The Whites travelled to Villa Park on Saturday afternoon off the back of a bland four game unbeaten run, but the lacklustre performances continued with Slavisa Jokanovic’s stalling side yet to get going. Once lauded for his ability to switch things tactically at Watford, Jokanovic’s side have become predictable and teams turn up with a game plan to limit the passing game; whether it’s Preston’s high pressing style or more of deep defensive block just begging for a team who has been without its premium creative talent to break them down.
The predictability has simply been highlighted through Tom Cairney’s injury, Slavisa Jokanovic has remained stubborn with his shape to the extent of forcing our multi-million pound number nine out wide to retain the three in midfield despite lacklustre performances from both Stefan Johansen and Oliver Norwood in the absence of the club captain. A lack of creativity both on and off the pitch has stifled Fulham’s progress regardless of the talent that the recruitment team has assembled; even with Tom Cairney’s injury, this team is good enough to be picking up wins both at Craven Cottage and on the road.
It’s the surprising perseverance with averagely performing players in a system that Jokanovic slavishly adheres to which doesn’t help frustrations – nothing is being changed to make things better and Slavisa has the personnel to make drastic changes to the shape and player positions whilst retaining the possession style of football.
Considering Cairney is currently unable to start games, Fulham could switch to a 4-2-3-1, with the goalkeeper and back four remaining the same, unless you wanted to start Rafa Soares at left back or Denis Odoi at right back. To provide the defence a little more solidity – perhaps necessary when the Whites have managed just two clean sheets in thirteen league matches – you can add Ibrahima Cisse alongside Kevin McDonald to provide a defensive shield allowing the three in front to support and create for the striker. With no Tom Cairney, you’ve got a couple of options for the number 10 role – Rui Fonte can feature there if you want to start Aboubakar Kamara or alternatively the Portuguese can take up the lone striking role. Johansen could take up a more traditional attacking midfielder role but it wouldn’t be my preferred option. Out of our attacking/wide midfield players, Neeskens Kebano is arguably most suited to the free role behind the striker, which allows you to slot Ryan Sessegnon on the wing (introducing Soares at left back) and Yohan Mollo on the right (or whatever combination of wide players either side of Kebano you would prefer).
The three-man defence has become more fashionable recently with Chelsea’s success under Antonio Conte (although here the Premier League shows itself up as a copycat league following that formation’s ascendancy in Italy over the past five year). Fulham’s game is already built around full backs surging forward – and one of these systems would allow them to take full grasp of these positives in their game. Odoi can come in as one of the three in defence alongside Tomas Kalas and Tim Ream, having filled in remarkably for Kalas at Reading and Leeds and is one of our more athletic footballers. The midfield upwards are where the questions come in, do you go two forwards and three in midfield or two in midfield and three attacking players? Either could work at Fulham, the extra man in defence could give you a McDonald and Johansen central midfield partnership with two wingers supporting your striker (again, who you’d prefer – some would say Soares at wing back and Sessegnon further forward, some like Floyd Ayite: others don’t). The other option is your midfield three where you can keep McDonald, Johansen and Norwood in the middle but have Rui Fonte up front alongside Aboubakar Kamara.
Jokanovic remains the right man for Fulham but he needs to show more when his plan A is not coming to fruition – you can point to the possession numbers but for his philosophy to secure promotion, this side has to to be harder to score against and less predictable. I also think the players need to do more – how many of this squad can you say justify their spot in the starting eleven? Kevin McDonald and maybe two or three more? I don’t think good footballers playing average football should get away with no criticism either.
We go on to face Bolton Wanderers next week, but if nothing is to change, then prayers to whatever deity are necessary to facilitate Cairney’s return to full fitness as soon as possible.