Fulham’s season has gone through a few distinct stages so far. There was the euphoria of a flawless start – unexpected by all but the most optimistic of the Craven Cottage faithful – and the novelty of a side successful away from home. The expectation soon gave way to realism and frustration, especially when Queens Park Rangers burgled their first victory at the Cottage in more than 20 years, before a resurgence in belief was capped by the recent impressive win at Brentford. But, given the seriously competitive nature of the Championship, where pacesetters can be beaten by those bringing up the rear on a weekly basis, it remains fiendishly difficult to judge where Fulham stand.
Slavisa Jokanovic, who knows what it takes to get out of this league, certainly isn’t getting carried away. You sense that champagne football and a six-month unbeaten run wouldn’t shift the Serbian from his careful caution in each pre-match press conference: ‘All we are focusing on is the next game’. This week’s offering, ahead of arguably Fulham’s trickiest test of the season so far at Brighton and Hove Albion, though was pretty instructive. Jokanovic admitted he was pleased with his side’s progress since the summer and feels that he now has a host of options to pick from, given that his multitude of signings have settled in. He also felt optimistic about how his players were beginning to translate his instructions into a definitive style that is beginning to be seen on the pitch – but remained critical of Fulham’s fitful home form.
Perhaps the most interesting thing is that Jokanovic has seemingly begun to settle on something closest to his first-choice starting line-up. He has picked the same side for three games in a row now, a luxury that neither he or any of his recent predecessors have not been able to indulge in. The benefit of having a solid and dependable back four – witness Fulham’s remarkably stingy defensive record compared to the last two seasons in the Championship – can also be seen in the tactical tweaks Jokanovic has made to his favoured 4-2-3-1 system. The Serbian has sacrificed the second holding midfielder, freeing up Tom Cairney to roam from a more suitable central midfield role, and allowing Sone Aluko to prowl from a wider position. Given that Chris Martin has clicked into gear up front, Fulham now look a promising proposition.
There’s every chance Jokanovic will select the same eleven again tomorrow. The worry that Kevin McDonald, so imposing at the base of the midfield, would be overwhelmed against more offensive sides is balanced by the work ethic of Stefan Johansen, who has swiftly established himself as one of the first names on the Fulham team sheet. Such continuity of selection might seem harsh on those who have spent a considerable amount of time on the sidelines, especially the likes of Lasse Vigen Christensen who can’t even find himself a spot in the match day eighteen at the moment, but it points to a strength in depth that all successful sides need. You can rest assured that Fulham’s resources will be severely tested over the coming winter months.
Ragnar Sigurdsson struck a defiant tone in his interview earlier this afternoon, insisting that Fulham feared nobody. That confident will be severely tested tomorrow against a Brighton side who have once again established themselves as one of the sides to beat. Eleven league games without defeat have opened up a little gap between Albion and the chasing pack – which is nothing to sneezed at at this relatively early stage of the season – and Chris Hughton’s know-how is invaluable for a team who might still be scarred by their near miss in the play-offs last year. While Brighton have potent attacking weapons, in the shape of former Leicester wide man Anthony Knockaert and evergreen forward Glenn Murphy, their defensive record is formidable. David Stockdale, whose surprise departure shortly after relegation seems even more of a mistake with each passing week, has kept more clean sheets than any other goalkeeper in the league – and Albion are the side statistically most likely to hold onto a lead.
The trip to the AMEX will be an interesting test of a Fulham side who have fared well on their travels this season. Last season’s 5-0 hammering was one of the more insipid away displays that even that unbalanced team put together – and Albion will be confident of extending their three-game winning streak against the Whites. A hard-nosed team, in Jokanovic’s image, will need to stand up to them and fight for every ball. Replicating the kind of gritty victory Fulham managed on the south coast almost exactly two years ago would be a serious statement. If the visitors can come away with a result, it will go a long way to saying that Fulham could seriously compete for a top six spot this year. That would prove progress even Slavisa can believe in.