How Fulham can get back on track

After a summer splurge of big money signings, many respected pundits tipped Fulham as dark horses to finish in the top half of the Premier League come May. But, as with any promoted side, remaining in the top division was the primary objective. Having collected just five points from their first twelve games, safety seems far from assured and it was clear that something had to change. The sacking of Slavisa Jokanovic and his immediate replacement by Claudio Ranieri was a decisive move from the Fulham board – and a decision that should provide some hope heading into a critical pre-Christmas period.

Fulham’s defence has been the cause of their faltering start, with fundamental mistakes costing the Whites dearly as they conceded 31 goals in a harrowing first three months back in the Premier League. This is something that the new manager and his coaching staff will be looking to rectify, as Ranieri indicated in his first press conference.  The imminent returns of Alfie Mawson and Joe Bryan should give the Italian options at the back that Jokanovic simply didn’t have for much of this season. Mawson was brought in from Swansea in the summer for around £20 million and has not quite had the start he and the fans were hoping for. Approaching match sharpness again, Mawson could be the anchor at the heart of the back four that Fulham have badly missed – and the Whites would dearly love him to replicate some of his assured displays for Swansea.

Joe Bryan looked bright at the beginning of his season, with an impressive display at Wembley against Tottenham in August, where he created an equaliser with a fabulous cross. His attack-minded nature meant he was ideally suited to Jokanovic’s sense of adventure, but there is no reason why he can’t adapt to a more disciplined Ranieri approach. Fulham have sorely missed a natural left back since his hamstring injury at Everton and Bryan’s reintroduction into the side should allow Sessegnon the freedom to take up a more advanced role and torment defences as he did when claiming the Championship player of the year award last term.

Looking back, Fulham were unfortunate at Anfield in what proved to be Jokanovic’s final game in charge. They were unlucky not to lead through Aleksandar Mitrovic’s excellent header – a misery compounded by the injustice of Mo Salah’s strike seconds later being allowed to stand. The Whites showed fight – typified by the feisty performance of Calum Chambers in a holding midfield role – in a game few expected them to win, but they need to pick up points before they are cut adrift at the foot of the table. Ranieri will need to establish some consistency and it is already clear that Jokanovic’s expansive playing style will be one of the first things sacrificed.

A win against Southampton would be the dream start, with the Fulham fans hoping they can build on that dogged showing on Merseyside. Home form is very important to any team fighting relegation and it looked like Fulham were ready to continue the impressive run in SW6 from last season when they put Burnley to the sword at Craven Cottage and fought back to claim a point against high-flying Watford. Since then, defeats by Arsenal – who were ruthless in front of goal – and a sharp Bournemouth side have punctured any lingering optimism and left the side looking more than a little bedraggled.

In his first press conference as Fulham head coach last week, Ranieri emphasised the importance of defensive strength -something that should be welcomed with open arms after Jokanovic’s exciting style proved unsustainable at this level. The international break should have given Ranieri some extra time to impart his methods and philosophy on to the majority of his squad and there will be a few players looking to prove a point or two against the Saints this weekend. We’ll always remember Slav for his pretty football and that remarkable day at Wembley, but Ranieri’s realism could be just what the doctor ordered.

Slavisa Jokanovic – Simply a Fulham hero

Even if you didn’t want to, it was easy enough to construct a case for Slavisa Jokanovic to go. Fulham were bottom of the Premier League after twelve games and the early sparkle of their performances had long since dwindled out. It appeared as though his bold possession-based game and attacking philosophy had brutally met its match in the unforgiving world of the top flight. He couldn’t decide on his best back line, never mind his bad eleven, and there was an alarming lack of fight from a side that used to put their bodies on the line. And yet, when the news came on Tuesday morning that he’d be replaced by Claudio Ranieri, there was a sense of shock and profound sadness.

The bond between Jokanovic and the Fulham fans was forged firstly in a moment of genuine turmoil for the football club. Fulham’s senior officials had badly bungled the follow-up to sacking Kit Symons and the Serbian arrived in south west London with the Whites in serious danger of plummeting into League One. Jokanovic couldn’t even strengthen a badly unbalanced and threadbare squad with a transfer embargo to navigate through in his first few weeks. His response told us a lot about the character of the man – he grinned and bore it and gradually hauled his team away from the relegation zone, not through the scintillating football that we came to know and love, but at times seemingly through the sheer force of his well.

The serious surgery undertaken on his squad in the summer of 2016 troubled some, with the departure of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele leaving his side looking light in the forward areas, as a host of new faces arrived in double quick time. Scott Malone soon established himself as a world-beating, offensive full back whilst Sone Aluko began to dazzle on the wing. The assured first steps of Ryan Sessegnon into senior football at the tender age of sixteen were encouraged by Jokanovic, who – following a promising League Cup debut at Leyton Orient – handed the teenager a first league start at Elland Road. Just as he would going forward, the steely Sessegnon hardly let anyone down.

Jokanovic’s forward-thinking style took a while to transmit itself to the team, with unsteady starts to the campaign in both of Fulham’s last two Championship seasons. But his boldness was eventually rewarded with some of the most spellbinding football ever produced by a Fulham side, including the one that decimated the First Division under Jean Tigana all those years ago. You might point to the aftermath of that desperate December afternoon in Sunderland as the moment when Fulham’s fortunes definitively turned – but, for me, the fearlessness with which Fulham poured forward to beat Sheffield United by the odd goal in nine, showed just how bold Jokanovic’s charges could be.

There were so many magnificent moments during the 23-match unbeaten run that almost carried the Whites to automatic promotion that it is impossible to pinpoint just one. The impacts of Aleksandar Mitrovic, who terrorised Championship defences almost instantly after his arrival on a pivotal January loan from Newcastle United, and Matt Targett, who seemed to have had years of experience of playing behind Sessegnon, were crucial in reviving Fulham’s fortunes. Some of those away days were legendary – the euphoria of Mitrovic’s late winner at Preston North End was something to be held, whilst the majesty of Kevin McDonald’s long-range effort at Millwall will live long in the memory.

Nobody wanted to be in the play-offs, of course, and it seemed like Fulham’s history would repeat itself when the side subsided rather meekly in the first-leg at Derby. But, then came the second half revival on one of the great nights at Craven Cottage, with Sessegnon’s predatory instincts and an iconic header from Denis Odoi swinging a tight tie Fulham’s way. I don’t need to recount the wonder of Wembley to any Fulham follower: the ecstasy of Tom Cairney’s gorgeously crafted goal, and then the bloody-mindedness of a spirited rearguard that resisted Aston Villa’s search for an equaliser after Odoi’s dismissal – typified by Oliver Norwood’s superb challenge shortly after stepping off the bench.

Jokanovic is his own harshest critic. He will be smarting at just how easily his side was prized open by English football’s elite and how frail Fulham looked against Cardiff and Huddersfield, two of their rivals in what now looks like a battle royale to escape relegation. The decision to replace the Serb with Claudio Ranieri may yet prove to be a masterstroke. But my sense is that Jokanovic had earned a little more faith through the glorious football his team had played over the past three years. The fact that Shahid Khan had spent more than £100m in supplementing the squad this summer ultimately counted against Jokanovic, but the coach who imbued Fulham with a distinctive identity and a sense of adventure will always be remembered fondly as a Fulham hero. He deserves nothing less.

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

Fulham replace Jokanovic with Ranieri

Fulham have sacked Slavisa Jokanovic and replaced him with Claudio Ranieri as they attempt to arrest their alarming start to the Premier League season.

Jokanovic, who led the Whites to promotion via the Championship play-offs last season, was dismissed following Sunday’s defeat at Liverpool with Fulham bottom of the Premier League. The Cottagers had taken just five points from their first 12 games of the new campaign.

Ranieri, who led Leicester to the Premier League title in 2016, will take charge of his first match after the international break when Southampton visit Craven Cottage on Saturday 24 November. The Italian has signed ‘a multi-year contract’ to take over the London club.

Fulham chairman Shahid Khan said: ‘Claudio is risk-free and ready-made for the Premier League, and particularly so for what we need at this moment at Fulham. His recent body of work with Leicester City is literally legendary and then you look at Claudio’s experience with Chelsea and big clubs throughout Europe, and it’s pretty evident we are welcoming an extraordinary football man to Fulham Football Club’.

Liverpool deepen Fulham’s gloom

This turned out to be the routine Liverpool victory that almost everybody expected, but a tight and cagey contest turned on fourteen pivotal seconds just before half-time. Slavisa Jokanovic’s rejigged defensive unit had battled bravely before the interval, spurning a couple of chances on the counter-attack, and looked to have taken the lead when Aleksandar Mitrovic powered home Tom Cairney’s cross. As the visitors celebrated what they thought was the opening goal, Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson reacted to the offside flag and sent a quick free-kick out to Trent Alexander-Arnold. The full back’s forward ball released Mohamed Salah, and with Denis Odoi attempting to play offside on the half-way line, the Egytian sauntered in to slot the ball beyond Sergio Rico. Television replays suggested assistant referee Adrian Holmes might have been wrong to rule out Mitrovic’s goal and that Alisson’s quick bit of thinking had seen him strike a moving ball. When your luck is out, it’s well and truly out.

Fulham’s formation might have been conservative, designed to try and remove some of the truly awful defensive mistakes that have characterised their calamitous start to life back in the top flight, but they did pose Liverpool a few problems in a low-key first half. Teenage winger Ryan Sessegnon will feel he should have done much better than merely shoot wide of the far post when a clever flick from Mitrovic sent him clear through the middle of the Liverpool defence, whilst Alisson was almost embarrassed when he nearly parried a Schurrle shot straight back to the Serbian striker.

In between times, Fulham were indebted to Rico for keeping them in the contest. The Spaniard produced a smothering save to keep out Salah as he sought to link up with Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino on the edge of the Fulham box and spread himself well to prevent the Egyptian from opening the scoring. The recalled Xherdan Shaqiri proved the most likely source of Liverpool inspiration for much of the first period, twice firing wide from promising positions, whilst also sending a steady supply of chances to Jurgen Klopp’s three forwards. Alexander-Arnold might have done better than waste good positions when he pushed forward on the right – but the turning point on the cusp of half-time put an entirely different complexion on proceedings.

Calum Chambers had enjoyed an encouraging outing as an additional holding midfielder alongside Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, who still looks to be getting to grips with the demands of Premier League football. But the concession of that goal to Salah necessitated more urgency in Fulham’s play after the break, especially with Mitrovic horribly isolated up front for much of a fruitless afternoon. The visitors were penned back almost from the start of the second half and were grateful to another splendid save from Rico, who somehow turned Mane’s shot, that looked destined for the top corner, over the bar.

The relief was merely, temporary, however. Fulham seemed to have survived the danger when Alexander-Arnold’s corner was overhit but as the ball broke to Robertson in a crossing position down the left, Tom Cairney made the critical decision to leave Shaqiri unattended at the back post, and the Swiss international handsomely volleyed home his second league goal of the season from eight yards out. From the point on, the result was an inevitably – it was a surprise that Liverpool couldn’t plunder further goals as the belief drained from their opponents.

Fulham were limited, but spirited. There was far more fight soon here than in the spineless surrender at Huddersfield last Monday night. A seventh consecutive defeat could spell the end for Jokanovic, but on this performance that would be particularly harsh. The Serbian should get the international break and the opportunity to prepare his side for another crucial six-pointer at Craven Cottage against Southampton at the very least.

LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Gomez, van Dijk; Fabinho (Keita 90+2), Wijnaldum (Henderson 69), Shaqiri (Milner 82); Mane, Salah, Firminio. Subs (not used): Mignolet, Lovren, Moreno, Sturridge.

BOOKED: Gomez.

GOALS: Salah (41), Shaqiri (53).

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rico; Christie, Le Marchand, Mawson, Odoi; Chambers, Anguissa (Johansen 84); Schurrle (Vietto 78), R. Sessegnon, Cairney (Seri 63). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Ream, Fosu-Mensah, Kebano.

BOOKED: Chambers.

REFEREE: Paul Tierney (Wigan).

ATTENDANCE: 53,128

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