August has been a testing month for Fulham fans so to see Slavisa Jokanovic’s side record a carbon copy of their Boxing Day success at Ipswich yesterday afternoon was just the tonic required heading into the international break. This was Fulham finding their way back towards their fluent past with some precision and purpose added to the pretty passing triangles and a confidence boosting clean sheet to boot.
Just as this correspondent has been cautioning against buying too much into the doom and gloom narrative during the early weeks of the season, we would be wish not to get too carried away by this routine victory. Ipswich did not resemble a side full of confidence after four straight league wins and the home side’s best openings arrived after the Whites attempted to overplay in their own defensive third. The home crowd, which fell short of 17,000 despite Town’s encouraging start to the new campaign, clearly isn’t wowed by five years of Mick McCarthy – and you see why after his makeshift side shoehorned Freddie Sears and Martyn Waghorn into the wide positions to fit a functional 4-4-2.
McCarthy was complimentary as he was in December about Fulham’s football but Ipswich’s only answer appeared to be to try and kick Tom Cairney out of the contest. McCarthy’s physical and primitive style is something surpassed by the more slick offerings of some of the Championship’s more progressive sides these days and five years of the former Sunderland and Wolves boss is the same sentence people receive for carrying certain firearms. The football certainly doesn’t set the pulse racing – and one has to wonder how the Tractor Boys had managed to take all twelve of the points on offer prior to yesterday.
Fulham’s own display had plenty to recommend it once the Whites got past their traditional failure to score when they were on top. Sheyi Ojo was handed a first league start after a rather underwhelming debut against Bristol Rovers and the Liverpool loanee’s performance was a curious one. He has all the attributes to be a fine player – power, physique and pace – but he puzzlingly opted to take all the verve out of a couple of counter-attacks and could have taken Fulham’s first two chances had he displayed a little more conviction in front of goal.
Down the left flank, the understanding between Ryan Sessegnon and the exceptional Neeskens Kebano, who seemed to have put a poor game on Tuesday firmly behind him, was almost telepathic. Sessegnon, in particular, was always a willing runner and he regularly anticipated the sweeping crossfield passes Cairney sent his way. The Fulham captain still looks below his best as he feels his way back from injury, but his mere presence appeared to give the midfield a different complexion. There was plenty of desire too from Cairney, as he shrugged off three hefty challenges within the first half an hour, and tenacity – in evidence when he tracked David McGoldrick back into his own box and committed himself to a goal-saving tackle after a dreadful mistake from Kevin McDonald.
You get the feeling that the success of Fulham’s season rests on just how often Jokanovic can get McDonald, the effervescent Stefan Johansen and Cairney on the park together. It’s been a bit hit and miss over the first month of the campaign but when Fulham’s three midfield musketeers are firing there’s very little to match them in this division.
Rui Fonte was the other revelation of the afternoon, although you could detect his intelligence from some of those unrewarded runs he made against Sheffield Wednesday. The Portuguese forward was angry at himself for not opening his Fulham account when he struck the post from an inviting Sessegnon cross in the first half – beating the turf in frustration – but more than made amends after the interval when he converted a tricky chance with the modicum of fuss and a first-time finish. More than his predatory instincts, it was pleasing to see a Fulham number nine always on the move, eager to get on the ball and posing different questions for centre halves. Fonte’s commitment can’t be questioned either – his early withdrawal was the result of a shuttle run to shut down Ipswich’s position and a desire to make a tackle to release the pressure on his side.
The way Fulham professionally saw out the sort of away victory that will be necessary to climb the developing table would have also pleased Jokanovic. Ipswich were restricted to long-range strikes and a bit of pressure from set plays for the most part with David Button, one ill-advised scamper out of his area aside, largely untroubled. Jokanovic struck the right note afterwards, insisting he would use the upcoming break to drill some of the newer arrivals in the specifics of Fulham’s system, but even he would have been delighted with the way the Whites passed this particular test.