It wasn’t long ago that Slavisa Jokanovic was bemoaning the vast disparity of his side’s performances at Craven Cottage and away from home. Back in those sweaty September days, it seemed as though the side the Serbian had built over the summer was far more suited to playing on the break than playing through packed defences and the brilliant home record that sustained Fulham’s thirteen years in the top flight seemed eons away. Fast forward to March and a string of superb home displays, full of possession-based football, is firing Fulham’s late charge towards to the Championship play-off places.
Yesterday’s convincing victory over an in-form Preston outfit that hadn’t suffered a league defeat in 2017 was Fulham’s fourth home straight league win and represented the first time that the Whites had put together such a home run since April 2011. Whats more impressive than the mere figures is the manner of the victories – two of those wins were gutsy, scrappy results when Jokanovic’s side were well below their best [against Wigan Athletic and Nottingham Forest], whilst some of the football that swept aside Simon Grayson’s side on Saturday was simply sublime.
When Fulham’s ball-players are at their best, there is an effortless effervescence about their football that hasn’t been down by the banks of the Thames since the days of Jean Tigana. The change in the footballing philosophy since Jokanovic had a first full transfer window in charge has been remarkable – the way both Tim Ream and Tomas Kalas strode purposefully over the halfway line yesterday demonstrated the confidence that is now percolating through this time – and the addition of Stefan Johansen’s energy to compliment the class of Tom Cairney has been crucial.
Preston’s assistant manager Glynn Snodin was the latest opposition figure to pay tribute to Fulham’s flawless football after his side had been put to the sword:
I thought for 90 minutes they were fantastic. How they play, the players they have and the budget they have got you know what to expect. They were on their ‘A’ game and today we needed a little bit of luck where your shots go in and where Maxi puts in a ten out of ten performance, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case.
Some of the movement down Fulham’s left, with the rampaging teenager Ryan Sessegnon making the most of his recall to the side, was a joy to behold. Even a regular right back would have struggled up against the skill and trickery of Sone Aluko never mind Neeskens Kebano’s industrious running so it seemed as though poor old Greg Cunningham appeared to paying for sins committed in a previous life by being thrown in on the wrong side of the defence. Kebano had already produced a perfect cross for Aluko to fire in Fulham’s first, but the Congolese winger’s boundless energy made him a constant threat and he fully merited another goal, which came from the tightest of angles after he had left two North End defenders trailing in his wake.
Not to outdone, Ryan Fredericks surged forward down the right in his usual rumbustious fashion. The full-back’s direct running has also been a feature of his football since he burst onto the scene two seasons ago, but he showed both intelligence and an eye for a pass when he cut inside to devastating effect to lay on Fulham’s vital second for Chris Martin. Fredericks changed his running line, taking advantage of Preston’s back four expecting him to head on the outside, to surge through the centre before producing a peach of a ball to pick out an unattended Martin, who gave Maxwell the eyes, and tucked home his tenth goal of the season with the modicum of fuss.
Fulham being Fulham, there was still time for a significant wobble, sparked by Grayson’s introduction of January transfer window target Callum Robinson and a finely taken goal from fellow substitute Tom Barkhuizen, but what was encouraging was the way Jokanovic’s side resolved not to sit on a two-goal lead. In this regard, Cairney’s leadership was crucial. The midfielder is not natural leader in the traditional mould of English football captains, preferring to let his football to do the talking rather than bawl out his team-mates – but recognising the need for his side to play the game in Preston’s half, he pointed his colleagues forward and made a significant number of surging runs from deep to keep the pressure on the visitors.
More than twenty thousand fans packed into the Cottage to see Fulham’s latest success – and there is a real belief fizzing through this football club. Tuesday’s visit of Leeds, who looked imperious at times on Friday night against Birmingham City, will represent the sternest examination of Fulham’s Cottage comforts, but there’s no doubt Jokanovic’s side are now a significant threat to the teams directly above them as the season enters its business end.