Not many football fans get particularly excited about a solid defence. The Italians revere a brilliant back four and catenaccio, but they might be the exceptions that prove the rule. Any manager worth their salt, though, will tell you that a side can’t be successful without solid foundations – and they often start at the back. George Graham built his famous Arsenal sides on an almost impregnable rearguard and Highbury regulars embraced their miserly nature with a host of songs to serenade their heroes.
You wouldn’t place Slavisa Jokanovic in the same category as Graham for many reasons, but a line from his post-match press conference, highlighting the fact that his side had kept three clean sheets in succession stuck in my mind. The Serbian’s Fulham side are lauded for their pretty passing and progressive football that makes the Whites one of the most watchable outfits in the country, but their promotion push last season was undermined by some rather slapdash defending. The goals of Aleksandar Mitrovic, creativity of Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon’s raw talent might grab the headlines – but Fulham’s defensive discipline might just be crucial, either in helping them overhaul Cardiff City or during those nerve-jangling play-off ties that may lie ahead.
On Saturday at Hillsborough, Fulham denied Sheffield Wednesday, who had scored seven goals in their last two outings, even a shot on target. The closest the Owls game was a rising drive from substitute Fernando Forestieri that flew wide in stoppage time. Marcus Bettinelli might not have been overly tested in south Yorkshire but he proved his worth with that pivotal save from Caleb Ekuban against Leeds in midweek, which might prove crucial come the end of the season. Bettinelli also produced an excellent stop to deny Denis Srbeny at Carrow Road just after half-time before Fulham scored twice on Good Friday – and there’s no doubting that the Whites defence has looked much meaner since he replaced David Button in goal.
I’ve written about Tim Ream’s remarkable renaissance before, but the American’s journey from fifth choice centre half to the rock around which Jokanovic’s back four is built is still worth reflecting on. He told the Times the other week that there was now almost a magnetic understanding between Fulham’s players – something which Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes seemed to enjoy at their peak – and the former Bolton defender radiates real confidence through the rest of the side. Where Fulham fans fretted about a lack of defensive cover at the end of January, Jokanovic has a choice of partners for Ream.
The fact that Tomas Kalas, who was outstanding for much of his first season on loan at Craven Cottage, isn’t an automatic pick at the heart of the defence is largely down to the splendid performances that Denis Odoi – who is not even a natural centre half – has delivered of late. We got a sense of just how well the Belgian could do as an understudy in the middle at Reading and Leeds at the start of the season, but the way that Odoi has shaken off that costly error against QPR with a succession of composed displays has been particularly impressive. He nullified Adthe Nuhiu with a modicum of fuss at the weekend, which is no mean feat considering the Kosovo striker stands at 6ft 4in. As a result, a fully fit Kalas is awaiting an opportunity from the bench – whilst Marcelo Djalo kicks his heels.
Fulham’s full backs get a lot of praise for their adventure, but both are an important part of a disciplined back four. Ryan Fredericks has improved the defensive side of his game no end – and he bailed Fulham out bravely with an incredible recovery run and tackle to stop a dangerous Wednesday break in its tracks on Saturday – whilst Matt Targett is a far more assured defender than people give him credit for. All four of these players read the game exceptionally well and are confident on the ball, which makes Kevin McDonald’s critical job as the shield in front of the defence so much easier.
It is right that McDonald gets a few plaudits for Fulham’s improved defensive performances. His positioning and disciplines gives Jokanovic’s full backs and wide players, as well as Cairney and Johansen in front of him, the license to worry the opposition in far more advanced positions, especially away from home. Looking back on his performances over the past two seasons, it is easy to see why Fulham were so keen to sign him at various points prior to his arrival at Craven Cottage – and his ability to distribute the ball accurately from deep-lying positions is also a huge bonus in transition for a side that likes to break so quickly.
Jokanovic’s footballing philosophy is based on retaining possession and hurting the opposition high up the pitch. The Serbian knows Fulham’s season is far from finished but those three clean sheets – coming at a time when any slip-up would have probably ended their outside chance of a shot at second place – would have certainly given him a reason to smile.