December Woes

My Uncle asked me recently what life was like as a Fulham fan right now and the only word that came to mind was, “Grim.” I’m pretty sure that I thought the Premier League would be much more fun than it has turned out so far. If the increase in prices wasn’t bad enough, we have had to deal with some abject performances from a team that promised so much. We find ourselves in danger of being bottom at Christmas, something that teams rarely survive from. It’s going to take one momentous effort from the squad to get us out of this mess, and we as a fan base need to keep up the support.

I do believe that the team has looked much more organised under Ranieri, and 4points from four games isn’t bad considering we have been away to Chelsea and Manchester United in that time. The games between now and the end of December could either give us the hope that we need, or could essentially relegate us. There are no easy games in this league, but being at home to West Ham, Huddersfield and Wolves alongside a trip to St James Park to face Newcastle is a run of games that could take us off the bottom of the table. It’s an opportunity that has to be taken if we are to stay in the Promised Land next season.

Unfortunately for us West Ham have come in to a little run of form of late and have found there scoring boots. They have already scored 12 goals in the month of December with three in each of their wins over Newcastle United, Cardiff City and Crystal Palace, so we can expect our defence to be tested. It doesn’t bode well for a side still yet to keep a clean sheet this season. Another concern is that those 12 goals have been scored by five different players, none of which are Marko Arnautovi?, who has for so long been West Ham’s main threat. They have quality throughout their squad so there is no room for the silly mistakes that keep hampering our progress.

Ranieri made five changes last time out but I’m not sure that anyone would say that it worked. Denis Odoi was poor at right back while Tim Ream just doesn’t look Premier League ready. Hopefully Chambers will have gotten over whatever kept him out last weekend because he has been one of the positive things about Fulham over the past few weeks. Anguissa will be suspended but his performance wasn’t anything to shout home about so I’d imagine he wouldn’t have been in Ranieri’s plans any way. The next four games need to give us a spring board to something that Ranieri can work with over the January transfer window. It will be easier to attract players if we can show that we have a bit of fight about us. I think little Freddie here has the right idea…

All in all we need some Christmas joy around the Cottage, and soon. Grim times can turn very quickly into joyous times in football. Saturday night is huge.

#COYW

Derby Day

The Claudio Ranieri Era got off to a great start last weekend beating fellow strugglers Southampton at the Cottage to ease the tensions at the football club. While we couldn’t say that it was a comfortable victory, we saw fight for the first time in months and that alone has brought fresh optimism to the banks of the Thames. We know that we have a squad filled with quality, and while it is really sad that Jokanovic just wasn’t able to make it click, Ranieri already looks to have invigorated the squad. It’s early days, but the signs so far are good.

Just 1.4 miles separates Craven Cottage and Stamford Bridge making Fulham’s trip to Chelsea on Sunday one of the shortest in the Premier League. Given that Cardiff, Southampton, Palace all picked up points on Saturday’s round of matches, it’s important that we are not blown away in this one. It’s not a must win game, but there is no question of it being an important game. Playing against your neighbours is always important and I won’t be the only Fulham fan who had this one marked out early when the fixtures were announced in the summer.

Chelsea are on a weird run at the minute. They flew out of the blocks under Sarri, but have now hit a bit of a road block with a 0-0 draw with Everton before being destroyed by Spurs last weekend at Wembley. They have already taken the first step in redeeming themselves with a comfortable victory midweek in the Europa League, but as it was essentially a meaningless game as they had already qualified for the next round, most of their fans will have been looking ahead to the next game in the league. We might be facing a Hazard-less Chelsea tomorrow with the midfielder still struggling with an ankle knock, plus we may see more of the fallout from the Kante saga, but all in all we face a very tough test tomorrow.

I’ve always had this West London derby on my bucket list so I can’t wait for the game tomorrow, and I can’t help but dreaming about getting something from it. It’s been almost five years since we last played Chelsea, and our last win was 12 years ago when Luis Boa Morte scored the winner at the Cottage 2006. You never know, we could have another hero tomorrow!

#COYW

No Room for Sentiment

I don’t think that I have ever seen a response to a managerial change quite like the one in the aftermath of Fulham’s announcement yesterday. While things were looking ominous on the pitch, Jokanovic seemingly had the support of those in high places at Craven Cottage. The reaction to the sacking hasn’t been one of relief that we sometimes see with these things, but was one of sadness. What Slavisa Jokanovic did for Fulham was incredible. From being in danger of slipping down to League One, to getting promoted to the Premier League through the play-offs was an epic turnaround. Some of the football we have played over the past few years has had us nearly drooling but for some reason it just hasn’t worked in the top tier of English football. I’ll get to where things maybe went wrong further down the piece, but for now I want to try and sum up why my overwhelming emotion about the news of Jokanovic’s sacking is sadness.

The loss of our project manager- I’ve said before that I love the idea of a manager taking on a job with the view to a long term project. Football has become a place where job security doesn’t exist. Look at our new manager for example; he led Leicester to the Premier League in what was possibly the greatest football underdog story of all time, but was sacked within a year! Clubs are so scared of getting relegated that often logic doesn’t come into decisions regarding managerial jobs and so often managers are hired as a short term solution to a long term problem. This is where Fulham have gone against the status quo a bit with Jokanovic’s reign. He very easily could have been sacked last year after our miserable start, but the Khan’s chose to stick with their man and we were rewarded with promotion. For this reason, I am gutted that our project manager is gone. He fixed things about our club and that resulted in the best day of my footballing life at Wembley back in May but it was only after he had made mistakes along the way.

Recruitment, recruitment, recruitment- When I try and think about what has went wrong this year, I keep coming back to the same answer-recruitment. People will harp on about 100million this and 100million that but ultimately we ended up with a very unbalanced squad. I have no doubt that we have extremely talented players at our club, but the team as a whole in how it plays is poor. One of the problems was that we have relied on loans over the past few years so when these came to an end we were left with just 12 first team players at the club. And it wasn’t like we got rid of the fringe players- no, these were players who had a huge impact on our promotion journey. Players like Tomas Kalas and Ollie Norwood have been huge losses given our rocky back four and the injury to Cairney. These might not be world class players, but I believe that the consistency might have helped this season. Jokanovic found himself in a position were he not only had to acclimatise to the huge step up in class, he also had to incorporate a staggering eleven new players into the club. Looking back, I don’t think it was ever going to end well.

Acceptance- While I am really sad about Jokanovic’s sacking, I can understand it. There are only so many times that you can recover from a slow start, and this is Jokanovic’s third season in a row were there have been question marks over him. I backed him to the hilt last year but, admittedly, I have found it harder and harder to back him 100% this time around. I wanted more than anything for him to do well, but his stubbornness and his sometimes baffling line-ups made me begin to think that he had lost his way a bit. While I didn’t want to read that he had been sacked (not yet anyway) I do understand the decision. The problem was that he gave the Khan’s a decision to make, and if you do that you are in  dodgy territory. I think that I would find this much harder to take if we ended up with Sam Allardyce or Alan Pardew leading the club, but Claudio Ranieri is undoubtably a great manager. You don’t win the Premier League by accident and while I know that’s certainly not our target, we can be relieved that it’s him and not someone else. The key now for us is to continue to support the team.

Memories- I could write a book about all the memories I have over the past three years alone supporting Fulham. We have had heartbreak, but we have also had the most surreal day back in May. We have watched our team playing some beautiful football but have also seen some calamitous decisions. Instead of going through a lot of things, I think I’ll focus on just one match that I think summed us up in a nutshell. When we went to St James Park in the 2016-17 season, we all knew that it would be an incredibly tough game. We were, after all, going to take on the league leaders in front of 50,00 odd passionate Geordies with Rafa Benetiz in charge. We were on a good run of form, but nobody there that day expected us to go 3nil in front, with 16 year-old Ryan Sessegnon silencing everybody apart from the 1000 Fulham fans in the clouds up on the top tier. We absolutely tore the league leaders apart and it was probably the best performance that I had witnessed from Fulham in some years. To make it fulhamish, however, we conceded a stupid goal before missing an injury time penalty. Yes, we won the game 3-1, but we managed to make an impressive victory a bit difficult for ourselves. While we all went home happy, I feel that it sums us up under Jokanovic really well. We played some sizzling hot football, yet defended slightly naively and then made the crazy decision to get centre back Tim Ream to take a penalty and miss, instead of letting a 16 year-old kid have the chance to score his first professional hattrick. It was a wonderful day, but done very much in the style of Jokanovic’s Fulham.

To close I just want to say this; I’m devastated that it hasn’t worked out for Jokanovic this season, but unfortunately there is no room for sentiment in football any more. He will always be welcome back to the Cottage by me, but for now we have to say “Best wishes, Slav and welcome, Claudio.”

#COYW

Relegation Candidates – How do we compare?

I think it’s time for me to come to terms with the fact that we are in one hell of a relegation battle this year. While the first few games of the season were encouraging, the last five or so games have been diabolical. I thought that losing 4-2 at Cardiff was going to be our rock bottom this season, but Monday night’s horrendous display away to Huddersfield was possibly the most gutless performance I have witnessed of the Slavisa Jokanovic era. It was worse than Sunderland last year and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt winded by it. I’ve said this to a lot of people, that it wasn’t the defeat but the manner of the defeat. Apart from a few bright sparks, the majority of that team can’t possibly have walked off that pitch satisfied with their performance. We need things to turn fast, something that will be very difficult given our games between now and Christmas include Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United away. Those games should be ones that we cherish, but right now I am just in fear of what the combined scoreline will be.

If you have read my work before you will know that I love a stat, and often can find something to be positive about amongst the overwhelming negatives right now, so here is a comparison of some key statistics between Fulham and some of our fellow relegation candidates. Should be fun, eh?

Goals conceded

I’ll start with the worst to get it out of the way. We top this one, and not just in the Premier League but in England. Not helped by constant defensive changes and injuries, our record at the back is the single biggest worry many Fulham fans have. The picture isn’t particularly pretty for Burnley or Cardiff either though.

Tackle Success

Remarkably we have a defensive area where Fulham aren’t the worst! We do have players who can stick the boot in and win the ball back, but my worry is that when we win the ball back we tend to give it straight back again. It’s another alarming stat for Burnley defensively, while Southampton fans also won’t find this easy reading.

Goals scored

This makes better viewing for Fulham fans. While at the back things are bad, we do have more goals in our team than most of our rivals. While we haven’t scored in three games running in the league, we do have players who should be capable of sticking the ball in the net so we have to hope that this will be enough to keep us up.

Big chances created

Goals win you games, so the more chances you create, the more you will score. We are quite a bit better than others in our precarious position for ‘big chances created’, so again we can take a bit of confidence in this.

Pass Accuracy

What’s impressive about Fulham’s high pass accuracy is that we also have about 900 attempted passes more than the next best on the list. To have an 81% pass success rate when we have attempted 5,534 is very positive and shows that if we could get our style to click then good things could come for this team. Not only do Cardiff have the lowest successful pass percentage, they have also only attempted 2,900. Not great.

What does this teach us?

While the most important stat is the amount of points accumulated at the end of the season, we can take from these stats that we have strengths in our game where others don’t. I’d like to think that as games go on, we will pick up points because of our attacking game. We need to tighten up defensively, but over time our strengths should show.

The average position (based on best to worst, so for goals conceded we are 7th, not 1st as it has in the table) for each of the teams paints another interesting picture. I’ve tried to include stats that cover all areas of the pitch so our weaknesses are covered as well as our strengths so hopefully it gives a balanced view.

A friend of mine said at the start of the season that Cardiff, Huddersfield and Burnley were his teams to go down. Maybe he’ll be right. Hopefully over time Fulham’s strengths will show and points will be gained.

#COYW

Bournemouth Thoughts

I’ve waited a few days to try and articulate my post-Bournemouth thoughts in an attempt to come at things from a more balanced stand point. When the final whistle went on Saturday I just sat in the quickly emptying stadium for about 20 minutes trying to understand what is going wrong at the minute at the club. We looked to be in the game at 1-0 down, with Bournemouth rarely threatening, but when they scored the second it was obvious that we weren’t coming back from that. A sending off and another goal conceded later and we were left with another result that pushes our relegation credentials upwards. There’s nothing positive we can take from 28 goals conceded in 10 league games. It’s diabolical.

On Saturday the only real issue I had going into the match was Aboubakar Kamara on instead of Luciano Vietto, but I can see what Slav was going for. He wanted pace in the forward line, and in AK we have that. However, at half time we could all tell that it wasn’t working, so I can’t understand why he wasn’t withdrawn to allow for the system to be changed. It was also a shame that Cairney wasn’t brought on earlier than he was, although this may have been injury related. We looked a better team with him on the pitch and he was trying passes that either others couldn’t spot, or were too cautious to try and from that a few opportunities to get the ball into the box were created. I wholeheartedly believe that when we have Cairney back as a starter things will start to change for us.

I’ve already had a fair few non-Fulham fans asking me if Slav will be the next manager who gets sacked from a Premier League club and it’s easy to see why people from outside the club reckon his P45 is on its way with the current run of results. The football ‘hire and fire’ culture is a dangerous one, with managers often not given the time to remedy mistakes, or to build a project. While I believe that Jokanovic has made some serious errors in selection so far this season, I still don’t believe that sacking him would be productive. Yes, he needs to stop the constant chopping and changing, but I think removing him and bringing in someone new would just unsettle things even more. We also have to be aware of what a successful season should look like this year. We were never going to canter through easily, we were always going to have bumps along the way. While I think that it’s critical to address our defensive frailties, we are still strong in attack. Our target this season is survival, and I still believe that when the defence is settled that Jokanovic will be able to achieve this. If we are still shipping goals left, right and centre by New Year then that’s a different story, but sacking someone ten games into a season would be a mistake.

Stick with him for now.

#COYW