Gregor Robertson’s piece in today’s Times dates Fulham’s winter resurgence from when they were beaten 2-0 at Wolverhampton Wanderers back in November. That defeat, that came in the week following the departure of American analytics guru Craig Kline and newspaper revelations about his time at Motspur Park, left the Whites languishing in seventeenth place in the table – with some Fulham fans worried about a battle against the drop.
The turnaround since that fairly lethargic performance against the league’s pacesetters has been nothing short of remarkable. Since Molineux, Jokanovic’s men have won ten of their last fourteen fixtures – drawing two and tasting defeat only twice. The run mirrors the consistency Fulham found later in the season last term and has seen the Whites surge into fifth in the table, with clear aspirations of moving even higher, as Tim Ream hinted after Saturday’s victory over Nottingham Forest.
The form guide looks impressive even when compared to the rest of the Championship’s leading lights. Fulham have taken 32 points from their last sixteen league outings – exactly the same as their fellow promotion contenders Derby County and Aston Villa. Perhaps the optimism of progressing even further up the table comes from the fact that both of these sides feature in arguably Fulham’s toughest run of the season over the next eight games – a period of the schedule that looks defining for the promotion push.
The key to Fulham’s revival as a force at the right end of the table comes from stopping the concession of silly goals. The Whites have strung together three clean sheets in their last four Championship games and remain unbeaten in this calendar year. The rediscovered defensive solidity might have something to do with Jokanovic’s decision to replace David Button with Marcus Bettinelli in goal – Fulham have only conceded eight goals in ten games since the academy graduate got back in and he made that remarkable double save at a crucial time with Forest pressing for an equaliser on Saturday.
The Whites have also reshaped their line-up to add defensive diligence during the January window. Matt Targett has the attacking instincts of Scott Malone, who was one of the much lamented summer departures in the early weeks of the season, but also seems solid defensively. The Southampton youngster’s arrival on loan has freed up Ryan Sessegnon to be deployed in the left wing position from where he has been terrorising Championship full backs – the teenager’s six strikes in January must make him a certainty for the player of the month award.
Sessegnon himself has suggested sides will fear Fulham now that Jokanovic’s side have found their fluency. The core of this side – including the likes of Fredericks, Kalas, Ream, McDonald, Johansen and Cairney as well as Sessegnon – already have the experience of going away to the Championship’s best sides and turning in exceptional performances. The memory of the way the Whites outclassed Newcastle and Huddersfield last year suggests they won’t be overrawed by the trips to Ashton Gate and Pride Park in the next month.
Targett made reference to the confidence in the group following the weekend victory and the fact that the next eight games that see the Whites take on several of their fellow promotion contenders could actually prove beneficial. While Fulham’s home form has picked up, Jokanovic’s side have long been a formidable proposition on their travels and seem to revel in the opportunities presented when opponents take the attack to them. The Whites went toe-to-toe with Sheffield United at Bramall Lane when the Blades were sweeping all before them and emerged victorious following a pulsating encounter in November.
Fulham’s fluent football has returned since the turn of the year, but Jokanovic’s charges have yet to hit top gear. The gutsy victories over Millwall, Birmingham City, Middlesbrough and Barnsley weren’t exactly pretty but have proven this team’s mettle. The Serbian supremo – who seems to have been given a good deal of what he wanted in the January transfer window – now has some interesting options from which to perm his matchday squad. First, he has to decide which of Fulham’s six loanees miss out: a decision that will become a lot harder once Sheyi Ojo recovers from injury.
Then there’s Fulham’s enhanced options in the final third. Floyd Ayite’s little cameo at the weekend confirmed that he will be an option out wide after an injury interrupted season to date, whilst Lucas Piazon’s swifter-than-expected return from a broken leg is already paying dividends. Jokanovic also has three forwards from which to perm a central striker in his favoured 4-3-3. Rui Fonte is the technical artisan of the three, but the carnage that could be unleashed by pace of Aboubakar Kamara and the power of Aleksandr Mitrovic is a mouthwatering prospect. All the signs point to a very entertaining next few weeks.