If anything stood out from Fulham’s win over Newcastle United that so surprised the pundits last night, it was the composure of the home side’s defence. Slavisa Jokanovic’s most radical summer surgery was carried out a back line that shipped 83 league goals last season and the early fruits of his labour looked very encouraging. The most immediate result was a clean sheet against the promotion favourites and, coupled with the one that closed out the last campaign against Bolton, this was Fulham’s first pair of consecutive shutouts since December 2014. A truly remarkable statistic.
Of course, it’s been wholesale change since the final whistle at Craven Cottage last May. This back five might not have been the one Jokanovic would have chosen were all his charges available, but you could see the way his players had been drilled to cut out the basic mistakes. Such was their resolution and the team’s compact nature that David Button, making his debut following last month’s move from local rivals Brentford, had just two saves to make, both from Matt Ritchie – one a terrific reaction stop with his feet, the other end a simple gathering from a snapshot.
We’ve seen half of the new central defensive pairing before. Michael Madl looked a cut above his colleagues during his loan spell from Sturm Graz last year, but his composure and excellent reading of the game was apparent in the way he darted in front of Ayoze Perez and Dwight Gayle to intercept forward passes and was quick to redistribute possession. There’s a calmness about his work that brings the mind the likes of Alain Goma and Aaron Hughes, which given their own impact on previous Fulham defences, is high praise indeed.
Tomas Kalas showed just why Fulham were so pleased to be able to secure his loan signing from Chelsea. His commanding display contained within it plenty of leadership, a useful spring to win balls in the air and the odd powerful tackle or two. The way he threw himself in front of a goalbound Ritchie shot typified his desire and he made five key interceptions to go with that vital tackle. Comfortable on the ball, Kalas distributed it nicely – achieving a passing completion rate in excess of 86% – and hardly put a foot wrong. His promotion experience with Middlesbrough might just rub off.
Scott Malone’s display at left back was in the assured rather than flashy category, but given that he would have been vying with Ryan Sessgnon for a starting place before the youngster’s late injury – and that he had to try and keep Ritchie quiet – this was perfectly acceptable. Whilst Floyd Ayite took a while to grow into the contest, Malone’s forward runs gave Fulham an outlet down the left flank and, as well as performing his defensive duties impressively, he got forward to good effect, almost scoring a second with a low drive following some fine link-up play with Lasse Vigen Christensen.
Denis Odoi’s display brought to mind the emergence of another Fulham number four. There was the early error – see the foul on Ritchie that gave Newcastle a dangerous free kick – but his eagerness to bomb forward from full-back with the ball at his feet created plenty of momentum for the side. He was already winning friends in the crowd before the outlandish bit of skill that saw him fly past Paul Dummett with just a flick of the shoulder and the way he celebrated victory with the front of the Johnny Haynes stand suggested we could well have a cult zero of the stature of John Pantsil on our hands.
Successful defences are, of course, about more than merely the back four. The whole side needs to contribute – and there was willingness from both wingers to implement Jokanovic’s high-tempo pressing game. Credit to Tom Cairney, who flew into tackles in a manner we haven’t seen before and beavered away to make himself an option across the midfield, whilst Kevin McDonald showed just why he has been on Fulham’s radar for more than a year. The ring rustiness of pre-season had long gone and the tall midfielder delivered the sought of display that saw him run the show here for Wolves last season – reliable on the ball, well positioned to break up opposition raids and a dependable shield in front of the back four.
It remains merely the start of a long campaign – and Jokanovic will ensure that none of his charges get giddy with the sight of the earliest possible league table. As we well know now, the Championship is an unforgiving league, but this was an upgrade on the shambles at the back that has dominated Fulham’s stay in the second tier – and that mere fact is a reason for cautious contentment.