Fixing Fulham’s failing defence is one of those intractable problems. Many have tried and tinkered, but the underlying issues remain the same. It was no surprise that Slavisa Jokanovic’s first signing was a central defender – although the identity of the man he brought in did raise a few eyebrows. Michael Madl might have had a hard-earned reputation in Austria as a dependable centre back, having wracked up over a hundred league games for Sturm Graz, but there were the predictable queries over whether he’d be able to cope with the hustle and bustle of English football. It is a testament to the quality of Madl’s early performances that the jury is no longer out.
The Austrian admitted he needed a couple of weeks to get to the grips with the pace of the play in the Championship, but his debut in what was a comfortable victory at Loftus Road was as composed as any we’ve seen from a Fulham defender in recent years. Just once was he beaten for pace – in the first minute as Jamie Mackie chased a hopeful punt forward – and that was about as much as space as Mackie got all afternoon. His composure is a reassuring addition given that Fulham’s defence often has a rather harried look about it and you get the sense that he has already helped spread confidence throughout the side.
His experience of continental football shows in the way he uses the ball. Comfortable in possession, but sensible not to take a risk with the ball at his feet, Madl’s distribution allows Fulham to work the ball to our most incisive passers, like Tom Cairney, in a manner that the team simply couldn’t muster earlier in the season. He reads the game exceptionally well, judging when to nip in front of an opposition forward to pinch possession, and how to track the runs of those around him. Positionally there’s little to fault in the way he reacts to danger – and this footballing intelligence allows the 27 year-old to make light of the one drawback, the lack of any explosive pace to get him out of trouble.
It is no coincidence that Fulham’s third clean sheet of the season – and a first since October – came with Madl at the heart of the defence. His deployment alongside the recalled Fernando Amorebieta and Dan Burn as part of a trio of centre halves has certainly helped deliver a greater durability about this side and Jokanovic has stopped Fulham being quite so easy to play through. Perhaps the most eye-catching part of Madl’s game is the fact there’s no particular reliance on physicality – he’s a classy centre back, not seeking to win the ball back through brute force, but via subtly, which is a rarity in Championship football. Let’s not forget, too, that he’s made telling contributions at the other end of the pitch: scoring the vital second against Charlton and winning a crucial header for Moussa Dembele’s opener at Reading on Saturday.
Given the excellence of Madl’s start at Craven Cottage, it is a surprise that he hasn’t featured more prominently in the man-of-the-match voting, either official or unofficial. There’s a fairly compelling theory as to why, although it involves a comparison that might be too early to make. Madl reminds me of the unflappable Aaron Hughes, for so many years an underrated fixture at the heart of Fulham’s defence. Like Hughes, the Austrian is not blessed with particular height or pace, but reads the game fluently and very rarely goes to ground. The Northern Ireland defender spent his first Fulham season battling relegation, but became a crucial part of the club’s most successful side, and is about to cap a glittering career with his country at the European Championships. Madl might just be an outside bet to make Austria’s squad for France this summer – and if he was able to even half match Hughes’ achievements by the River Thames, we’d be talking about one hell of a player for many years to come.
Nobody, least of all the player, will be getting ahead of themselves at this stage. A good start is just that – and Jokanovic is fond of telling anyone who will listen that his target is merely to grab the next three points on offer. Tonight’s opponents, league leading Burnley, will often the sternest test of Madl’s credentials, but at this early stage – with the possibility of a permanent deal in the summer – the Sturm Graz stopper looks like something of a steal.