As our humble football club returns to the top of the English football pyramid, I take a look at what to expect from Premier League life under Slavisa Jokanovic. The first foreign coach with two promotions to the Premier League, Slavisa Jokanovic is a man whose sides do not play with his steely image. The Serbian and his coaching staff hold a strong Spanish influence with Jokanovic himself spending 8 years of his playing career in the home of tiki-taka football. Slavisa Jokanovic believes the attacking, possession based football is the right way to go about things, in an interview with Spanish publication Marca he said, “We are not going to change the style. We are not going to hit balls or park the bus. It would not be a good plan. We need to change things, but we are not going to give up our style.”
A proud individual, Jokanovic early on in his coaching career rejected the award of ‘Best Serbian Coach,’ the story in his own words “After choosing me, they started talking like they were not sure they made the best decision. So, I decided not to accept: if you don’t believe I am the best, then I don’t need this award. That’s it. I always do what feels right. This is my personality. The next season we won the double again. This time there was no award, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t there to fight for personal awards. I was fighting for my club.” Later in his coaching career, Slavisa would face a similar situation. After securing promotion with Watford, he left the football club for he thought the club did not feel that he was the right man to take them into the Premier League.
He arrived at Fulham with a below par and unbalanced set of players, faced with the task of avoiding relegation to League One. Successful in keeping the club in the second division, Slavisa looked to revamp the playing staff and aided by Tony Khan, son of owner Shahid, taking more of a hands on approach to football played with a spherical ball. Slavisa could now deliver the passing brand of football that he is now taking into the Premier League. A 433 was introduced with new signings Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen joining Tom Cairney in the midfield with Fulham building a reputation of being the Barcelona of the Championship and general pass masters. The addition of better quality footballers, more technically proficient footballers and quality coaching took the London side from 20th the previous season to 6th. An unsuccessful play off attempt was stalled at the first stage but Slavisa had brought Fulham back to life and captured the imagination of supporters, players and the media alike.
Despite an unsuccessful summer transfer window a few months after the disappointment at the Madejski, Slavisa Jokanovic kept the football club within capable distance of the play off positions come the January transfer window. In came Matt Targett and Aleksandar Mitrovic on loan deals which helped take a six game unbeaten run to a club record twenty-three resulting in a late push for an automatic promotion. Cardiff’s lead was too much to overcome but as we know, Fulham rode an emotional rollercoaster through the play offs ending in the euphoric high of promotion to the Premier League.
So here we are, less than two weeks from Fulham’s return to Premier League football, starting where the previous finished with a game at Craven Cottage to Crystal Palace and I look at what to expect from Slavisa’s side in the Premier League. While the transfer window is still open, we won’t fully be able to dissect the details of the starting eleven with positions yet to be filled and dealings yet to be completed. Since winning a power struggle with, former Assistant Director of Football Operations, Craig Kline, Slavisa Jokanovic and Tony Khan’s relationship seems to be in a good place and the eye-watering financial backing that the Serbian coach has received since securing promotion should show Slavisa that, unlike Watford, Fulham feel he is the right man to lead them to the top of the English football pyramid.
Just go back to that quote from Slavisa’s Marca interview at the start of this piece. Jokanovic’s Fulham is here to play football, show their quality and not make up the numbers. The early additions in this window are designed to help the styles adjustment to better quality opposition. Record signing Jean Michael Seri joins us with a reputation as one of the better no.6s in European football, compared to Xavi during his time in France, the Ivorian international will be likely be charged with being a maestro to attacks in a less chaotic manner as Stefan Johansen. The link between defence and attack, Seri’s movement in creating passing lanes and pinpoint passing should aid the retention of possession and the movement of opposition players out of position. Seri’s former team mate at Nice Maxime Le Marchand arrives as a ball playing central defender with the flexibility of playing as a measured left back also. The building of play from the back of the team is vital to the structure of the entire style. Spanish goalkeeper Fabri comes from a possession based team in Turkey that won the title during his time in Besiktas. German World Cup winner Andre Schurrle is the latest to join the football club, Schurrle’s speed, movement, quality of touch and work rate will add much beyond the goal scoring touch that has seen him score double figures in all competitions in a single season three times in his career.
Aleksandar Mitrovic appears to rejoining his compatriot at Craven Cottage and his physical presence and hold up play will aid Fulham’s ability to retain the ball in the final third and provide a target to point to in order to release any pressure with a more direct ball. Alfie Mawson is another due to sign for the football club, with Fulham seemingly done with negotiations with Espanyol for David Lopez, Tony Khan has moved quickly to seemingly secure the signing. Mawson is a young English central defender on the verge of the national team; he has good size and defending qualities built from his time climbing up the Football League but his ball playing ability appears to be understated. Confident and calm in possession, Mawson is elegant in possession but admittedly I do worry a little about a lack of pace on the recovery stemming from Fulham’s high defensive line.
Returning to the quote from Marca, Slavisa hints at possible tweaks to the style that has served the team so well. Beyond experimenting with Ryan Sessegnon on the right hand side, a place the teenage left sided player seldom saw in his two years in the Championship, the style has not looked too dissimilar. Though there is every possibility that Slavisa’s comments are with regards to dealing with the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea.
What I do know about Fulham Football Club returning to the Premier League with Slavisa Jokanovic in charge supported with the ambitious recruitment of Tony Khan is that this Fulham is going to feel fresh, this Fulham is going to feel stylish and this Fulham may well just be a neutral’s second team. Despite it’s humble nature and quaint surroundings, Fulham is back with statement signings and swagger on the football pitch and I believe it’s that swagger and style that you can expect from Slavisa Jokanovic’s Fulham in the Premier League this coming season.