Tom Cairney was right to say Fulham owed the fans a performance at Griffin Park last night. Fulham, so feeble in their last couple of visits, were fluent, fluid – and at times – rampant against their near neighbours and overwhelming a Brentford side, who looked like rabbits caught in the headlights on their big night. You can see it from the shell-shocked faces of their players as they drudged off at half-time, having not been near David Button’s goal – never mind had a shot – in the first forty-five minutes. They weren’t expecting this.
In many ways, this would have been the archetypal Championship performance that Slavisa Jokanovic and his backroom staff would have sought to make commonplace as he new-look squad began to take shape over the summer. His side, brimming with pace and creativity, operates so effectively on the counter and in the final third, that reshaping the back four that had badly faltered again in the second half of last season was pivotal. The return of Tomas Kalas, such a canny capture from Chelsea, has proven crucial. The Czech centre back, in his own understated way, provides a calmness that radiates through what was once a shaky defence and it was noticeable that Ragnar Sigurdsson had one of his most assured displays since arriving from Russia.
Such is Jokanovic’s confidence in the solidity of his back-line now that he feels able to forego the double shield at the base of the midfield. Derby games such as last night’s appear to be made for Kevin McDonald, who strode across the pristine surface look a colossus, breaking up play with a combination of clever positioning and imposing tackles. Stefan Johansen, whose inclusion in place of Scott Parker hints at how ambitious Jokanovic might wish to be as the season moves towards its most important phase, appears to be getting better with every game – and his phenomenal work-rate allied with a keen eye for a pass allows the advanced wide players, in Sone Aluko and Lucas Piazon, the license to terrorise full-backs.
And how Aluko did that. For the second week running, he was a little livewire, darting into dangerous positions with carefree abandon, and popping up as the focal point of almost every Fulham attack. Another one with seemingly boundless energy, the Nigerian could – without exaggeration – have completed a first-half hat-trick, but had to make do with the scrappiest of goals, prodding him as he stumbled to the turf in the Brentford box after another smart save from Daniel Bentley. His endeavour was typified by his steadfast refusal to be cut down by what seemed like a hamstring strain midway through the second half – he was soon back to bursting into pockets of space again.
A word, too, for Chris Martin, who has really proved his class in the past few weeks. His physical presence unsettled Harlee Dean in the early stages and, although the Brentford captain didn’t commit the sort of howler that allowed Hugo Rodallega to profit in one of the previous derbies, he was always second best in that individual battle. Martin’s intelligent runs show he is much more than a big unit – and the awareness he showed to play an intelligent one-two with Tom Cairney led to the clinching goal in injury-time.
Jokanovic’s clever use of the transfer market means Fulham are well-stocked in previous problem positions. It was striking to see Marcus Bettinelli, who enjoyed such an impressive senior debut at Brentford in the League Cup a couple of seasons ago, warming up with Button, who proved his worth with two excellent stops in the second half, prior to the kick off. The squad now has two genuine options at left in the shape of teenage sensation Ryan Sessegnon and Scott Malone, whose tireless running caused Brentford all manner of problems all evening. Whoever masterminded the deal swapping him for Jazz Richards should really find themselves on the New Year’s Honours List.
On the other flank, credit has to go to Fulham’s fitness staff for their work with Ryan Fredericks. The full-back has always had explosive pace but he comfortably lasted 90 energy-sapping minutes last night, which is an encouraging sign so soon after coming back from that horrific pre-season injury. Fredericks offers a genuine attacking outlet and natural width from right back so keeping him fit and firing is absolutely crucial.
The perfectionist in Jokanovic might have been disappointed by the fact that Fulham failed to wrap this game up until the 92nd minute – but, as a seasoned campaigner in this league, he will have been delighted that Fulham have responded to the disappointment of that extraordinary defeat to QPR with performances that suggest the play-off positions might not be out of reach. There is a maturity about Fulham’s football that hints at significant progress, but the real test will come with how the side shapes after another international break.