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

Arsenal Thoughts

October is my favourite month of the year. I suppose it stems from the fact that my birthday is in October, but I have also always loved the colours of the trees at the this time of the year, and the fireworks at the end of the month. In Northern Ireland we don’t celebrate Guy Fawkes night, but we do have fireworks etc on Halloween night, so I always associate October with birthdays and fireworks. Last year Fulham really put a dampener on my normally high spirits in October with four lacklustre displays and therefore four disappointing results. We scrapped draws against Preston and Wigan at home, while we were beaten comfortably by both Aston Villa and Bristol City. It had already been a poor start to the season, and a fair few fans had already started to believe that promotion wasn’t a realistic target. Fast forward a few months, and Fulham were smack-bang in the middle of a push up the table, showing that a slow start isn’t the end of the world.

We have started slowly this season with just the one win so far from our seven games and 16 goals conceded. It doesn’t look great on paper, but it could also look a lot worse. We have to remember that Fulham have started the past few seasons relatively slowly, and have then ended up doing very well. We have had to deal with a massive jump up in quality as well as integrating so many new players into our club. I fully believe that we will have a good run of results soon and that the performances will improve as the players adjust to the league so we just have to hang in there and continue to support the team.

It would be amazing to start October with a win, but it will be extremely difficult against an Arsenal side who have won eight games on the bounce in all competitions. It’s a new era for Arsenal under Unai Emery, but the Spaniard seems to be settled in well at the Emirates with his side sitting 5th in the table after a real rocky opening few matches. They will have to overcome some European jetlag after their trip to Qarabag in Azerbaijan, but as it was a much changed side in the week, we shouldn’t count on the same levels of tiredness that Burnley had back in August.

We have a reasonably good record against Arsenal at home, with three wins, a draw and four defeats in our last eight games against them in the league. While this isn’t ground-breaking, it’s decent enough form for us against a traditionally much stronger club. Could Fulham repeat the wins of 2012, 2008 or 2006 this Sunday?

While Arsenal are on a rich run of form, we should note that they have only kept two cleansheets in the league this season. With Petr Cech looking like he might miss out because of an injury sustained last week, there could be a real opportunity for our front three to have a productive game. At the other end of the pitch, however, we will have to be weary of a side who have 14 goals already this season. Our defence has been our weakest point this year, and we will be without Joe Bryan and Timothy Fosu-Mensah for certain after the pair were forced off last week injured. I’d imagine that Ryan Sessegnon will revert to left back with Cyrus Christie on the right. I thought Christie was really poor last week, so hopefully we see some improvement this time around.

We have missed a fit Tom Cairney over the past few games, and I absolutely think that he makes the difference for us in midfield. While I agree that Seri is probably the best player to wear a Fulham shirt for years, I think we have missed Cairney’s awareness and knowledge of the English game in there. Hopefully we see him start on Sunday.

#COYW

Hammyend Player of the Month – September

As months go, September wasn’t particularly fruitful for Fulham. Five games played, two defeats, two draws and our solitary victory coming in a Carabao Cup match against Millwall at the Den. Before the season started I had been hoping for wins against Brighton and Watford (I hadn’t expected Watford to start quite as well as they did) while Manchester City was always going to be a bit of a free hit and Everton? Well, we never have a good time there, do we?

With the team not exactly covering themselves in glory it wasn’t easy picking out four players to even be nominated for September’s prize, but the team have come up with their suggestions, so here goes.

Marcus Bettinelli

Our number one always seems to split opinion, but I consider us very fortunate to have a player who is playing for the club that he loves. It’s very telling that after the defeats away to Manchester City and Everton that it was the two players to come from the academy who spent the longest applauding the fans. But onto the football. You could argue that it hasn’t been a great month for Betts as he has had to pick the ball out of his net nine times, but he also arguably saved us from defeats in both the Brighton and Watford games. He saved a penalty at Brighton while it could have been game over by half time against Watford if it wasn’t for a number of key saves. Slav even handed him the armband in the absence of both Cairney and McDonald from the starting team on Saturday, and while I’m not a big fan of keepers as captains, it shows a great deal of faith in him from the gaffer.

Aleksandar Mitrovic

I would imagine that it will be hard to keep Mitrovic out of these nominations in any month. This time around Mitro has scored twice including the equaliser against Watford. He was the main threat throughout the second half and is constantly showing why it was a stroke of genius from Jokanovic to give him a chance with us. He has the most shots on target in the league, alongside Mo Salah, and is sitting second in the race for the Golden Boot with five goals to his name. The player snubbed by Newcastle on his own has more goals than his former club in the league. Championship player, will never make it in the Premier League, eh?

Luciano Vietto

What a breath of fresh air the Argentinian has been in a month of otherwise uninspiring displays from the team. At first I thought that he had been quite wasteful against Watford, but looking back on it it’s becoming a habit of his to be involved in pretty much everything about Fulham’s attack. Despite looking quite skinny, he has great strength that so often sees him surrounded by players but able to keep the ball and start an attack. I do think that his decision making in the final third needs improvement, but he is constantly causing headaches for defenders. He grabbed the assist for Mitrovic’s equaliser taking his total to three for the season, third overall in the league. I fully expect more to come from him in the coming months.

Luca De La Torre

Normally I’d rather have players who have played more than once at least for us in the Player of the Month nominees, but with it being slim pickings this month, there was space for players with just the one appearance. What a performance we had from Luca De La Torre against Millwall in the cup. An assist either side of his first goal for the Whites meant that he was involved in every goal that night. We don’t really have another player at the club who can play in that number ten role so it will be interesting to see if he can do enough to get a chance in the league. He has been at the club for quite a while now, but is one who many have been excited about, and with good reason. He has the vision and the energy to be a very useful player for us, and his performance against Millwall was enough to see him get a mention in these nominees.

So there you have it, your four nominees. The poll this month will be held entirely on twitter so make sure that you cast your vote.

Has Stuart Gray’s departure irrevocably harmed Fulham?

I only met Stuart Gray twice. One was in the Madjeski Stadium car park, when in a jovial mood, we celebrated the coolness of Lucas Piazon’s measured finish that had rescued a point for Fulham’s ten men at Reading at the start of last season. The other time was at Motspur Park where he spoke briefly about how he’d managed to make watching the Whites defend set plays a much less stressful experience. He was passionate, open to discussion with the fans and clearly a deep thinker about the game, who was enjoying his time at the club.

It came as something of a surprise therefore, considering the remarkable upturn in fortunes of Fulham during the two and a half years that Gray spent at the club, when he left during the summer. While all the focus was on the flowing football and attacking intent that had helped the Whites became something of an irresistible force in the Championship, Gray quietly got on with the job of turning a defence that had been shambolic into a miserly unit that complimented the way Jokanovic wanted his side to play.

It involved hard graft on the training ground, an emphasis on fitness and decision-making as well as communication across the back line. Kevin McDonald’s arrival as a holding midfielder – playing a deeper role than he had at any point in his career – made a decisive difference, both as an organiser and as an outlet to receive the ball of the back four. McDonald’s positioning was crucial, as was the recovery speed of the likes of Ryan Fredericks, Scott Malone and even Matt Targett, when the Southampton left back fitted so seamlessly into the back four after signing on loan last January.

The training ground drills weren’t quite as repetitive as the ones that Roy Hodgson employed to drag his embattled side away from the Premier League drop zone, but practice, partnerships and positioning were a hallmark of the hard graft at Motspur Park. Gray’s wealth of managerial and coaching experience throughout the Football League proved invaluable to a coaching staff that had largely cut their teeth on the continent, aside from Jokanovic’s canter to promotion from the Championship with Watford. The remarkable renaissance of Tim Ream and the emergence of Denis Odoi as a ball-playing centre half owed much to the first team senior coach’s tutelage and patient cajoling.

There was a consistency to the Fulham back line that remained even once Odoi displaced the successful 2016/2017 partnership of Ream and Tomas Kalas. The Whites were comfortable holding a higher line than you might have expected given the centre halves’ lack of pace – and the extraordinary unbeaten run that almost carried them to automatic promotion was built not just on possession football but defensive diligence. The fact that the jittery, panic-stricken defending of corners and free kicks gradually became a thing of the past certain helped too.

Now, linking Fulham’s alarmingly leaky defence to Gray’s departure might be a bit of a stretch. His meticulous organisation and attention to detail could well be sorely missed, but Jokanovic has had other factors to deal with. Even setting aside the obvious step in class when it comes to the opposition in the Premier League, Fulham have had to integrate a whole host of new players and seen several signings beset by injuries. The early-season goalkeeping situation couldn’t have helped and the fact that Jokanovic has fielded six different back fours means the consistency that the best teams count upon hasn’t been obtainable.

It’s just a hunch, provoked by Fulham’s shambolic second half collapse at Goodison Park, but Gray’s surprising summer departure might have left a bigger hole than Jokanovic could have initially appreciated. Good defences make strong teams – and Fulham’s gung-ho style leaves little margin for error at the highest level.

Sigurdsson double extends Fulham’s barren run

If you’d read the script beforehand, then this Fulham defeat might almost have appeared made to order. The Whites have never won in the league at Goodison Park – losing their last 23 league games at Everton in a row – and the Londoners haven’t kept a top flight clean sheet in any of their last 22 away games, a miserable stat this is a Premier League record. It was all so depressingly predictable, but for at least 45 minutes Slavisa Jokanovic’s hinted at being able to rewrite the record books.

It is clear that the Serbian’s side remain very much a work in progress at this level. If the opening day defeat at the hands of Crystal Palace proved a lesson in the need to take your chances in the top flight, then this could have doubled as a timely refresher. Fulham produced a composed and patient display of possession football in a first half they gradually began to control, but had nothing to show for their endeavour having squandered the two best chances. A player of Andre Schurrle’s quality should have done better than to laconically sidefoot over the bar from the edge of the box after Ryan Sessegnon and Joe Bryan had unlocked the Everton defence down the left, before the teenage left winger rattled the frame of the goal from closer range having latched onto Jean-Michael Seri’s gloriously weighted through pass.

Jokanovic admitted his side had paid ‘an expensive price’ for failing to hit the target – the visitors didn’t manage to test Jordan Pickford at all – but their inability to match Everton’s energetic start after the half-time break will have been particularly disconcerting. They failed to heed the warning when Gylfi Siggurdson smacked the crossbar with a spot-kick, awarded after Dominic Calvert-Lewin took a tumble after a challenge from Denis Odoi, and eventually capitulated rather meekly as Seri and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa faded from their starring first half roles.

Sigurdsson stroked home a gorgeous first goal from the edge of the box, arriving to curl a low effort into the bottom corner after Odoi had half-cleared Jonjoe Kenny’s cross, although Icelandic international was only belatedly pressed by Luciano Vietto. The home side remained on the offensive – galvanised by taking a lead that appeared likely to restore order to this fixture – but it was Vietto’s failure to profit from a swift Fulham break that left you with the feeling it just wasn’t going to be their day. The Argentinian galloped onto a clever reverse ball from Schurrle, but his heavy touch as he bore down on goal allowed Pickford to pluck the ball from his toes. The England goalkeeper celebrated with a clenched first – and Fulham never truly threatened again.

Instead, Everton made their winning margin much more comfortable. Cenk Tosun headed home his first Everton goal since April from close range after drifting away from Odoi to nod home Theo Walcott’s lofted cross to double the Toffees’ lead. With time ticking down, substitute Bernard made an immediate impact – dribbling into the box down the left flank, and pulling the ball break for Sigurdsson, left all alone on the edge of box again, to pick his spot in the last minute of normal time. Everton’s first win since August was just the tonic for Marco Silva, whose delight on the touchline by the end stood in sharp contrast to frustration when Fulham had began so promisingly.

By the end, the visitors had been reduced to ten men as Joe Bryan headed straight down the tunnel having tweaked his hamstring after Jokanovic had already made his three substitutions. The first of those had seen Timothy Fosu-Mensah stretched off with a serious shoulder injury – and further defensive reorganisation, a consistent part of Fulham’s season so far, will be required before the Whites’ face Arsenal at Craven Cottage on Saturday. This defeat might count as a surprise, but it was particularly deflating.

EVERTON (4-2-3-1): Pickford; Kenny, Digne, Keane, Zouma; Gueve, Davies; Richarlison (Bernard 88), Walcott, G. Sigurdsson (Schneiderlin 90+1); Calvert-Lewin (Tosun 55). Subs (not used): Stekelenburg, Holgate, Baines, Lookman.

GOALS: G. Sigurdsson (56, 89), Tosun (66).

FULHAM (4-5-1): Bettinelli; Fosu-Mensah (Christie 8), Bryan, Odoi, Ream; Anguissa, Seri (Ayite 81), Vietto (Cairney 64), R. Sessegnon, Schurrle; Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rico, Le Marchand, McDonald, Johansen.

BOOKED: Fosu-Mensah, Christie, Odoi, Mitrovic.

REFEREE: Roger East (Wiltshire).

ATTENDANCE: 38,778