Claudio’s tactical tweak clinches first clean sheet

Well… it wasn’t a classic, but a really strong defensive display from Fulham starved Newcastle of opportunities on goal and managed to grind out a 0-0 away from home to earn their first clean sheet of the season. Claudio Ranieri made a tactical tweak for the trip to St James’ Park with Cyrus Christie coming in for Aboubakar Kamara to create a 343/541 with the aforementioned Christie playing at right wing back, Joe Bryan opposed him on the left and Alfie Mawson positioned as the central of three centre backs; Tim Ream to his left and Denis Odoi to his right.

Each member of the back five was exceptional at Newcastle with Sergio Rico not facing a single shot on target, but Alfie Mawson takes my man of the match reward. With a game leading seven clearances and comfortable distribution from the back, the former Swansea centre half is starting to show glimpses of being worth the outlay he cost the club in the summer. Calum Chambers alongside Jean Michel Seri patrolled in front of the back five with the defensive efficiency that he’s now setting standards for; his four tackles was tied top for frequency within both teams.

Since Claudio Ranieri was appointed, it felt like he would need a window before serious progress could be made. Ranieri-ball is less focused on possession statistics and more so on being defensively well structured and attacking with pace, a formula that mixed with his Leicester City squad of 2015/16 created that miracle title winning team that I’m sure none of us will forget. Fulham’s current squad was built with Slavisa Jokanovic’s slower, more methodical form of football in mind and is lacking in serious pace throughout but Ranieri is making do with what he has at his disposal.

Fulham struggled to really build counter attacks, partially handicapped by an injury to Ryan Sessegnon but the depth in the squad of players with those characteristics. The Whites struggled to make the ball stick in the final third for large parts of the game, and were dispossessed a massive 21 times (8 of which courtesy of Andre Schurrle, and 4 each from Tom Cairney and Jean Michel Seri). This team needs to play more into space and keep an eye on that for the January transfer window – players that can chase balls into the channels, that can skip past their opposing player and keep up with a more intensive counter attacking approach.

While Wolves will likely be a tougher test with a bit more offensive fluidity than Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle, that first clean should hopefully see Ranieri outlay more for those McDonald’s meals he suggested in his first press conference at the club. Fulham round out the year with two huge home games against Wolves and Huddersfield and should have the confidence to put in a similar defensive display.

January is the key for me, but that was a big step for Ranieri and team…

To all Fulham supporters, have a very Merry Christmas. And if you don’t hear from me by then, a Happy New Year too.

Early signs of a Ranieri Fulham

Claudio Ranieri’s Fulham showed its first indications of change in his debut and subsequent victory in charge of the football club. Happy to allow the opposition possession of the football, Fulham looked to revert to shape and be hard to break down: a relative success given just 10 days of work with a large chunk of the players that started away on international duty. Fulham looked to play quicker and be more dangerous in the transition than previously, with longer balls being fed into Mitrovic and interchanges resulting into passes outside for the wide players in fairly open space.

It wasn’t a great or particularly pretty performance, but it was an improvement in terms of spirit and forethought. Calum Chambers for example finished with a fairly disgusting 56% passing accuracy but his 5 tackles and 3 interceptions led the way for a Fulham side who shaded just over 37% of the ball. Ranieri has previously defended the amount of ‘lost balls’ (inaccurate passes) when at Leicester by saying “it’s only natural, when your team plays at the speed of light.” Calum Chambers was not only looking to play quicker, but longer into Mitrovic and the wide areas which naturally are lower percentage passes than the slower sideways and backwards pottering of typical deep lying midfield players.

A difference in attitude felt personified by the volume of crosses coming into the box over Slavisa Jokanovic’s slower more patient build up play. All three of Fulham’s goals came via the wide areas: two directly from crosses from the left hand side, the first from Maxime Le Marchand for Aleksander Mitrovic’s opener and then Ryan Sessegnon’s gorgeous ball across to assist Andre Schurrle and ensure Fulham go in at half time a goal ahead. The ultimate winner was a Cyrus Christie cross flicked on by the 18 year old England under 21 international for Aleksander Mitrovic to outrageously volley home (the first multi-assist game for Sessegnon in his professional career).

I think the signs are encouraging for more combatant performances such as the one this afternoon and with more coaching time and additions in January – a Claudio Ranieri side appears to be one that stylistically and results wise will provide difficult opposition for a lot of sides and one thing I think we have that others around us don’t – a legitimate no.9 who possesses a league leading level of all round forward play and our Serbian forward is on pace of hitting the mid-teens for goals in our first campaign back in the big time. Ranieri-ball could well unleash a new level of dominance from Aleksander Mitrovic.

This is a squad that possesses quality and I am sure that was partly why Claudio was prepared to take on this task. While the squad doesn’t feel complete for what Ranieri has in mind stylistically, it’s more than talented enough to pick up points until he can add in January.

Alfie Mawson – the story so far

Alfie Mawson’s move from Swansea City to Fulham at a rumoured £15m rising to a potential £20m makes him the most expensive defender in Fulham history. What is Alfie Mawson’s journey to that point and what will he give to Slavisa Jokanovic’s side? That’s what I aim to tell you.

Born in London, Alfie Mawson was released from the Reading academy at 15 years old and had unsuccessful trials at Bournemouth and Millwall before being picked up by Brentford on scholarship terms. It was at Griffin Park where Mawson received and signed his first professional contract at 18. Largely part of the Development Squad at Brentford, Mawson spent time on loan with six different spells in his three years as a professional at the Bees (including three separate loans over the course of ten months at Maidenhead in the Conference South). Further spells at Luton and Welling were to come before a Football League club came calling.

Wycombe Wanderers signed Alfie Mawson on a season long loan as a 20 year old with Chairboys boss Gareth Ainsworth looking to rebuild after a 22nd placed finish and safety on the final day in his first full year in charge at the club. Despite initially being signed as cover following an injury, Mawson struck up an impressive partnership with ex-Fulham academy player Aaron Pierre with Wycombe and did not look back as the club finished in the play off positions. Mawson’s performances in the heart of the Wycombe defence saw him place 3rd in the running for League Two Player of the Season as well as sweeping up at the clubs’ awards do – taking home both the Players’ Player and Supporters’ Player of the Season awards.

Naturally, Mawson’s performances and accolades caught the eyes of many and having rejected Brentford’s offer of a new contract, the Londoner was free to pursue his options and evaluate his next move. Barnsley of League One came calling and Alfie decided to join the Yorkshire club then managed by Lee Johnson. Unfazed by the leap in competition, another strong season came and again Mawson was central at the back for a team that made the play offs, but this time he was successful with a 3-1 win over Millwall. As part of this season in Yorkshire, Mawson played more games than any other Barnsley player which also won the Football League Trophy in the first of what would be two Wembley visits in a 3-2 win against Oxford United.

At 22 years of age, Alfie Mawson’s blitzed development drew even more attention. This 22 year old English central defender, nominated for the League Two Player of the Year, a key part in two play off appearances in two years (in two different divisions) who is showing astute defending qualities and comfort on the ball wasn’t to be waiting for Premier League football for long. In January 2014, Mawson joined Welling United on loan in the Conference Premier: in August 2016, he was transferred to Premier League club Swansea City for a rumoured £5m. His first start for Swansea wasn’t to come until October, but a man of the match display in a clean-sheet draw against Watford announced the centre back’s arrival to Premier League football.

A strong season continued where it started and Alfie Mawson’s trophy cabinet may have needed an upgrade as he took home Swansea’s Young Player of Year in his first season at the club. His strong performances were rewarded as he made his debut for England at under 21 level and was subsequently taken to the European Championships, starting every game and was arguably England’s strongest performer as they reached the semi-finals before being knocked out by Germany on penalties (of course).

Swansea have had issues off the field before and during his time at the football club, in just two years he’s played under five different managers as the Welsh club lost all identity that was continued through Brendan Rodgers, Michael Laudrup and Garry Monk. Despite the chaos of coaching changes, Mawson’s performances didn’t waiver and he received a call up the senior squad of the England set up from Gareth Southgate. Yet to make his debut, you do wonder whether a World Cup inclusion may have came if not for requiring surgery from a knee injury. Alfie Mawson was nominated for Player of the Season from the Supporters and also finished in the top 3 for Players’ Player of the Season and with two more strong performances (and an impressive four year journey) was naturally going to see Premier League interest following Swansea’s relegation.

Now on the verge of a return to the Premier League with Fulham, Alfie Mawson may be Fulham’s most experienced player in terms of games played in the division. Now in a team that has a very clear footballing style and identity, Alfie Mawson should fill the right-sided central defence position and will encouraged to show his bravery on the football as only eleven central defenders played more short passes than him in the Premier League last season and no centre back completed more over a distance. Beautifully weighted balls out to the flanks with be paired with the unglamorous side of centre back play as he ranked 7th in the division for blocking shots and 8th in the division for both clearances and aerial duels won last season. There are question marks about his turn of speed and agility to recover balls in behind against the high defensive line utilised by Slavisa Jokanovic but you hope there’s enough around Mawson to make it a non-issue.

Formally of Brentford, a Chelsea fan growing up that idolised John Terry isn’t the thing that captures the hearts of Fulham supporters but after becoming the clubs most expensive defender, his whole hearted displays and courage in and out of possession very well could. History suggests that the down-to-earth centre back will continue his strong performances or even improve, and the very real possibility that Alfie Mawson will be the first Fulham player to play for the England National Team since Bobby Zamora is something worth cherishing. Adding much needed size and presence to the Fulham defensive line, Alfie Mawson was once quoted in an interview with the Guardian saying “I just want to be known for being a good footballer and a nice fella. That’s enough for me.” And I think that’s enough for us too.

Where can Slavisa Jokanovic take Fulham in the Premier League?

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.

Ryan Sessegnon in Four Four Two

The March 2018 edition of FourFourTwo magazine ran a “Best Young Players special” and alongside the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Timo Werner was 17 year old left back-cum-left midfielder Ryan Sessegnon born in Roehampton with noise building surrounding his potential as an outsider for the England squad at the upcoming 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Having made his debut for Fulham at just 16 years old in a league cup match against Leyton Orient, Ryan Sessegnon is approaching 100 appearances for the football club and looked back upon his debut, “Slavisa treated me like any other first team player. Scott Parker was very good with me. He told me to relax and make sure that I enjoyed it. And I did.”

“My target was to be a bit-part player and get a few matches under my belt, but since I made my debut, I’ve been in the team a lot and I’m just thankful that the manager has given me this opportunity.” Ryan displays a humble and focused mindset throughout the feature, much like the boy we’ve come to love at Craven Cottage, he discusses his admiration for Luke Shaw as a style of footballer and remembering the 2006 World Cup singling out Steven Gerrard for his leadership skills.

The boy wonder has accomplished something at 17 years of age that many retired footballers haven’t and that’s success on the international stage. At 15 years old he played for England’s U17s as they were knocked out in the last 16 of the 2016 U17 European Championships but he tasted glory the following year as England’s U19s won the Euros in the summer of 2017. “It was brilliant. I think 2017 was a great year for England’s young teams. There have always been talented players in England, but for whatever reason we haven’t had success in major tournaments.”

“Winning these tournaments and beating some big teams is invaluable experience. Learning to handle the pressure is great for the future, because I’ve already been there and done it. If you get beat at a World Cup, people will remember it, and you have to wait another four years to correct it. With your club, you often have two matches a week, so you can quickly put things right.” He hasn’t been overawed as a professional footballer yet and these moments are clearly contributing to the wonderful start in his career.

An impressive young man and not just with a ball at his feet (although in many ways he impresses you most without the ball), he represents himself and the football club with grace and class – a manner that makes him the perfect product of Fulham Football Club. He talks about being happy to play left back or left midfield with his current enjoyment as a winger “because I can impact the game more in terms of goals and assists.” But most importantly, he understands the importance of continuing his development by playing matches; he shrugs off the talk of a move away with Tottenham, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United circling, “I made my mind up to stay, months before signing that contract [a three year deal in the summer of 2017 taking him right up to the summer of 2020].” “I knew I’d play more games here than elsewhere, which is important at my age in order to keep developing.”

A fitting way to end the piece. He’s the only player outside of one of Europe’s top five divisions to feature in this special and with the way things are moving, it won’t be much longer until he joins them; lets just home it’s in the white shirts of Fulham with Craven Cottage as his home.