River-Cottage-Football: In defence of Fulham

OK, SO THE Premier League is tougher than expected. One hundred million pounds may have been spent, but most of it went on players that nobody had really heard of, and it is taking time to come up with a settled, competitive team. Alright…it is going to be a tough winter. There, it has been said.

After a string of defeats and a leaking defence that conceded 25 goals in nine games, alarm bells were starting to ring at Craven Cottage. Not too loudly, because it could wake up the neighbours, but there were a few furrowed brows in Stevenage Road before the game with Bournemouth, and one of them belonged to Chairman Shahid Khan and another sat atop the well-tailored suit of the Fulham manager, Slavisa Jokanovic.

Bournemouth were in town. “At last, an easier game,” said one fan walking along the Fulham Palace Road in the march from Hammersmith. Not so, for Bournemouth might not have a Premier League name, but they certainly have a Premier League pedigree.

They’ve also had Eddie Howe in charge, a track-suited, spritely and highly-rated manager. He’s been linked to the England job, but let’s not hand him that particular poisoned chalice just yet – he’s a club career to nurture right now and he’s doing a pretty good job of it.

Howe is surely destined for higher things, but at the moment, he is in charge of a Bournemouth team that refuses to bow to the tipsters’ forecast that they will, sooner or later, drop out of the Premier League.

After the enthusiasm of pre-season and a host of new players, Fulham’s optimism had gradually eroded by game 10. There was even talk of Jokanovic being shown the door if the next two games – Bournemouth at home, Huddersfield away – didn’t yield better performances and a few points. Rather harsh, given he had won promotion and was given a new squad to play with, but it’s a tough world when you’re struggling to stay in the Premier League.

It was a reminder that the old cliché, “you’re only as good as your last game”, is starting to ring true. Fulham’s problems are mostly in defence, the narrative suggests, but all across the team, Jokanovic’s side have difficulty keeping the ball. Moves break down all too easily and then they get punished.

Shahid Khan doesn’t like talk of taxis arriving in Stevenage Road, waiting to take the manager away. He calls it both “sensational and fictional”, but as everyone knows, a chairman’s vote of confidence is all too frequently the prelude to “we need to have a chat”.

But Fulham are not at that point yet. If blame can be attached to Jokanovic it is in tinkering with the team too much, seemingly unable to determine his most effective XI. Again, when you have as many players arriving at the club as Fulham had in the summer, it must be difficult, especially if you didn’t actually select them yourself. The transfer programme was handled by Tony Khan and has a hint of “Moneyball” about it, relying on data-driven intelligence as much as football expertise. There are whispers of criticism about the selection of players, but if results had gone the right way, the process would have been heralded as a stroke of genius.

There’s no doubt that Fulham’s defence is in disarray. Against Bournemouth, Jokanovic fielded his third goalkeeper of the campaign, Sergio Rico, a 25 year-old on loan from Sevilla. He followed another Spaniard, Fabri, who opened the season but was soon sidelined, and Marcus Bettinelli, who was recently called up for the England squad. This is symptomatic of Jokanovic’s approach to his backline which never looks the same two games running. There’s definitely a lack of continuity which surely cannot breed an understanding between players who mostly didn’t know each other before 2018-19 got underway.

Any hopes Fulham regulars had of yet another line-up bringing a change of luck were soon dashed against Bournemouth. The clumsy challenge by Timothy Fosu-Mensah on Callum Wilson in the 14thminute underlined Fulham’s inexperience at the top level. Jokanovic said it was a needless mistake, the type that is “killing” Fulham, but Wilson accepted the spot-kick and put the visitors ahead. A collective murmur went around the Fulham contingent in the Hammersmith End.

There was something impressive about Bournemouth, notably their counter-attacking, commitment to possession and discipline at the back – Nathan Ake, Wilson and David Brooks all looked accomplished.

Fulham, by contrast, got worse as the game wore on. Aboubakar Kamara tried, theatrically, to win a penalty but was rewarded for his thespian skills with a yellow card. And skipper Kevin McDonald was sent-off after tripping Brooks.

The 21 year-old Welsh international had already put Bournemouth 2-0 up when he ran onto Adam Smith’s pass after Fulham had given the ball away again.

Finally, with five minutes remaining, Wilson took advantage of a gaping hole in the Fulham defence and confidently fired home a third. The ground started to empty at that point as disillusioned Fulham fans headed for home. One positive note was the return of Tom Cairney, who came on as substitute on the hour for the disappointing Maxime Le Marchand.

I walked back to Hammersmith, passing a Land Rover Defender in the packed side streets with many houses donning Halloween symbols. If Jokanovic survives this miserable autumn, he may need to persuade his employers to buy a defender or two, for unless something changes soon, it will be the popular Serb that has a haunted look rather than improvised ghosts in the Fulham Palace Road.

Photo: PA




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