One of the things that annoy me the most about modern football is impatience. In today’s ‘I want it all right now society,’ the football fan quickly loses all sense of perspective. Take the hysterical reactions that followed Fulham’s first defeat of the season yesterday. Within minutes of the final whistle at Craven Cottage, the online forums and social media platform were filling up with comments assailing everyone from Slavisa Jokanovic to Shahid and Tony Khan, targeting particular players for opprobrium and opining that Fulham were totally useless.
Nobody wants their team to lose but, if anyone should be used to being beaten, it’s a Fulham fan. The last twenty years are so clearly the best period in the club’s history and that might lead the newest generation of supporters to be somewhat spoilt, but even I – as someone who started watching the Whites as we prepared to bid farewell to the 1980s – have seen my fair share of setbacks. Being beaten by a well-drilled and professional Sheffield Wednesday side, as agonising as it became in the final 20 minutes, wouldn’t even make my top 50 of infuriating defeats.
The early league table now has Fulham just a single point above the Championship relegation zone and some of the contributors to the online discussion quickly identified the problem. Several identified Ryan Sessegnon as being poor – which we’ve discussed already this year as being laughable – whilst captain Tom Cairney was described as woeful for the egregious sin of wanting to pull on the white shirt once again. I’d never boo a Fulham player (even Mark Cooper escaped the bird) but there were far poorer performers yesterday than those two. Four games into the campaign is no time to be drawing conclusions about Fulham’s final finishing position – as some, who seem to have written off any hope of repeating last season’s top six finish, seem to have done.
For a start, the fixture list has hardly been kind to Jokanovic and his team. They’ve faced Norwich, Leeds, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday – who should all feature in the promotion shake-up come May – and every single one of those opponents had a variation on the same tactic: be patient, physical to point of crude in order to disrupt Fulham’s rhythm and look to be clinical in the final third. Wednesday, who have endured a worse start to the season than the Whites, came for a point, packing the midfield, and got all three. That was the reason why Kieren Westwood indulged in his rather bizarre game of charades with both the Hammersmith End and the Riverside Stand after the game – although the goalkeeper and Wednesday’s goalkeeping coach Andy Rhodes should have had more class and headed straight to the Putney End to celebrate with the travelling supporters whose loud backing for their side was impressive once again.
Jokanovic is refusing to panic and you can see why. The team that finished yesterday’s encounter contained both a number of new faces still getting used to the peculiar demands of English football and several more feeling their way back from injury. There were enough promising signs from Rui Fonte after a single training session to suggest that he might be the sort of number nine Fulham have been sorely lacking for several seasons. It is an added bonus that the Portuguese forward can deliver a set play that consistently beat the first man but there was an intelligence about his running and desire to play on the shoulder of the Wednesday defence that bodes well for the future. Neither he nor Aboubakar Kamara, who played the final quarter of an hour, received enough service to test the Owls centre backs regularly – and it was instructive to see Jokanovic turn away with his arms outstretched after Denis Odoi had tried to beat George Boyd for a second time rather than deliver a cross with both in the box.
Cairney looked some way short of his best in central midfield but getting ninety minutes in his legs after finally shaking off the knee problem that has disrupted his start to the season will help his sharpness for when Fulham travel to Portman Road to face one of the early pacesetters in Ipswich Town on Saturday. Getting Jokanovic’s three midfield musketeers all firing at the same time is crucial to the success of this side, even if Ollie Norwood increasing looks like a useful option in any of those midfield roles. Wednesday’s winning goal was eminently avoidable and came with the Whites reorganising after Stefan Johansen had collapsed in a heap following a robust challenge on the edge of the visitors box and been withdrawn movements earlier. That sort of thing will annoy both Stuart Gray and Jokanovic and will already have been the subject of painstaking video analysis.
Even if you might not agree with the strength of some reactions last night, there are clearly things for Fulham to work on. Jokanovic, who believes in possession-based philosophy almost to the exclusion of having any sort of Plan B, has to come up with another way of responding to sides who are going to try and shut his team down – especially as they endure a tougher second season after the revelation of the way the Whites finished last term. That may mean being a little more uncomplicated in the final third, which could suit the pacier players that the Serbian now has at his disposal.
I also suspect that Sone Aluko’s place in the side might come up for debate sooner rather than later. He was hauled off just after the hour mark after blowing far colder than hot – and it is certainly possible that all the media mutterings about whether he’ll get the new contract he desires might have muddled the Nigerian forward’s mind. He seemed strangely reluctant to commit the full back on either flank yesterday and there was an alarming lack of understanding between him and Ryan Fredericks, who seemed to resort to desperation far too early in the piece as well. With the likes of Kebano and Sheyi Ojo ready to challenge for a starting place (and Floyd Ayite when he returns from injury), it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that Jokanovic looks for other options in the wing positions.
The best part about the season’s frantic early schedule is there’s an opportunity to put things right almost immediately. That arrives in the shape of a visit by Bristol Rovers on Tuesday in the League Cup. Jokanovic will rotate for the Barry Hayles derby, opting to trust a number of the younger players who performed so impressively both at Wycombe and during pre-season. There will be more Motspur Park drills to get the side purring more pleasingly before the trip to Portman Road and I firmly believe we should be judging Fulham’s promotion credentials after ten games that before both the first international break and the end of the summer transfer window.