After a summer splurge of big money signings, many respected pundits tipped Fulham as dark horses to finish in the top half of the Premier League come May. But, as with any promoted side, remaining in the top division was the primary objective. Having collected just five points from their first twelve games, safety seems far from assured and it was clear that something had to change. The sacking of Slavisa Jokanovic and his immediate replacement by Claudio Ranieri was a decisive move from the Fulham board – and a decision that should provide some hope heading into a critical pre-Christmas period.
Fulham’s defence has been the cause of their faltering start, with fundamental mistakes costing the Whites dearly as they conceded 31 goals in a harrowing first three months back in the Premier League. This is something that the new manager and his coaching staff will be looking to rectify, as Ranieri indicated in his first press conference. The imminent returns of Alfie Mawson and Joe Bryan should give the Italian options at the back that Jokanovic simply didn’t have for much of this season. Mawson was brought in from Swansea in the summer for around £20 million and has not quite had the start he and the fans were hoping for. Approaching match sharpness again, Mawson could be the anchor at the heart of the back four that Fulham have badly missed – and the Whites would dearly love him to replicate some of his assured displays for Swansea.
Joe Bryan looked bright at the beginning of his season, with an impressive display at Wembley against Tottenham in August, where he created an equaliser with a fabulous cross. His attack-minded nature meant he was ideally suited to Jokanovic’s sense of adventure, but there is no reason why he can’t adapt to a more disciplined Ranieri approach. Fulham have sorely missed a natural left back since his hamstring injury at Everton and Bryan’s reintroduction into the side should allow Sessegnon the freedom to take up a more advanced role and torment defences as he did when claiming the Championship player of the year award last term.
Looking back, Fulham were unfortunate at Anfield in what proved to be Jokanovic’s final game in charge. They were unlucky not to lead through Aleksandar Mitrovic’s excellent header – a misery compounded by the injustice of Mo Salah’s strike seconds later being allowed to stand. The Whites showed fight – typified by the feisty performance of Calum Chambers in a holding midfield role – in a game few expected them to win, but they need to pick up points before they are cut adrift at the foot of the table. Ranieri will need to establish some consistency and it is already clear that Jokanovic’s expansive playing style will be one of the first things sacrificed.
A win against Southampton would be the dream start, with the Fulham fans hoping they can build on that dogged showing on Merseyside. Home form is very important to any team fighting relegation and it looked like Fulham were ready to continue the impressive run in SW6 from last season when they put Burnley to the sword at Craven Cottage and fought back to claim a point against high-flying Watford. Since then, defeats by Arsenal – who were ruthless in front of goal – and a sharp Bournemouth side have punctured any lingering optimism and left the side looking more than a little bedraggled.
In his first press conference as Fulham head coach last week, Ranieri emphasised the importance of defensive strength -something that should be welcomed with open arms after Jokanovic’s exciting style proved unsustainable at this level. The international break should have given Ranieri some extra time to impart his methods and philosophy on to the majority of his squad and there will be a few players looking to prove a point or two against the Saints this weekend. We’ll always remember Slav for his pretty football and that remarkable day at Wembley, but Ranieri’s realism could be just what the doctor ordered.