There’s a feelgood factor around Fulham again. It might only have taken a small thing to change the mood – like the appointment of a manager with a successful track record – but the win over Rotherham, coming some two months after our least league victory, certainly helped us concentrate on moving up the table, rather than the concerns over a looming relegation battle. What was most impressive about the new head coach, however, was not his confidence in his own ability or the belief in the ‘project’ that shone through during Wednesday’s press conference, but the fact that, during the brief interview with Sarah Brookes, he identified several things from Tuesday night’s win that could be improved upon.
Jokanovic isn’t merely satisfied with winning. And that’s important. Not even the most optimistic of Fulham fans can now chart a path to the play-off places. The conventional wisdom suggests that this means our season is over. Far from it. The next few weeks will tell us an awful lot about which of the players – in what is still a remarkably unbalanced squad at Championship level – can play a part in the years to come. That squad contains plenty of players who can hurt opponents and deliver victories in this league, but consistency eludes all bar a couple. Achieving an equilibrium between being offensively dangerous and defensively dicey should be Jokanovic’s aim.
Much has been written about Fulham’s defensively vulnerabilities and, on the various messageboards, plenty of spleen has been vented at virtually all of the defenders who have appeared in a white shirt. Each of them have their qualities and their drawbacks, but I wonder if the venom hasn’t missed the point. Without the bulwark of a physically imposing, defensively minded midfielder to protect the back four, any defence will look vulnerable. It is hopeless to compare this remarkably open side with the disciplined team of the Hodgson era – because it would ascribe a defend-from-the-front mindset that is absent from the 2015 team.
Take, for example, the alarmingly high number of goals Fulham concede from set plays. Rotherham’s equaliser in midweek was the seventeenth such goal this season alone. It was depressingly predictable – and preventable. Three more corners could have delivered further damage. We have seen that Richard Stearman and Dan Burn, to take the two centre backs that Stuart Gray has largely trusted in recent weeks, are perfectly able to attack the ball in the opposition penalty area. They have both been culpable of losing their men in our own box in the past. Where marking is merely the responsibility of a centre back alone, things can go awry. Perhaps it is time to return to a system preferred by the likes of Hodgson where the taller, aerially dominant centre back eschewed a specific marking duty and was tasked with repelling a ball played into the six-yard box. If the ball beat the man stationed at the near post, Brede Hangeland’s job was to meet it with his head by attacking the ball. It is the kind of decisive dominance that is conspicuous by its absence these days.
We also miss a goalkeeper who can take charge of his six yard box. Mark Schwarzer treated that area as his domain. Andy Lonergan is a lot less certain on crosses and corners – and who can blame him with what has been going on in the defence in the past few weeks. Whether it is he or Marcus Bettinelli who claims the number one jersey once the Fulham academy graduate is fully fit again, there will need to be more a collective effort to solve this problem and a vocal goalkeeper is vital.
It would also be foolish to suggest that the problem is merely a set-piece one. Rotherham had 22 shots at the Fulham goal on Tuesday. They can count themselves highly unfortunate not to have scored one. Emerson Hyndman’s first job is to try and create chances for his team-mates – he is not, by design or definition, the type of player who will offer amble protection to the back four and I have my doubts, considering Scott Parker’s advancing age and Jamie O’Hara’s propensity for distributing the ball, that we possess that type of player right now. But whilst we are offering space for offensive players to exploit in and around the Fulham box, we are asking for trouble.
Jokanovic’s early comments have suggested he is well aware of the not-so-pretty numbers surrounding this Fulham side. He suggests his side need to be more like ‘real men’ to sort things out. This is a rather flippant solution to a long-standing problem, but the joke at least assures us that will devise a plan to tackle the problem. And it is needed, because on Saturday, Fulham will come up against Ross Wallace, whose set-piece deliveries lead to three goals at Hillsborough in the reverse fixture and caused plenty of problems. Defensive drills at Motspur Park are only part of the solution – a new strategy could calm the nervousness every time the assistant referee points their flag at the corner quadrant.