Making your home ground a fortress is one of the non-negotiables of a promotion challenge. Teams have to fear you, worry about your threats and – in a league as home unpredictable as the Championship – home victories are a must. On that measure alone, Fulham’s start to the new season has been an unmitigated failure. Three matches that would have been marked down as decent opportunities for three points have yielded only two in total and illustrated that Slavisa Jokanovic’s side have genuine problems playing their way through packed defences.
It is not as if the Craven Cottage problem is a new phenomenon. Way back when sides might have been overawed – or more likely underestimated the challenge offered by Fulham – when the coach pulled up on the Stevenage Road, but the past five seasons have seen a steady decline in the club’s once formidable home record. A lack of victories at home was a significant factor in Fulham’s relegation from the Premier League and failures to put another sides at the Cottage have characterised their two years in the Championship to date. Frustration has been the order of the day and it continued last night, when the Whites were indebted to an injury-time equaliser from teenage left-back Ryan Sessegnon.
Burton could be forgiven for sitting in and making life as difficult as possible for their hosts last night. They are a newly-promoted side, operating on a fraction of the budget of the bigger boys in the division, and seeking to eek out as many points as possible during what has become an excellent start to the season. Well organised by Nigel Clough, they were industrious and determined – even if the timewasting tactics employed by goalkeeper Jon McLoughlin were among the more blatant we’ve seen in recent years. Hazim Choudhory’s decision to swing an arm at Scott Parker in the aftermath of the equaliser should win some sort of award for novelty, however.
But when Jokanovic places a premium on pace and creativity, it must be a concern that Fulham are unable to break down packed defences. They certainly had enough possession but seemed to veer away from the method that looked likely to break Burton’s resistance in the first half – Sessegnon’s dangerous cross from the left promised much, but Fulham opted to play in front of their opponents far too often, and defending pretty passing is exactly what you want if your team is not seeing enough of the ball.
The head coach made a reasonable point afterwards when he reminded the press pack that nine of Fulham’s starting eleven were new signings. You can do all the training ground drills you like but it is going to take some time for the new faces to gel – there have been flashes of inspiration from the likes of Neeskens Kebano and Floyd Ayite, but the understanding that comes with regular football isn’t quite there yet. It is quite frankly idiotic to write off Chris Martin – especially given his goalscoring record at this level – when he hasn’t played 90 minutes in a white shirt, however toothless Fulham have looked up front over the past week.
There are little tweaks that Jokanovic can make to give his side a little more potency and dynamism in the weeks ahead. I was surprised to see Lasse Vigen Christensen left out of the eighteen entirely – perhaps a testament to the sudden strength of Fulham’s squad. The Dane has a terrific engine and an eagerness to run into space and take on opponents. On a night when Fulham’s movement was horribly static and there were few runners from midfield, the introduction of an elusive figure like Christensen could have injected some drive from deep to ask more questions of the Burton defence. Christensen’s introduction could be facilitated by axing the second holding midfielder, whose inclusion seems far too cautious against sides content to shut up shop.
Then there’s the prospect of a switch away from Jokanovic’s favoured 4-2-3-1 system. Ragnar Sigurdssson had a decent debut at centre back, but when he and Tomas Kalas became confident/desperate enough to venture forward with the ball, it was noticeable that Burton were unsure about who should pick up the extra man. The Icelandic defender’s arrival does make the prospect of a move to the 5-3-2 formation that Jokanovic employed with such success at Watford when he guided the Hornets to promotion attractive, especially with three excellent centre halves currently battling for two positions.
However Jokanovic sets his side up in front, it is clear that Fulham can’t afford to allow a forward as prolific as Martin to be isolated as he has been during the past two games. That requires the likes of Aluko, who actually extended McLoughlin the most last night, Tom Cairney – who has been much more low-key since sides devised plans to counter his excellent start to the season – and Kebano to get into positions inside the penalty area from where they can hurt the opposition. Where there is currently a tendency to watch admiringly the pass you’ve just played, the goals come when runners flood the box in numbers, and become difficult to pick up. I’m sure that will be worked on at the training ground over the days ahead.
Of course, there’s the very real possibility that, with the way Jokanovic wants to play, Fulham become a far trickier proposition on the road that at Craven Cottage. Given our historically horrendous away record such a scenario might seem preposterous, but it isn’t all that far-fetched. Sides will be far less likely to sit and frustrate in front of their own supporters and Fulham, who have already looked frightening on the counter-attack at times this season, can take advantage of that adventurousness. Becoming just as effective on our own patch as away from home is the conundrum that Jokanovic needs to solve.