If last night’s rather routine victory at Ashton Gate gave Fulham belief that they could mount a late charge for the Championship’s play-off places, then the news that Slavisa Jokanovic has committed his future to the club will have the fans positively buzzing ahead of what is another massive away trip this weekend. Where Fulham displayed signs of being able to ‘win ugly’ in their two frantic home victories over Wigan Athletic and Nottingham Forest, the trick to closing the gap on the division’s top six will be stringing together a run of victories that puts the Whites in poll position to leapfrog Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday during the run-in. Confirmation that the boss, who has restored a feelgood factor to the club at long last, is in it for the long haul will only add to the positive vibes.
Given that Jokanovic was heavily rumoured to be ready to walk away from contract negotiations only a few weeks ago after Fulham’s modest January dealings, tonight’s announcement that he has ended the uncertainly surrounding his immediate future and signed a two-year extension is excellent news. Any reservations about the influence of analytics must have been satisfied fairly decisively – given the promotions handed to Tony Khan and Craig Klein – and, perhaps most pleasingly of all, it allows Jokanovic to concentrate on what he enjoys most, extracting flawless football from a talented bunch of players.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Serbian coach has totally transformed Fulham’s playing style in the space of six months. When you consider that the Whites began last season with Dan Burn and Shaun Hutchinson in central defence, it is clear why they were unable to play out of the back in the attractive fashion that Jokanovic prefers. Anybody who doubts the value of possession-based football – and there are plenty of ‘lump it forward’ advocates amongst the Fulham support – should take a long look at the 24 passes that concluded with Lucas Piazon putting the Whites ahead last night. Patient, probing football tires out opponents and when you possess players with the ability to unlock defences like Tom Cairney an opening is always around the corner.
Jokanovic alluded to the loss of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele in his excellent interview in last Saturday’s Times with Henry Winter, by referencing the fact that he had lost more than 40 goals in the summer. The unnoticed by-product of the duo’s departure at the time was that it allowed Jokanovic to design a far more balanced side that the one that squeezed their two most potent goal threats into a 4-4-2. The talents of Cairney, far too often shunted out to the right wing during his first season, are far less easily shackled from a central position and the introduction of a lone striker allows freedom for pacey wide players, not to mention overlapping full-backs, to gallop forward to great effect.
There have been some suggestions on various social media platforms that Jokanovic is underachieving when compared to managers like Garry Monk or Jaap Stam, whose teams occupy those priceless play-off positions. Considering the enormity of the changes that needed to be carried out during the summer, I’d say the integration of most of the fourteen August signings into a side that seems to be beginning to peak at just the right time is a phenomenal achievement. Fulham have no divine right to waltz out of the Championship – indeed the past two years of struggle should serve as a stark reminder of how easy it is to disappear the other way – but they are making a decent fist of it this year.
Jokanovic’s penchant for speaking his mind is also utterly refreshing. It would be easy for a man who is far from comfortable in English to retreat into his shall and offer monosyllabic answers in response to questions from the media, but instead his press conferences have become compulsive viewing. His insistence that Fulham was not ‘a primary school, democracy or a train station … where players can go in or out when they want’ in response to Chris Martin’s first bout of homesickness was a genuine classic – and there are plenty more where that came from.
The head coach’s confidence translates through to his players in other ways, too. You can see how somebody like Ryan Sessegnon, who is being entrusted with an awful lot of first-team football at the tender age of 16, has benefited from his manager’s belief. The teenager had one of his best games in a Fulham shirt at Ashton Gate last night up against a top operator in David Cotterill – and all that after a chastening experience at the Cottage against the same opposition earlier in the season. Jokanovic’s faith in Tim Ream as a balancing option at the heart of the defence – a left-footer to partner the peerless Tomas Kalas – has been rewarded with the American’s finest form in his Fulham career.
The important thing, of course, is kicking on from the encouraging platform that Jokanovic has constructed. The head coach deploys thinking further ahead than the next game and, that’s a good thing, because Cardiff are on something of a roll. Disregard the FA Cup result when Neil Warnock rested a number of players and consider that the Bluebirds are higher in the form table than Fulham and have a number of boys playing for their Cardiff futures even after the threat of relegation seems to have receded. The trip to Wales will be the crucial barometer of whether Fulham can continue to dream of making the play-offs.
It’s probably advisable not to draw too many conclusions with three months still to run in the season. Many things could still happen in a league as gloriously unpredictable in the Championship. But Jokanovic has achieved something that has eluded a lot of Fulham managers for a while – he’s put a smile on our faces again.
P.S: If you want some of those rather lovely stickers, get in touch with the Fulham Nice Guys.