We are at the time of year when the newspapers are full of end-of-year reviews. The conventional wisdom is that 2016 was something of a disaster. Brexit, Trump and a catalogue of depressing deaths capped the other day by the sad loss of a great entertainer in George Michael. If you were Slavisa Jokanovic, you might be waking up this morning with a smile on your face. Even the notoriously hard to please Serbian could afford to be cheerful after a streetwise victory at Ipswich Town extended Fulham’s unbeaten run to five matches and put the Whites right on the cusp of the Championship play-off places. What a difference a year makes.
It was on December 27th 2015 that Jokanovic finally concluded negotiations with Fulham to become the permanent successor to Kit Symons as the club’s head coach. In the two-month period since Shahid Khan parted company with the popular former centre back for not hitting the agreed points target, Fulham had slid so alarmingly down the league table that the priority was now avoiding relegation rather than making up ground on the play-off contenders. Although things started well as Jokanovic watched his new charges put Rotherham to the sword, any progress proved illusory. Fulham didn’t pull clear of the drop zone until late in the season as, despite the goals of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele, defensive disarray left them consistently inconsistent.
Never one to settle for second best, Jokanovic bemoaned his side’s often basic lapses at the back. Come the summer, it was the first thing he sought to sort out. A permanent deal to sign the club’s most impressive defender – Austrian centre back Michael Madl, who had been on loan from Sturm Graz – was swiftly agreed and Fulham also brought in one of the linchpins of the Middlesbrough back line that had just achieved promotion, in the form of Tomas Kalas on loan from Chelsea. He also acquired Denis Odoi and Scott Malone as full backs and began drilling his new defenders on defensive shape and discipline at Motspur Park.
Given the disarray that characterised last season’s displays, the results have been extraordinary. Fulham are far from cured of the defensive jittery, but this new-look back line have now kept seven clean sheets – approaching double the number they managed in all of last term. Such defensively solidity has been achieved with the assistance of Kevin McDonald screening the back four and a culture shift amongst the rest of the side. Luxury players have been jettisoned and work ethic now trumps all – there is a recognition, as Chris Martin noted after the final whistle at Portman Road, of the importance of defending from the front.
Perhaps the most striking thing of all is the fact that Fulham now have a clear pattern of play. Last season’s football was scrappy and often played at a hundred miles per hour. Jokanovic’s side are now more deliberate and playing the prettiest football since Jean Tigana’s blew away the competition on their way to promotion from Division One back in 2000-2001. The incisive passing combined with an ability to break from deep at pace – the acquisition of Floyd Ayite and Sone Aluko has made a massive difference here – makes the Whites a fearsome proposition, especially away from home, as their command of possession wears down plenty of physical opponents. The quality in central midfield, with the eye-catching skills of Tom Cairney allied to Stefan Johansen’s irrepressible engine, is particularly striking.
The final piece of the jigsaw arrived at the end of the summer transfer window when Chris Martin joined on loan from Derby County. A long-time transfer target, the Scottish international didn’t appear to be the most natural replacement for his compatriot Ross McCormack, despite boasting a Championship goal return that was equally as impressive. Martin had to wait seven games before finding the net for the first time with a powerful header at Barnsley and although he has since gone on to be a regular scorer up front, like Bobby Zamora, it would do him a disservice to judge him solely on goals. Martin has become integral to the system Jokanovic has honed to fit his Fulham side – drawing in defenders as the lone striker, bringing in team-mates with his hold up play and muscling off opponents with an added physicality that this time previously lacked.
Where the play-off places once looked out of reach, Fulham go into Friday night’s last fixture of 2016 at Reading, with genuine hopes of breaking into the top six come the new year. The transformation has been all the astonishing given how much change Jokanovic has had to introduce within the last six months. Eleven new signings arrived in the summer, with some still gelling, and many not having previously had any experience of English football. Jokanovic has now turned Fulham from one of the most entertaining teams in the division to a very good side. Even in him, that must be enough to raise a smile. What a difference twelve months makes.