How strange football can be. A few years ago, when Fulham’s place in the elite league of English football was sustained almost exclusively on the back of their outstanding home form, writing about the perils of playing at Craven Cottage would have been the signal for the men in white coats to come and take me away. After Saturday’s victory at Barnsley, a glance at the Sunday sports supplements proved instructive. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side have the best away record in the division, but are rock bottom when teams are ranked by their home form.
That ecstatic opening night against Newcastle, when Fulham tussled for possession and tempo with the pre-season promotion favourites, seems like a lifetime ago. It remains the Whites only league success at home – and the stark contrast with their away displays moved Jokanovic to devote a significant period of his post-match press conference at Oakwell to addressing the issue. Fulham’s quest to climb towards the play-off places will be doomed unless they can work out how to end a frustrating run in front of their home fans. Their first chance, against a Norwich side who don’t much like visiting the Cottage either, won’t be easy given the Canaries form.
The template has to be the way Jokanovic has asked his side to attack with width, purpose and pace. Fulham are still far too guilty of overplaying inside the opposition box but the willingness of Lucas Piazon to try a blast at goal led to a timely equaliser at Oakwell – and there needs to be a certain decisiveness amongst the forwards. The Brazilian’s all-action display on Saturday (although he did fade noticeably after the break) is probably what Jokanovic wants in the wide areas, whilst Chris Martin’s bullet header will have done wonders for his confidence after a slightly iffy start to his loan spell from Derby.
Previously the problem has been unpicking sides who have been content to pack the midfield and allow a jittery home crowd to become restless. Where Fulham were perhaps fortunate to pinch a point against Cardiff, there could have scored five or six against Burton Albion – but had to settle for a late Ryan Sessegnon equaliser – and similarly created a host of chances against Birmingham, despite being reduced to ten men. Even the eventual hammering by Bristol City could have been significantly different had Sone Aluko’s second half shot found the net rather than the angle of post and bar, whilst the derby defeat at the hands of QPR remains one of the most baffling games of football I’ve seen in a while.
Something tells me that neither the Canaries nor Huddersfield will be quite as reticent about coming forward as some of the sides that have already visited SW6. Both play attractive football and have goalscorers in their ranks and the fact that they wish to play an open, expansive game might suit a Jokanovic side that seems tailor-made for operating on the counter attack. It goes without saying that Fulham need to be far more clinical in the final third, but that goes for the decision making of our move creative players as well as those supposed to be putting the ball in the net. Time and time again moves became far too intricate or the wrong pass is played at the pivotal moment. For a team that’s already comfortably had the most shots in the league, you wouldn’t think a shoot-on-sight policy would be the way to go, but it just might be.
To Jokanovic’s undoubted chagrin, Fulham have been far too sloppy at the back in recent weeks. The two goals QPR scored were horrible from a defensive point of view – with over-committed full-backs far too passive in preventing crosses or picking up their men – whilst clear defensive mistakes were to blame for Birmingham’s winner and at least two of Bristol City’s goals. Tim Ream was caught out horribly twice at the weekend and there’s currently a massive Tomas Kalas-shaped hole at the heart of what started the season as a solid defence.
Perspective is often difficult to acquire as a football fan – the fickle nature of the game means that the heroes you were acclaiming a week ago can appear useless just ninety minutes later, but Jokanovic has down exceptionally well to revamp his squad so successfully over the course of a few summer months. Patience will be needed in these next two home games, but there are the perfect place for the players to and start making Craven Cottage a venue to be feared again.