When it was announced that Fulham were taking their pre-season training to Ireland this year I couldn’t wait to see whereabouts they would be based. I couldn’t miss out on the chance to see the boys play so close to home, despite the fact that they were based on the opposite side of the Island from where I am from!
Nevertheless, I was up for the 270 odd mile drive down to Cork and back again to get an idea of how the squad was shaping up for the season ahead. For the past two summers Fulham fans have generally had high hopes for the Championship campaign but that hope was soon met with bitter disappointment when watching Fulham struggle for survival in England’s second league. It has been hard to take considering the money that has went in to setting up a promotion push for a club that not long ago was playing in Europe.
But here we are again, a month before we kick off the season at home to relegated Newcastle, hoping and praying for a season to remember for the right reasons this time. The off-field fiasco that has seen us have a wide range of managers at the helm since our final year in the top flight has only unsettled the squad time and time again and has seen us have no real shape or consistency about how we are supposed to set up. I can imagine that it has been incredibly frustrating for the players, especially those who came to Fulham looking for shot back in the PL.
However, since Slavisa Jokanovic has been at the helm, I have felt quite confident about the future of the club. He is a good manager who has a solid idea about how he wants us to play and having a proper pre-season with the squad is his chance to bring that to the players. It is difficult to change things half way through a season so it is no surprise that things weren’t particularly smooth following his arrival at the turn of the year. More players are required, there’s no denying that, but yesterday gave the Fulham fans an idea of what we might see come the start of the season in terms of how Slav wants to set up the team. Here I will outline a few highs and lows about what I witnessed yesterday.
I’ll start with the lows. Mainly because I hate ending a post on a negative note so I’ll just get the gloomy stuff out of the way now.
In the first half particularly, Fulham seemed to only have one idea about how to attack which was down the right using the pace of Ryan Fredericks. Fredericks is super quick, but it I’m not sure he ever made an accurate cross or pass despite being in a good position next to the box. This wasn’t all his fault as often when he had made his run and beat a payer he didn’t have enough options in the box so had to hold the ball up or ended up giving it away. My problem with this was that the boys seemed adamant that they were going to use this option every single time we had the ball! However, on the few occasions that we chose to go down the left hand side, with the impressive Ryan Sessegnon, a chance was created. The first goal came from an attack down the left by Floyd Ayite so it is a shame that we didn’t utilise this more often.
Every corner we got in the first half we chose to take the ball short. It’s something that has bothered fans for ages yet it is something that is still happening. Unfortunately, it just isn’t working for us as the players seem to want to over pass the ball before getting it into the box and it just takes away an opportunity for a chance.
Maybe it was a pre-season thing, but I thought that some of the overall play was quite scrappy. Tunnicliffe was guilty of given the ball away on a number of occasions and in attack we often got crowded out because of not playing an early enough pass. I don’t think it is anything to worry about considering we have plenty of pre-season and friendlies to get this out of our system, but the team will need to be much sharper in a few weeks’ time.
Cairney out of position
Again Tom Cairney was playing out on the left and was ineffective. He is quality player but isn’t being used in the right areas and he just looked uncomfortable out there. It was a massive contrast to Ayite on the right who was a constant threat, but I’ll get to that later. When Cairney plays behind the striker he looks a much better player.
Woaaaah, thankfully the lows are over! Now we can get to the stuff that we can get excited about.
This guy is going to be one of our biggest attacking threats this year. He likes to run at players and uses his fantastic footwork to beat them. He is a quick, strong and intelligent player who, if given the opportunity, will give us plenty of goal attempts. He likes to get the ball on the move and hit the baseline before either pulling the ball back for someone running on, or causing havoc in the box by continuing himself. Defenders will be cautious about tackling him in the box due to his quick footwork. He will be one to watch this year.
I have always been a fan of the high press. As long as everyone plays their part, it can make it nearly impossible for the opposition to keep the ball without just thumping it forward. The last couple of seasons have seen us continually back off which has result in a crazy number of long range goals against us. Players have had the opportunity to just pick a spot with pretty much no pressure on them. It has also seen us rarely win the ball back when we have lost it. It was clear yesterday that this is something that Slav has sought to improve about the squad. The mentality is, ‘if you lose it, you win it straight back!’ It is also clear that Slav wants these instructions to come from the keeper as it was regularly Bettinelli who was yelling, “High press, high press,” throughout the game. The players up front were responding well and a number of chances came from not giving the opposition any time on the ball, causing a mistake and using it to go through on goal. This sort of intense, high pressure football is the way Slav had Watford play the year they were promoted and it is something that I have longed to see at Fulham for years. If it is done right, we will reap the rewards from it.
I was really impressed by the 18-year-old yesterday. He played the first half and caused the Cork City defence a lot of problems with his willingness to make diagonal runs. This stretched the defence and gave opportunities to get other players in the box. He took his first goal very well after making a run into the right place in the box and the second, despite being the result of a defensive mix up, wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t have put pressure on the defence. The only thing that I can criticise him on was his decision making. There was one occasion were he used good skill to beat two players at once and instead of putting through a yelling Ross McCormack, he turned straight back into the players he had just beaten and had a shot that was blocked. I suppose it is a strikers thing to always want to have a go, but if he was slightly smarter there he would have handed Ross a chance on a silver platter! Overall though a was really impressed and the next season could be a big one for the young man if he takes his chances when given.
No matter what happens in the next few weeks, Madl has to start in the centre of defence this season. His reading of the game is exceptional and he rarely had to make a tackle purely because he had cut out the ball before a tackle was required. This sort of intelligence has been lacking from the defence for about 3 seasons and the constant confusion back there is one reason for our abysmal defensive record. Madl was calm and collected. He also didn’t just hoof the ball out when he made an interception, rather he controlled the ball and found a pass. Composure at the back is exactly what we need.
Although he didn’t get a goal, Cauley Woodrow played well yesterday. Despite spurning a few chances, it is clear that he is a hungry striker who will run his legs off for every chance that he gets. This will be a big season for him with Dembele now away. I’m hoping that he gets his chances as he needs game time to improve his game.
Overall, I was reasonably impressed yesterday. Yes, we were playing a lower team, but I saw enough change in the side from the lacklustre and poorly set up team from last year to make me optimistic for the season ahead. With more additions to the squad, I believe that we have many of the ingredients needed to have a good go at promotion. I am keen to see what role Sone Aluko plays this year but it seems clear to me that with him and Ayite joining, that Slav is going for a pacey squad who will make chances and press high to limit the opposition. There is more work to be done, but so far, so good.