That the overriding feeling at the conclusion of yesterday’s FA Cup tie at the Cardiff City Stadium was one of overwhelming relief told you everything. Fulham had a massive 72% of the possession and yet, for all their dominance of both the ball and territory, were never quite able to kill Cardiff off. That this is not unusual underlines just how frustrating a season this has been so far for Slavisa Jokanovic – and encouraging all the same. Largely gone are the defensive rickets that appeared so regularly during Fulham’s first two seasons in the Championship – but there are replaced with the kind of lack of cutting edge in the final third that could severely undermine Fulham’s promotion hopes.
For me, there are uncanny echoes of the 1999/2000 season under Paul Bracewell. Then, a cohesive unit played predominantly pretty football and produced some excellent early season results to put themselves firmly in the play-off picture. But, ultimately, a combination of too many draws – which could become a factor in the final reckoning this year – and an inability to shoot effectively from distance left Fulham with far too much to do as the season reached its final chapter. Bracewell paid for this with his job and a promising managerial career was over in the blink of an eye. Jokanovic can’t be under similar pressure given the rapid transformation his side has made since the summer – but the similarities are striking.
Part of this is down to the Serbian’s footballing philosophy, which largely suits the club where he now finds himself. Jokanovic, not being from this sceptred isle, doesn’t want to lump the ball forward like so many English sides and abhors additional physicality in favour of a possession-based game. He encourages his team to work the ball out of the back, be patient in midfield and not be around to take the extra touch if necessary. All of that makes Fulham one of the league’s most eye-catching sides but, at times yesterday, you were screaming for the men in white to pull the trigger from the edge of the box.
Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen’s central midfield partnership has been one of the revelations of the season. It has certainly been refreshing to see Cairney liberated both from being firmly Ross McCormack’s shadow and also from being pressed into service out on the right flank, from where he had little opportunity to exert the influence over proceedings that he does now. Johansen’s emergence from a nervous debut where he was hooked well before half time to arguably Fulham’s player of the season has been quite something – and his all-action displays from a deep midfield role have breathed new life in a side that on occasions had lacked mobility in a central area. I do wonder, however, whether Cairney would increase his goal return and effectiveness in the final third were he to be played even further forward behind the central striker. He looked very useful in such a role when Jokanovic deployed him there on occasion last season and it might free from the shackles of having two opposition markers detailed to him by alert opposition managers.
Jokanovic’s willingness to switch systems had been commented on when he arrived at the club, but we saw it in action yesterday. Fulham went from a nominal 4-2-3-1 (or more likely a 4-1-2-3) to a 5-3-2 very, very comfortably. The latter formation was used successfully at times by Kit Symons, who had to conduct what looked like a pretty uncomfortable post-match interview with Jokanovic for BBC Wales yesterday, but with the personnel the Serbian had at his disposal it worked wonderfully yesterday. That system looks as though it is designed for marauding wide men like Ryan Fredericks and Ryan Sessesgnon, who both bombed forward to devastating effect, and it totally bamboozled a bewildered Cardiff side, who were very much second best. Expect to see it more often later in the campaign.
Even if the broadcasters and the FA themselves have unwittingly devalued the competition over the past decade, Fulham took the FA Cup very seriously yesterday. Credit to Jokanovic for fielding a very strong side, when it would have been easy and understandable – with Fulham’s play-off push taking a bit of a jolt on Monday – to have thrown in all the kids. In the end, the eleven Fulham started with was close to the club’s strongest, especially when you consider we will need to go shopping in the January sales for a new centre forward at the very least, and it was nice to see Marcus Bettinelli back in goal again. On a weekend where teams have made wholesale changes, it was good to watch a strong Fulham side show that the Cup still means a great deal – and delight an impressive travelling support of over 700 (staggering given the crazy morning kick off time) deliver an impressive victory away from home.