It had been a while since a good old-fashioned second half collapse – but Fulham delivered a classic of the genre yesterday afternoon. Having had substantial amounts of possession and no little pressure in the first half, the Whites were torn about by a rampant Bristol City after the break and such was the ease with which Lee Johnson’s side carved us open, it poses questions about the genuine quality of the side Slavisa Jokanovic is building. There was none of the desire and fight that the Serbian demands from his teams as the game slipped away and are several pressing problems to be sorted before the trip to Nottingham Forest on Tuesday night.
The early-season confidence and assuredness on the ball seems to a thing of the past. Fulham now seem to prone to playing themselves into trouble. The first goal, which City gobbled up through their in-form forward Tammy Abraham, was a case in point. A couple of risky passes culminated with a hospital ball from Ragnar Sigurdsson to Scott Parker losing possession short of the half way line and because Ryan Sessegnon had already began an overlapping run down the left, Fulham were badly exposed down that flank. Jokanovic has stressed repeatedly that he wants his side to play out from the back – but you have to ask whether we are good enough to do it successfully.
In the two home defeats this season, Birmingham and Bristol City caused us all sorts of strife by pressing high and from the off, crowding round defenders who were expecting to receive a short pass. The high press is difficult enough to shake off when your goalkeeper’s distribution isn’t iffy, but David Button’s decision making and kicking was amiss yesterday – and not for the first time this season. When your two holding midfielders aren’t blessed with anything like blistering pace, one misplaced ball can spell disaster – and Fulham’s opponents yesterday frequently capitalised on sloppiness at the back.
Then there’s the pressing concern of personnel. Tomas Kalas, so calm and composed throughout his loan spell so far, was a major miss yesterday. Neither Michael Madl or Ragnar Sigurdsson were able to cope with Abraham’s razor sharp movement or the runners behind him. Indeed, whilst Fulham’s 4-2-3-1 was frustratingly static, Lee Johnson’s side gave a masterclass in how the system should work from an attacking perspective. Madl was clearly limping after he was replaced in the second half – which leaves Jokanovic with a few questions about what the centre half pairing might be at the City Ground come Tuesday night.
It is immediately in front of the centre backs that might be an even bigger worry. The Parker-McDonald axis was the reason why Fulham began the season so strongly, but the solidity the duo have offered has evaporated over recent weeks. Parker was lucky not to be sent off for sliding in on Lee Tomlin minutes after being carded for a similar challenge, whilst McDonald did go for a rash challenge on Callum O’Dowda towards the end. The Irish midfielder, not unlike a previous arrival from Wolves, began the campaign well but has already hit a wall – his decision making, passing and screening have been awry over the past few games. It will be very interesting to see whether Ryan Tunnicliffe or Lasse Vigen Christensen, who were both missing from the matchday eighteen entirely yesterday, can stake a claim for one of those holding spots or if the mantle will be passed straight on to Stefan Johansen.
Several of the goals were down to abject defending that Jokanovic’s summer acquisitions or hard work on the Motspur Park training ground might have banished until now. The space afforded to a surging Lee Tomlin as he galloped towards goal for the crucial second belied the fact that Fulham nominally had two holding midfielders on the field, whilst Bobby Reid was given far too much time to think about shooting from 20 yards. Even the fourth goal was far too easy for Aden Flint to ram in from close range – and that’s conceding that McDonald had not long been sent off.
Yet, the hysterical reaction to an admittingly gut-wrenching defeat, with online commentators calling for Jokanovic’s head does nobody any favours. Such are the fine margins of the Championship that Fulham’s first half performance might have been one of the best sets of 45 minutes the team has put together in a while and they were a width of a crossbar away from equaliser through Sone Aluko’s second half shot. Jokanovic pointed out in the aftermath of Wednesday’s Cup exit that he has a number of new faces who still need to gel – and while that needs to happen quickly – questioning the future of a head coach who has already delivered a tangible improvement on what went before is irrational. The way to get out of the Championship is not by chopping and changing managers – we’ve tried that and flirted heavily with exiting the league the other way.