his way back as Fulham’s main man, Bettinelli then went through a season of only playing 11 times for Fulham in the 2016-17 campaign. However, he was the man called upon for the Fulham run in that saw us clinch a play-off spot. The 2017-18 season was similar, with David Button being preferred. But no one can doubt that when Bettinelli was eventually recalled to the side in December of last year, Fulham’s results took a turn for the better. He conceded just 21 goals in 30 appearances as Fulham got promoted through the play-offs, and the Fulham man was caught running around Wembley with a flare. Beautiful scenes.

For me Bettinelli has been a shining light for Fulham over the past few years. He has time and time again had to wait for a chance, but every time he has proved that he is worth that chance. His positive attitude throughout those difficult seasons down in the depths of the Championship was what we needed to see as fans, and for that we have to appreciate the character that we have in Marcus Bettinelli.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. There are aspects of his games that he needs to work on, but I feel that some of the criticism of him recently has been unfair. The main criticism of him has been on his distribution, but in the two games that he has played this season he has a higher percentage of successful long passes than 18/22 keepers who have featured in the league so far. With Fulham bringing in two goalkeepers during the summer window, there has been a raging debate about who should be our number one this season in the Premier League. Earlier in the summer I wrote a piece suggesting that as Betts had won the jersey, he should really be given the opportunity to defend it. However, this did become more difficult when we signed a goalkeeper with a calibre of Sergio Rico. I don’t think there is much between Bettinelli and Fabri in terms of ability, but the fact that Bettinelli doesn’t have the communication issues that Fabri has, then for me it’s a no brainer that Betts should be starting ahead of him.

In terms of the England call up, I am thrilled that Betts got the nod. It was Southgate who gave him his U21 England chance, so we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that it is Southgate who has opted for the Fulham player again for the senior side. Along with his positive attitude, one of Bettinelli’s best qualities is his drive to learn and to improve. I have no doubt that he will come back from England training even better having had the opportunity to learn from England’s best. What an honour for the 26 year-old, and I hope that this call-up is the first of many.

Marcus Bettinelli, what a guy!

#COYW