There was a sense of inevitability about the result at the Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Another promising half-time scoreline turned into a concerning full-time result, with defensive frailties once again in the spotlight.
Social media is inundated with concerned Fulham fans, questioning manager Slavisa Jokanovic’s tactical decisions, wondering if the squad assembled by Khan and co. is good enough for the Premier League, and discussing potential replacements in the newly refurbished Fulham dugout.
Some of these concerns obviously need addressing.
If Fulham continue to concede goals at the current rate that they have done this season, they’ll end up with a ‘Goals Against’ column reading 106, a figure that would almost certainly guarantee relegation.
A key part of the problem is the lack of consistency at the back for the Cottagers, with nine different back lines turning out in their nine league games thus far:
CRYSTAL PALACE (H) – Christie, Chambers, Le Marchand, Bryan
SPURS (A) – Fosu-Mensah, Chambers, Le Marchand, Bryan (Christie)
BURNLEY (H) – Fosu-Mensah, Odoi, Le Marchand, Bryan (Chambers)
BRIGHTON (A) – Fosu-Mensah, Odoi, Mawson, Le Marchand
MAN CITY (A) – Christie, Odoi, Mawson, Sessegnon
WATFORD (H) – Fosu-Mensah, Mawson (Odoi), Chambers, Sessegnon
EVERTON (A) – Fosu-Mensah (Christie), Odoi, Ream, Bryan
ARSENAL (H) – Christie, Odoi, Ream (McDonald), Le Marchand, Sessegnon
CARDIFF (A) – Chambers (Mawson), Odoi, Ream, Le Marchand
Ultimately, Fulham’s dire defensive record is undermining a side who offensively are producing performances that would more than likely be enough to keep a lower-mid table team in the Premier League this season.
However, to lay the blame completely at Jokanovic’s feet would be harsh. The number of individual errors leading to goals already this season is worrying, with almost every player to have appeared in Fulham’s defence responsible for at least one of those errors.
The Cottagers back five didn’t look particularly vulnerable in their only league outing in that formation against Arsenal. It was only when Tim Ream was replaced for an extra midfielder that the floodgates opened, as Christie and Sessegnon continued to sit further upfield than traditional full-backs normally would, allowing Arsenal to overwhelm Odoi and Le Marchand on the counter-attack on numerous occasions.
The goalkeeper question is something that has been a prominent issue this season, with Jokanovic faced with the weekly headache of trying to choose between three stoppers who will have all gone into the season believing they were first choice.
Brought in from Besiktas, Fabri was the Serb’s original number one, however an error in Fulham’s opening game against Crystal Palace leading to Wilfried Zaha’s goal, and conceding three against Spurs at Wembley has seen Fabri go from first choice to third within the space of a month.
Marcus Bettinelli was the man tasked with taking his place and has made seven league appearances so far, earning him two call-ups to Gareth Southgate’s England squad. Bettinelli’s superior distribution meant he got the nod over David Button last season, but Betts has struggled to make the same impact this year, and is currently picking the ball out of his own net three times a match on average this season.
The third choice is on-loan Sevilla keeper Sergio Rico. Rico fell out of favour at the Pizjuan towards the end of last season, and arrived at Craven Cottage hoping to secure some first team football, however his opportunities have been limited to Carabao Cup games thus far. Rico has two Europa League titles under his belt in his career thus far, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Spaniard given the nod against Bournemouth on Saturday.
There are some underlying defensive issues that Fulham have struggled with throughout Jokanovic’s era. Tim Ream’s performance against Cardiff may be the low point for the American in his Fulham career, but the centre backs incredible season in 2017-18 papered over some of the cracks in Fulham’s defensive performances. Ream frequently made last ditch blocks and tackles to prevent certain goals in Fulham’s 23 match unbeaten run, and duly won the Fans Player of the Season award as a result.
With the additions of Calum Chambers, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Alfie Mawson around him – all players with prior Premier League experience – and Maxime Le Marchand from Nice, Ream should be the man organising Fulham’s defensive efforts as well as co-ordinating their build up play from the back, but a combination of injuries and a lack of confidence are providing Jokanovic with an issue he previously hasn’t had to solve.
Kevin McDonald was also an integral part of Fulham’s success last season, and although his defensive performances were eye-catching, his importance when Fulham had the ball was somewhat underplayed. McDonald would frequently split the centre backs and carry the ball forward in order to create space for Cairney and Johansen around him to try and open up defences, however the Premier League has thus far proved too high a step up for the Scot, who has looked sluggish on the ball at times and not provided the same level of defensive shielding.
His replacement, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, has looked lackadaisical on the ball and although he is clearly technically gifted, hasn’t bought into Fulham’s system. If Anguissa can combine with Jean-Michael Seri and Tom Cairney when he’s fit, Fulham may have a midfield good enough to keep them up. However, more defensive discipline is needed, with Fulham’s fragile defence too often left open to counter attacks.
But, it could be worse…
Of the eight teams currently still on less than ten points, Fulham have outscored all of them, and have only played three of their seven potential relegation rivals. Aleksandar Mitrovic may be well known for his physical attributes, but the Serbian striker is more than capable of playing with the ball at this feet, and in Andre Schurrle, Fulham have brought in a winger who isn’t afraid to shoot and has already chipped in with three goals. Loan signing Luciano Vietto has also proved a handy addition, his four assists and impressive work rate justifying Jokanovic starting the Argentine ahead of the much heralded Ryan Sessegnon at times.
Ryan Sessegnon has unsurprisingly not set the Premier League alight the same way the left-sided player did in the Championship last season. Sessegnon’s goal tally and appearance record last season was impressive, but his decision to stay put and continue to develop for another season down by the river Thames looks to have been a justified one.
So, how do Fulham fix this? History suggests that giving Jokanovic is the most effective way to improve results. The Serbs post-Christmas record managing English clubs is phenomenal, and although Fulham’s unbeaten run last season is unlikely to be repeated, he went on similar runs the season before and when he led Watford to the Premier League in 2015.
However, Jokanovic needs help on the training ground. Stuart Gray, Fulham’s previous defensive coach, left the club just after the season started, as did his previous goalkeeping coach Jose Sambade Carreira. It’s no coincidence that two important members of staff leave the club and the areas they primarily coached start to falter.
He also needs to settle on a back four/five and goalkeeper and fast. This is easier said than done, as he has already had to deal with injuries or suspensions to Ream, Mawson, Bryan, Fosu-Mensah and Odoi in the first nine games.
Additionally, he needs to ask two of his three central midfielders to sit deeper when in possession. All but three of the goals we have conceded this season have come from inside the box, and most of those have come from counter-attacks, through balls or crosses from the byline (h/t Louis Doré).
Finally, Jokanovic needs to make the right decisions when games are in the balance. In the last three matches, Fulham have gone into the half-time break level with their opposition, only to lose on each occasion. Many of his substitutions have negatively changed the way Fulham play, and it’s possible that the loss of Gray on the touchline – replaced by the less experienced Scott Parker – may be a contributing factor in this.
Fulham fans should be concerned with how this season has started, but with only a quarter of the season played, it’s way too early to be pressing the panic button and thinking about letting Jokanovic go.