An incensed Slavisa Jokanovic took no comfort in Tom Cairney’s late equaliser yesterday, insisting that Fulham’s performance against Bolton Wanderers was ‘not good enough’. The Serbian was spot on in recognising that his side once again fell far short of the standards they set towards the tail end of last season but, in a big week that sees the Whites face Bristol City and Wolverhampton Wanderers in quick succession, the head coach’s focus has to be on identifying solutions rather than diagnosing problems.
Fulham’s failure to put away sides who sit deep and invite pressure threatens to undermine their ambitions to battling away at the right end of the table again come May. Jokanovic has to accept some of the blame for moving away from playing Rui Fonte, who looked the answer to Fulham’s potency problems during a blistering display at Ipswich in August, as a main striker in order to accommodate Aboubakar Kamara on the back of his brace of goals last month. Fonte has the intelligence to pull defenders out of position with clever runs as well as play in team-mates but the former Braga captain isn’t a winger, however hard he may try to deliver for his new side.
It’s clear that Jokanovic wants his front three to be fluid and regularly swap positions and you can see why a centre back who is left facing Fonte when he’s been busy taking care of Kamara might be befuddled. But that variety was missing from Fulham’s front three in a first period where only the Frenchman got in behind the Bolton backline. Floyd Ayite, perhaps dismayed by a laughably poor offside call that went against him, failed to offer the verve and energy that characterisded his first season in English football. Even in the second half, for all the home side’s pressure, Wanderers – well organised by Phil Parkinson – found it far too easy to defend against Fulham’s patient passing.
If Fulham are to pack a real punch in the final third, then either Jokanovic needs to choose between Fonte and Kamara for the central striker role or the drills for those three forwards at Motspur Park need to be as repetitive as it takes for the movement to become like a Pavlovian response. The likes of Neeskens Kebano, Yohan Mollo and Jordan Graham, all genuine wide men in their own right, don’t deserve to be denied the opportunity to provide the width Fulham are only finding from the full backs to date.
You also get the sense that Fulham’s season will be defined by how regularly Cairney, Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen can start games together. The game against Preston turned when Cairney, with his eye for a forward pass, joined McDonald, who appeared the only man in white shirt putting in a shift in the first period. The Scottish midfielders linked up in stoppage when McDonald, whose ability is not fully captured when he’s called a holding midfielder, decided that he’d had enough of passing to others and drove to the byline himself into a last-gasp roll of the dice. Johansen, who has struggled for both form and fitness this year despite an impressive goal return, made a real difference yesterday – and the midfield triumvirate together make Fulham an entirely different side.
All the qualities that Jokanovic has worked hard to imbue in his team over the past eighteen months will count for nothing if they can continue to concede shambolic goals like the one that handed Bolton the lead yesterday. Several fans have suggested that Ryan Fredericks, Tim Ream and Tomas Kalas might have been distracted by Gary Madine’s gamesmanship and expected Geoff Eltringham to stop the game. I wouldn’t expect any professional footballer to trot out such an excuse when the first thing you are taught as a youngster is to play to the whistle. Ben Alnwick’s kick was designed to give Madine and Sammy Ameobi something to challenge for – the fact that the former Newcastle United forward was able to latch on it with three white shirts looking better placed to deal with the scant danger and work a shooting opportunity was pathetic.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only time Fulham almost contributed to their own downfall. Kalas was removed in the search for the equaliser after offering Bolton an opportunity to extend their lead and David Button, who has been mercifully free of any howlers for much of this side, presented the ball to Josh Vela with one of the weakest clearances a goalkeeper could ever have hit. Jokanovic’s play it out from the back philosophy does run the risk of the odd ricket – but these sort of errors are schoolboy stuff.
Earlier in the season when Jokanovic was asked about his means of ending Fulham’s slow start, he inferred that his Plan B was to do ‘Plan A better’. In his column in yesterday’s match programme, he wrote:
The style we implement is the correct for the team and the players in the squad and, I believe, the best way to bring us success and, mostly importantly win matches.
The head coach, who will only feel the pressure that he places on himself to deliver results, is entirely justified in setting the direction for his side. But, now that the Championship has had the benefit of working out how to nullify his style, it is incumbent on the coaching staff and players to rise to the challenge. That means more movement and vitality in Fulham’s play and, possibly, the option of a change of system if things aren’t working out. A switch to 5-3-2 might offer Fredericks and Sessegnon greater licence to bomb forward as well as bringing the contrasting attributes of Fonte and Kamara, who have linked up well together already, closer together in attack. That’s only an idle idea – but Jokanovic will know better than anyone that Fulham can’t afford to be so predictable any longer.