Saturday’s goalless draw with Wigan is the latest result to prompt some searching questions about Fulham’s prospects for the season ahead. A Latics defence that had looked leaky to say the least in the opening weeks of the season was largely untroubled as Slavisa Jokanovic’s side lacked penetration and – dare I say – the ideas to make a breakthrough. The sight of Tom Cairney, previously Fulham’s creative hub, walking off with his head bowed in resignation as he was substituted with five minutes to go, said it all.
Fulham’s forward line still looks light, even with the addition of Chris Martin, who still looks some way from full match sharpness. The Scottish striker will know he should have buried the cross that Jozabed delightfully placed on his head in the first half, but he was starved of service throughout the afternoon. The decision to introduce Cauley Woodrow and Matt Smith as the game drifted on was certainly adventurous but neither had the pace to stretch the Wigan defence and it seemed as though the switch to a lopsided 4-4-2 confused our midfield. You have to wonder whether Dan Burn, who had endured a difficult start to life in Lancashire, will have an easier outing all season.
Jokanovic has stuck rigidly to playing with a single striker this season – and I don’t imagine he’ll be changing it any time soon. The key to making his preferred system work is the movement behind the lone forward and that was clearly missing on Saturday. Neeskens Kebano began brightly but faded and most of Fulham’s width came with the surging forward runs of Ryan Sessegnon. The teenager read the play brilliantly and provides an almost constant outlet, but so high are the continued quality of his performances, you do have to wonder how long Fulham will be able to ward off the vultures.
Although Sone Aluko has missed a fair few chances in front of goal, his energy and clever running was sorely missed at the weekend. Where he fits back into the side – presumably we will have to wait for the league game against Bristol City – will be telling. It is not that Jozabed, still adjusting to the culture shock that must be English football, was poor – indeed, he regularly showed for the ball and put his foot – but that with a lack of runners ahead of him, the Spaniard didn’t have the right conditions to show how devastating his full range of passing might be. Sadly, Cairney was the most disappointing of the trio – his roaming across the pitch in search of the ball saw him receive it far too deep to hurt the opposition and some of his decision-making was poor. His lack of defensive cover left Denis Odoi dangerously exposed in the full-back area – and one of them had to sacrificed to ensure Fulham could cling onto a point at the end.
If sides in the division have worked out how to shackle Cairney cutting onto his left foot from the right, which has been a source of both goals and chances this season, it may be time for Jokanovic to tinker with his previous recipe for success. The player himself has said he grew frustrated with being used on the right whilst at Blackburn and allowing him to operate behind the main striker would give him more freedom to influence proceedings without jeopardising the team’s defensive shape. It is surely worth a try as a solution to the sort of stasis that seemed to be catching in the final third at times.
Equally, playing Kevin McDonald and Scott Parker together at the base of the midfield seems like an overly cautious move against sides that are set up to stop us from playing. Both have contributed to a much improved defensive record at the start of this season, but the dynamism necessary to break down stubborn opponents might necessitate the inclusion of a more adventurous option. I was surprised to see Lasse Vigen Christensen omitted from the eighteen entirely at the weekend – he will surely feature in the EFL Cup on Wednesday – but the Dane’s dangerous running at pace would have been the sort of threat that could have drawn a mistake from the Wigan back line on Saturday.
The use of Christensen – or perhaps even Jozabed in a deeper position – might have served to increase a tempo that sometimes made Fulham look ponderous in possession on Saturday. The pace of attacks is often what breaches an overworked defence, but that spark or invention was sorely missing as time ticked by at Wigan. Ironically, it was the tigerish Ryan Tunnicliffe who created the clearest opening in the second half by gambling and getting towards the byline, only for an offside flag to thwart Smith in the centre when a dangerous cross came in.
There are still positives to take from Fulham’s start to the season and the nine new players who have featured over the past couple of games will need team to knit together. Jokanovic has certainly overhauled last term’s creaky defence – remarkably Saturday’s draw marked the first time Fulham had put together back-to-back away league clean sheets in nearly five years. That defensive solidity will prove invaluable in making this team harder to beat, but unless the Whites can come up with a plausible Plan B, the promotion places are likely to elude them.