When the fixture list was released in June, this was a match everyone earmarked as an opportunity for Craven Cottage to offer our appreciation for Slavisa Jokanovic’s stylish three years in the Fulham hotseat. His harsh sacking at Sheffield United has now robbed us of that reunion, although Ollie Norwood is deserving of a standing ovation tonight for that Wembley tackle on Conor Hourihane alone. The Blades head to London in good heart having recorded three consecutive wins and a fortnight off following a Covid-related postponement at QPR will have allowed Paul Heckingbottom plenty of time to hone his plans to nullify the league leaders.
Nobody would have foreseen that there would have been a twelve point gap between two of the promotion favourites at the start of this season. Jokanovic, a Championship promotion specialist, is known to require patience as players warm to his philosophy and methods and United’s squad, primed to play in Chris Wilder’s unique 3-5-2 system, was in dire need of an overhaul. The Blades have had to rely on veteran Billy Sharp for their most regular source of goals and, just as they were showing signs of improvement, the hierarchy pulled the plug on an expensively acquired head coach.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility, as Marco Silva suggested a few weeks ago, that the Blades could yet find themselves in the top six by the end of the season – although United diehards won’t exactly be enthralled by such a prospect given their play-off record. Heckingbottom has been restricted to just two outings since he returned to Bramall Lane, with an opening win over Bristol City followed by a fine comeback at Cardiff City inspired by the mercurial Morgan Gibbs-White. Some of the quality at United’s disposal has never been in doubt; consistency has been in frustratingly short supply.
The visitors will want to keep a tight rein on Aleksandar Mitrovic – the man Jokanovic successfully brought to SW6 to put potency in the final third – as Fulham have failed to win when the Serbian hasn’t found the net this season. His prodded close range finish at Luton last weekend represented his 22nd goal of an extraordinary campaign – and ended his two-game goal drought, if that can even be considered a dry spell. What will worry Silva is the fact that Fulham’s flow of goals has definitely dried up: the Whites hit 25 goals in seven matches before a run of three in four has seen a seven-match winning streak followed by four frustrating draws.
There might have been mitigating circumstances with injury and illness badly affecting preparations for a couple of games last month, but the sight of Silva blowing his top on the touchline at Kenilworth Road well before the end of another agonising afternoon told everyone that Fulham’s recent displays have been below par. Luton could easily have ended up winning a match that the Whites had controlled completely in the first period and there is a sense that sides have now devised a formula to frustrate Fulham’s flowing football.
It isn’t necessarily a matter of personnel. Antonee Robinson should return to the starting line-up this evening as he remains Silva’s first choice left back and Fulham no longer have any serious long-term injury worries. It might well be about mindset. Fulham were blowing sides away in August and September, reinvigorated by the accent their new Portuguese head coach placed on attacking football. That dynamism returned with interest during a seven-match winning run that took them to the summit, especially in a seven-goal thrashing of Blackburn Rovers, whose own recovery from that setback has been nothing short of stunning, but Fulham’s football has been more laboured of late. A meticulous perfectionist, Silva will want more creativity from his team and is probably desperate to try and fit both Tom Cairney and the precocious talent of Fabio Carvalho into the same side.
There has arguably been an issue in recent weeks with the balance of Fulham’s midfield. Harrison Reed has recovered from the muscle problem that ruled him out of the draw at Luton, but his ball-winning capabilities and instinctive reading of the play has been sacrificed somewhat as Silva seeks to convert the former Southampton midfielder into more of a box-to-box man. Jean Michael Silva has been operating as a number six when his talents are more suited to supplying defence-splitting passes and concerns about Tom Cairney’s knees still persist. Carvalho looks devastating when committing defenders in the final third, but we are all still anxious about whether the teenager can be persuaded to stay at Cottage beyond the end of the season.
Even Fulham’s wide men have been a little under par in their last few outings. Harry Wilson’s form struggled once Championship opponents began to put two men on the Welshman and, when team-mates fail to spot his clever runs in from the flank, he can become less of a weapon. Neeskens Kebano is arguably in the richest form of his Fulham career but the Congolese winger was pretty anonymous at Kenilworth Road, whilst Mitrovic looked isolated in ploughing a lone farrow through the middle. The key has to be the pace of Fulham’s precise passing – things have been too slow during those distinctly underwhelming draws – and a swift start will be essential this evening.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete, A. Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Seri; Wilson, Kebano, Carvalho; Mitrovic. Subs: Gazzaniga, Hector, Odoi, Onomah, Decordova-Reid, Cairney, Muniz