There was a rather frenzied online reaction to Fulham’s first defeat of the season on Saturday. All over the online sites, messageboards and Twitter feeds, Fulham followers vented their spleen to such an extent that you would have been forgiven that they hadn’t been watching the team who lost 41 Championship games over the past two seasons. A little bit of perspective is required. Given the last couple of years, if you’d have told me Fulham’s first defeat would have come well into September, I would have bitten your hand off.
The performance was some way below what we have come to expect from Fulham this year. That, in itself, shows just how far the team has come in a few short weeks, and you also know that Slavisa Jokanovic won’t stand for it. The head coach himself took responsibility for the setback immediately afterwards in a humble and honest press conference and he’ll have been working the players hard in training as a result. The basic fundamentals of a good footballing side – patience, positioning, passing, confidence on the ball and creativity – were all lacking and explaining why a well-organised Birmingham side looked streets ahead of us.
You have to give Gary Rowett plenty of credit. I wrote in the build-up to the game that he was one of the country’s best young managers and it is easy to see why he was near the top of Shahid Khan’s shortlist as a permanent replacement for Kit Symons after Birmingham dismantled us at Craven Cottage last year. Such was the quality of their display this year that – with a bit more ruthlessness in front of goal – we could have been looking at a repeat scoreline. Rowett knew exactly how Fulham would play, set up his side to nullify our strengths and encouraged his team to attack rather than just sit in and frustrate. It worked a treat.
Fulham struggled to find any rhythm throughout and appeared almost in awe of a team that have become our bogey side from the off. The passing was immediately off kilter and you could detect a touch of nervousness in the previously peerless Kevin McDonald, who did not have a good game. Perhaps he was missing the reassurance of Scott Parker alongside him or maybe Birmingham posed more questions than our previous opponents, but it was worrying to see someone usually so dependable appear so frazzled.
He wasn’t the only one. Tom Cairney, a typical shot and slaloming run apart, was anonymous and struggled to influence proceedings. Michael Madl, usually so assured at the heart of the defence, had a bit of a nightmare. He could very easily have given away a penalty in the first five minutes for one of the most blatant shoves in the back you’ll see and eventually was penalised for felling Che Adams. His sending off came at the worst possible time – and wasn’t entirely his fault when you watch the hospital ball laid square by Tomas Kalas – and obviously restricted Fulham’s attacking capabilities for the rest of the contest.
Jokanovic will also have to ask stern questions of himself about both his team selection and substitutions. It seemed strange to start Stefan Johansen at the base of the midfield when he has played so little football over the past few weeks. He didn’t seem up to the pace – and, against a physical side like Birmingham, surely Ryan Tunnicliffe would have been the more suitable option after Parker’s late withdrawal? Not starting Chris Martin raised a few eyebrows as well, especially when Matt Smith posed very little threat up front.
The changes seemed desperate as well. Hauling off Johansen so early was an admission that he’d selected the side wrong and sending on Jozabed in his place read like an attempt to inject some creativity into a rather static midfield. Introducing Kebano at half time seemed sensible but not at the cost of the focal point of Fulham’s attack – if anything a reorganisation of Fulham’s depleted defensive resources seemed more sensible at time. When Martin did eventually arrive, it seemed a little too late – even if his impact immediately amounted to a half chance and a peach of a reverse pass.
But there’s no need for an overreaction. Even with the defeat, Fulham sit in the last of the play-off places and that still represents a fine start to the season in a tough division. Although the Whites were out thought and outnumbered for much of the game on Saturday, they still entered the final few minutes with the prospect of earning a point. Last season’s side would have been dead and buried before the hour mark. And the beauty of such a frenzied Championship schedule is that an opportunity immediately presents itself to put things right.
Burton tomorrow night becomes a litmus test of how this side reacts to setbacks. In previous years, these defeats have proved tough to expunge from the pysche. Jokanovic simply won’t allow any ill-feeling to fester or moping around the training ground. He will expect a reaction – and, judging by his words after the final whistle, we can expect changes. The division is a lot tougher than a decade ago and this isn’t the Tigana team that romped to the title. Fulham were never going to go undefeated throughout the campaign – and Burton’s visit offers a chance to rediscover the verve and quality that was sorely lacking on Saturday.