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

Things are bad, but sacking Jokanovic is too risky

There is a really interesting aspect to the Media Policy in the NFL that allows the media complete access the changing rooms from about 10-12minutes (known as the ‘cooling off period) after a game has finished. Journalists and cameramen flood into a room were all players and coaches are getting changed after a game, no matter what the result or mood is in the camp. To us, from the other side of the world, it seems strange and invasive of a place that over here is nearly sacred but it’s seen as an important part of sport in America. The reason I mention it is because after the Jacksonville Jaguars defeat on Sunday against the Houston Texans, their third defeat in a row to bring them to 3-4 this season, the doors were opened to the changing room in the middle of a brawl between Jags players. The frustration at how they were playing had boiled over and a few of the players were in the process of being separated by fellow team mates. I have played a lot of sport and I know that at times changing rooms can be the place where arguments can happen and where every emotion can be laid out on the table, so I really struggle to understand how it’s allowed to be opened up to the media, but after hearing about what happened on Sunday between the Jags players, it made me wonder what we would have seen had we been given access 10 minutes after Fulham’s appalling defeat on Saturday in Wales.

Would we have witnessed players brawling and pointing fingers at each other in a blame game or a red-faced Slavisa Jokanovic yelling at his players? Or would we have been greeted to an eerie silence as the team tried to comprehend just how badly the last few games have gone for us? Last year Tim Ream and Kevin McDonald were model professionals for us, being leaders both on and off the pitch. We also had Tom Cairney stamping his authority on the squad as one of the league’s best players. Contrast that to this season where we have had any combination of eleven players on the pitch all running about like strangers and the vast majority of goals conceded have been results of our own silly mistakes. It’s hard to see where the leaders are on the pitch, and that’s very worrying.

Our manager clearly doesn’t know who his best eleven are and the constant shopping and changing, particularly in defence, is causing bedlam when we take to the field. We have also gotten ourselves into a habit of letting the heads drop pretty much straight after we concede a goal. The pressure is heating up for Slavisa Jokanovic, and while reports that he has two league games to save his job are nonsense, he will need to find a way to get the team playing a heck of a lot better to fend off the flames. I don’t believe that he should be sacked at this moment in time as I think that will just make matters worse, but I’m not blind to the problems we have at the minute.

Swansea, West Brom and Stoke all changed managers last season and the risk didn’t pay off. The year we went down we had not one, not two, but three different managers throughout the season which was a complete disaster. We can’t point directly at Slav considering so many of the goals conceded have been individual errors, but we can question his squad selection. However, I do honestly believe that when players like Cairney and Fosu-Mensah are back and fit we will have a team with much more stability.

We can also take heart from the fact that Jokanovic has been a slow-starter with us throughout the two previous season but has found the ‘solution’, as he likes to say, each time resulting in a very strong finises. Yes, our fortunes in this respect will run out eventually but I think he deserves another chance to turn it around. Loyalty often pays off in football, and I believe that it will, once again, this time around.

Keep the faith.

#COYW

Out Gunned but Still Standing

 

It’s not long after the final whistle brought the misery to an end at Craven Cottage. It’s never nice losing at home, especially when another second half collapse saw us go from being in the game at 1-1, to being simply humiliated. It’s very easy to succumb to all out negativity after that sort of defeat and I’m not going to shy away from the bad parts of today, and our season so far, but I’ll also not ignore the positives.

Negatives

  1. Relying on Christie is asking for problems – He tries really hard, but Cyrus Christie is just so out of his depth. He is so focused on attack (and often doesn’t even get that right), that he leaves massive gaps behind him which welcomes opportunities for the opposition. Le Marchand bailed him out a few takes at 0-0 with some last-ditch tackles when Christie hadn’t even slightly gotten back to defend. I worry about playing him going forward, but maybe Fosu-Mensah will be back after the international break.
  1. One half team – There have been so many games this season were we have looked awful one half, but really good the other and today was a prime example of that. We did really well in the first half, but collapsed in the second. It was the same against Everton, while it was the first half were we barely showed up against Watford only for us to save it in the second. No team anywhere in the world will be able to get away with only showing up for one half of football. We have to be able to stay in games or else teams will just pick us off like Arsenal did today and like Everton did last week. I don’t know if it is a fitness thing or what, but whatever it is, it needs addressed.
  1. Slavisa’s subs – Today the decision to bring Kamara on was mind boggling. Ream I honestly think would have come off anyway as we need to ease him in after a back injury but to bring him off for Kamara was strange. I get that we then changed formation, but surely Floyd Ayite is a better option? I can’t criticise too much as I think Slav’s substitutions this year have been good (think Odoi at Watford as a prime example) but today there isn’t really any justification.
  1. Questions over Bettinelli – I have always been a firm defender of Marcus Bettinelli, but I can’t do that today. While some of the goals he couldn’t have done much about, a few certainly should have been handled better. It’s also getting to the stage that I’m questioning his organisation of the players in front of him as we don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. He has to take some responsibility for that. However, the responsibility can’t land at his feet and his feet only. It must be a nightmare trying to organise different players every week, and when your right wing back is nowhere to be seen, the gaps were like the splitting of the Nile at times. Hopefully his time with England this week will give him some confidence going into the games after the international break.

Positives

  1. Sessegnon is adjusting – One of the things I was most excited about this season was seeing what Sessegnon was able to do in the Premier League. The expectation on the youngster’s shoulders was carried very well last season, but he started this season quietly. However, I’ve been very impressed with him recently, and I think today was his best performance all season. That might sound daft considering the scoreline, but he coped very well, for the most part, in the attacking threat Arsenal had on the left. He won a number of foot races with the dangerous Hector Bellerin, and his decision making on when to go forward, go inside or stay back was right nearly every time. I’m not sure if Slavisa Jokanovic will go for a back three again, but if he does I think we can be quite optimistic about Sessegnon playing at LWB.
  2. We are still giving teams something to think about – There is no doubt that we were in the game at half time and at times during the first half we were playing the better football. It was the same at Wembley against Spurs when after we scored our goal we looked more likely to be the team taking the lead, but for Trippier to score a trademark free kick. And against Palace I thought we were very unfortunate to come away with nothing. While the rate of conceding is alarming, it wouldn’t be fair today that teams are better than us man to man. With defensive improvement we could push up the league.2. So many players are due back from injury – We have played a different back line in every game this season, and that is simply not OK, but we haven’t been helped by injuries to the defence particularly. I don’t believe for a second that Ream’s withdrawal at 2-1 down today was tactical, as he needs to be eased back in after a back injury. While I think the decision to bring Kamara on was flawed, I think Ream would have been coming off anyway. Alfie Mawson has a lot of potential, but also clearly isn’t ready. He really should be our main CB, but it won’t happen until he is fit. Then last week we lost both Joe Bryan and Timothy Fosu-Mensah and there is just nothing we can do about that other than nurse them back to health ASAP. While some of the chopping and changing has been a choice, a great deal of it has been injury induced. We also badly need Tom Cairney to get fit. It is so evident that when he is missing we lack a leader in midfield who has a bit of discipline about him.
  3. While our rate of conceding is bad, we have played Spurs, City, Everton and Arsenal this season – Conceding 21 goals in eight games is never going to be OK, but I don’t believe that it requires a meltdown considering who we have played. Teams are going to concede goals to Spurs and City away, while Arsenal are lethal going forward. Yes, I’d rather we kept it down, but we have to be realistic and remember that an injury ridden defence is going to be delicious prey for attackers like Kane, Moura, Sterling, Silva, Lacazette and Aubameyang. We may have helped them along the way, but it takes something special for a full 90 minutes to keep them out.

So while today wasn’t pretty, there are still reasons for us to be positive. The three games after the international break are crucial, and maybe after them we will have a better idea of how this team is adjusting to life in the Premier League.

#COYW