Perhaps the most extraordinary statistic of August is that Fulham have already achieved forty per cent of the clean sheets they managed throughout the whole of the last league campaign. Winning sides are built from the back and if a single fact encapsulates the transformation in Slavisa Jokanovic’s side since May, then this may be it. Just as encouraging has been the way the Serbian has seamlessly integrated an entirely new back five into his first team without a hitch.
The sheer scale of Fulham’s defensive frailty during their first two Championship campaigns cannot be understated. The simple numbers are still watering. They conceded 83 league goals in 2014/2015 – only eight fewer than rock bottom Blackpool – and shipped 79 last season. The team often appeared the reverse of Kevin Keegan’s free-scoring Newcastle side – ‘if we score three, we’ll give you every chance to score four’. Entertaining it may have been initially, but it quickly became infuriating. You didn’t need any psychological skills to interpret Jokanovic’s scowls on the touchline.
The Serbian made a defensive overhaul the first part of his summer plans. Securing Michael Madl, who shone like a beacon among the surfeit of centre halves who tried and failed to step up to the mark last season, on a permanent basis was a no brainer but bringing in Tomas Kalas, a promotion winner with Middlesbrough, was a real coup. The pair have struck up such an instinctive understanding – evidenced against yesterday when up against the gnarly Danny Graham and the talented Sam Gallagher – that even finding a place in the starting line-up for Ragnar Sigurdsson will require some serious thought.
The Icelandic Euro 2016 hero’s arrival does give Fulham both a strength in depth at centre back the club haven’t enjoyed since the days when Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland kept the promising Chris Smalling out of a flourishing first team and offers Jokanovic options to tweak his tactics depending on the opponent, something he did successful when navigating a path out of this division with Watford two seasons ago. While Kalas could reprise the right back role he performed so solidly for Boro, he could equally become part of a formidable back three alongside Sigurdsson and Madl, whose innate calmness was wonderfully captured when he quickly stepped between David Button and Graham to nod a dangerous ball away for a corner yesterday with the minimum of fuss.
Quietly, Button – already looking a very shrewd capture from Brentford for an initial £250,000 – has usurped Marcus Bettinelli in goal. He might have been downcast to have been beaten from long-range by two terrific Cardiff strikes a week ago, but he produced a magnificent reaction save to prevent Graham from giving Blackburn the lead shortly after half time. He’s comfortable to the point of laid back with the ball at his feet, as shown by just how far he was out of his goal to retrieve a loose ball in injury time and the quality of his distribution that ultimately led to Tom Cairney’s crucial winner.
In the full back positions, Fulham have shrugged off the unfortunate pre-season injury to Ryan Fredericks, previously the only real flier in the squad, by recruiting Denis Odoi and unearthing a real gem in Ryan Sessegnon. The 16 year-old was collecting his GCSE results on Thursday like thousands of other teenagers but continues to shine in senior football, nullifying the likes of Craig Conway and Ben Marshall yesterday as though he’d played hundreds of professional games, and offering a real offensive option by galloping forward to supplement attacks down the left flank. Odoi might have marked his debut with that extraordinary piece of skill against Newcastle but he is a diligent defender – calm enough to react quickly when caught out of position – and it was noticeable that Fulham’s threat increased exponentially when he pushed on in the second half.
Of course, it is about more than just the personnel. Jokanovic has implemented a structure and discipline that has been sadly absent from a Fulham side for three and a half years. The ballast provided by two holding midfielders, who have license to roam a little when their team are on the ball, gives a double screen to a defence that badly needed it last year. The evergreen Scott Parker was exemplary again at Ewood Park, but the poise and positioning of Kevin McDonald has made a real difference at the base of the midfield. Whilst that pairing present more opportunities for the forward players to express themselves, nobody is excused defensive duty in this set-up – it is noticeable how tigerish Cairney has become in the tackle, with Matt Smith defending from the front whilst both Sone Aluko and new signing Neeskens Kebano got through plenty of hard yards in support of their team-mates.
Three testing away trips in the north west have surpassed expectations and yielded seven points. Yesterday’s victory was the epitome of winning ugly – Fulham were far from their fluent best, but continued to believe in their passing ability and scrapped for a victory. It is far too early to be casting gleeful glances at the Championship table, but the building blocks are at least in place for a far more successful season, and that is all down to the solid foundations Jokanovic has laid down.