It sounds strange to say it, when the game was screened on national television, but the full horror of Fulham’s flat display at Molineux last night was far worse in person. Nuno Espirito Santo has clearly got Wolves playing the sort of the football that befits Wanderers’ illustrious past, but the Championship’s best side didn’t win through outstanding moments of class. Instead, they were only in cruise control because of Fulham’s baffling failure to take care of football’s fundamentals.
Stuart Gray and Jokanovic have worked hard to eradicate the defensive deficiencies that plagued Fulham’s disastrous early years back in English football’s second tier, but the ease with which Wolves assumed control of the contest from a couple of set plays was embarrassing. Both deliveries from Barry Douglas were dangerous, but against a well-drilled opponent, the defending was diabolical. Ollie Norwood, a late replacement for Tom Cairney, appeared happy to pass Romain Saiss onto Denis Odoi at the first corner – but neither man made much of an effort to prevent the Wolves midfielder from getting a run at the ball inside the six-yard box. Whoever was policing the near post zone showed about as much interest in their defensive duties as Dimitar Berbatov did at Southampton a few years back.
Heads dropped and Fulham didn’t look like recovering. It was almost an action replay fifteen minutes later. A free-kick from the same side, again whipped in by Douglas, and there was Leo Bonatini arriving between defenders to glance the deftest of free headers beyond a blameless Button. Both Jokanovic and Gray seethed on the sidelines – and they’ll be a thorough inquest into just easily the league’s in-form striker, whose now scored six in six, was able to shrug off the attentions of Ryan Sessegnon and Rui Fonte at the front post.
The headline of this piece might seem a little curious four paragraphs in. But defensive fundamentals can be drilled down at Motspur Park – just ask the boys bored rigid by Roy Hodgson how successful a regimented regime can become. Upon getting to the concourse at half-time, most of the hardy 500 or so Fulham fans who had braved a late Sky fixture switch, train delays and the spaghetti junction on a Friday afternoon, were questioning quite why they didn’t just watch it on the telly.
I fall into conversation with two young lads who travel to watch Fulham all over the country for reasons passing understanding. Both were utterly convinced that Slavisa Jokanovic had to go. I was fairly astonished that the head coach who had engineered such a startling turnaround in Fulham’s fortunes last season already had an ‘Out’ faction against him, but I heard them out. ‘It’s bollocks. We just pass it from side to side, we can’t defend, and teams have worked out how to beat us. There’s no Plan B, nothing else we can do – and you know we’ve lost if we concede first,’ was what the first fan offered.
I attempted to counter with the fact that the recent two draws with Preston and Bolton showed that Jokanovic’s Fulham have some fight in them, but the second lad shot me down with, ‘they ain’t doing much fighting tonight’. I couldn’t argue with that point and just shook their hands because it was getting quite heated – reasoning that sacking Jokanovic would precipitate a such for a new manager and given how long it took to get the Serbian in place I wouldn’t fancy Fulham’s recruitment taking place during the Championship season’s most unforgiving phase.
The idea that Jokanovic is under any sort of pressure from the fans – and he clearly seems to be, judging from the social media posts and some of the opprobrium aimed at him from the fans who went last night – seems odd to me. Perhaps it’s a sad reflection of modern football. You’re only as good as your last game and wins are what counts. He might well be behind his points target, which apparently was the reason for Fulham dispensing with Kit Symons services around this time two years ago, but you’d think that the mesmorising football Fulham played to reach the play-offs would earn him some credit.
There’s no doubt it has been a difficult week down at Motspur Park. Jokanovic strives for the highest standards from his players and you can see him turn away exasperated every time a midfielder shirks a challenge or sends a pass astray that he wouldn’t have done during his Yugoslavian/Serbian/continental playing career. It couldn’t have been easy to retain the team’s focus on the upcoming fixtures with the hoo-ha that accompanied Craig Kline’s departure, although the end of the American data analyst’s input must be chalked up as a victory for the head coach.
Those predicting the end of Fulham’s ‘Moneyball’ approach following Klein’s abrupt exit are mistaken. Analytics are woven heavily into the fabric of modern football and, with Tony Khan having revolutionised the way in which the club applies data, they will remain a part of how things are done in SW6. There’s nothing wrong with that. Klein’s interim replacement, James Lovell, is also a disciple of numbers and knows just how blending them with sports science and very English traditional coaching methods can work from when he helped Wolves win promotion from this league in 2009. Crucially, Lovell is a respected member of the team at Motspur Park – having been brought in six years ago largely on the back of his innovative approach – and has a good working relationship with the head coach.
As a result of last night’s defeat, Fulham sit in sixteenth place after sixteen games and will probably fall further when the rest of the weekend’s results are in. It’s nowhere near where the Whites want to be, but the measure of character is how people respond to tough times. Watching the second half and then listening and reading to the comments posted by Fulham fans who did the same, I was reminded of the way Micky Adams always ended his programme notes with three words, ‘keep the faith’.
It’s not so long ago that Fulham fans were snapping up those wonderful ‘Slavisa – Making Fulham Great Again‘ tees and the successor that welcomed everyone to the ‘Slavalution’ (you can still get them courtesy of Cult Zeros and the Fulham Nice Guys, by the way). The man who got Fulham playing their sexiest football since Jean Tigana hasn’t become a busted flush in six weeks. The internet, our individualist society and the modern game mean that the fickle football fan has become forgetful as well as impatient. Fulham fans have always been far with managers who respected the club and our illustrious history. Jokanovic has talked about how he wants to lay down roots here, something he hasn’t done during a fairly nomadic managerial career to date – and he deserves a bit of faith from the Fulham faithful.