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Championship

What is responsible for Fulham’s slow start to the Championship season?

Jake Jackman

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Fulham

Fulham were billed as one of the favourites for promotion to the Premier League this season after an impressive 2016/17 campaign. The Cottagers were labelled as one of the best teams to watch in the Championship during the second half of last season. Their form in 2017 was excellent as they won 15 of their 26 matches across all competitions heading into the play-offs. This included an eye-catching 3-1 victory against Newcastle United at St James’ Parks.

Although they finished in sixth position, they were the bookmakers’ favourites to win the play-offs, but they were defeated in the semi-final by Reading. It was a bitter pill to swallow at the time as they had a lot of momentum and looked ready to enter the top-flight again. However, the lottery of the play-offs means that they fell short.

It was a difficult failure to bounce back from, but Fulham supporters saw the improvement that the club had made under Slavisa Jokanovic and entered the new season with the hope of another promotion challenge. After 15 matches, they find themselves in the bottom half and are already six points behind the top six. A total of four wins is a huge disappointment and there are questions being asked about the where it has gone wrong for the West London club.

Where has it gone wrong?

In one sense, Fulham have been a victim of their own success, as they lost three key players during the summer. Scott Malone was excellent at left-back and offered a good attacking support, contributing six goals and three assists. His performances earned him a move to the Premier League with Huddersfield Town. Sone Aluko was another that departed during the summer after a long saga. The winger was one of the side’s best attackers, contributing eight goals and ten assists to the team’s play-off assault.

Fulham

Throughout the summer, he was heavily linked with Reading and he eventually made the move to the side that bear Fulham in last season’s play-offs for a fee of £7.5 million. It was difficult for the Cottagers to turn down considering they signed the player on a free transfer 12 months earlier. The third and final big departure was Chris Martin, who returned to Derby County after a loan spell. He was at the centre of controversy during his time at Craven Cottage, but he was a crucial part of the team’s success and they failed to replace him sufficiently.

The biggest problem for Fulham has been the failure to find a striker to lead the line. Aboubakar Kamara and Rui Fonte were signed to strengthen their forward options, but the pair have contributed three goals and one assist between them in 22 matches. This isn’t good enough and their failure to hold up the ball like Martin did last season has reduced the side’s attacking threat.

Jokanovic needs to be more adaptable with his tactics, as his team have become static and predictable to play against this season. The loss of key players has left the current style ineffective, as teams are pressing Fulham high up the pitch and limiting the space on the flanks, which stops the full-backs from being as influential.

Last season, Ryan Fredericks and Ryan Sessegnon averaged a goal involvement every 306.4 minutes. This season, it stands at 517.8 minutes. Fulham are being forced to operate further away from the opposition goal, as they lacked a physical presence up front capable of holding the ball up and bringing others into the game. By the time they reach the final third, the opposition have enough men back to defend the space effectively.

Fulham

Against Bolton Wanderers, they created little in terms of clear-cut chances and were lucky to come away with a point. This is a team that will be fighting relegation and are currently bottom of the division, but they came to Craven Cottage with a game-plan and earned a point from the game. They packed the midfield area and forced Fulham to rely on crosses from deep and hopeful long balls. It was quite a change from the free-flowing football that was consistently played last season.

Supporters will allude to the loss of Tom Cairney through injury for a long period this season and that has been a factor. However, a team challenging for promotion shouldn’t be reliant on one player. Their current position of 16th means that the Scottish international is facing a lot of pressure to immediately come back into the team and make an impact. He scored the equaliser against Bolton, but they need others to step up and support him.

Can they recover their season?

The Championship is a tight league and the beauty of the division is that a few wins can lift you into play-off contention. Despite the failures of the summer’s recruitment, Fulham have a good squad and a manager that is revered as one of the division’s best. It has been a difficult start, but they have lost only four of the 15 matches. If they had turned three of their seven draws into wins, they would be tied on points with Derby County in 6th position.

The next three matches are huge for Fulham and there is no margin for error. They face three of the current top six in Wolves, Derby County and Sheffield United. It is a difficult run of fixtures, but they must approach it with the intention of taking points if they are to move back into promotion contention. The improving fitness level of Tom Cairney will help, but the rest of the team must do more. There will be money to spend in January, but Fulham could find themselves out of contention by that stage if things don’t improve.

Jake is a student based in the South East. He is a Newcastle fan and has a keen interest in Dutch football. Jake can be found on Twitter here - @jakejackmann.

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FA Cup

Sheffield Wednesday 0-0 Swansea City – Tammy Abraham didn’t take first-team opportunity

Jake Jackman

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Swansea

Swansea City were held in the FA Cup away to Championship club Sheffield Wednesday. The Swans have been drawn to face lower league opposition in every round of the competition so far and this occasion saw Carlos Carvalhal return to his former club. It was a huge day for him and he will be slightly disappointed by the performance that he witnessed.

Although the Premier League side selected a talented team, it was an even contest and both teams had chances to score. Neither team deserved to go through on this viewing and they will have to meet again at the Liberty Stadium in just over a week’s time.

It will be interesting to see who will await the winners of this tie in the next round and that could dictate whether Swansea take the replay seriously or not. Here are three talking points from Hillsborough:

Tammy Abraham didn’t take his opportunity

It was a frustrating day for Tammy Abraham as he had few chances to impress in the final third and he was taken off midway in the second half. That will be a disappointment for the forward as this was an opportunity to earn more game-time in the Premier League and his contribution on Saturday is unlikely to bring that.

During the match, he failed to have a single attempt on goal, while his pass success was at a poor 58%. The service he received was non-existent as shown in the second half when Luciano Narsingh refused to play the striker in.

Abraham did nice work to release the winger and spin in behind his marker, but the return ball didn’t arrive. The striker was visibly annoyed that the ball wasn’t given back.

Jordan Ayew was the man that replaced Abraham and he offered more when he was on the pitch. He was willing to drop deep to be given possession, while he got two attempts in on goal during his short time on the pitch.

His distribution was more effective, as displayed by his two key passes. The former Aston Villa man is the player that should lead the line for the relegation-threatened club.

Adam Reach stood out in midfield

This has been a season to forget for Sheffield Wednesday as they are a considerable distance off promotion, despite being one of the best Championship teams in recent seasons.

The match against Swansea provided the players with an opportunity to prove they can compete with Premier League opposition and Adam Reach was one of the standout performers.

The 25-year-old showed glimpses of both attacking and defensive quality, which shows he can contribute in both halves of the pitch. He will be the first to admit his final ball could have been better, but he regularly got in positions to cause problems for the away side. During the match, he attempted three shots and completed 86% of his passes.

Meanwhile, he worked hard out of possession and didn’t allow Swansea to dominate the midfield battle. Reach won four tackles and made a further two interceptions. He was relentless in work rate and his energy rubbed off on the rest of the team. The midfielder will be a player to keep an eye on in the replay.

Alfie Mawson had to miss the match through injury

The Swansea City defender was pencilled in to start in the match, but he was injured in the warm up and had to be replaced in the starting eleven by Kyle Naughton.

This was a major blow for the team as Mawson is a born leader at the back and offers composure to the back-line. He was later pictured wearing a knee brace and holding crutches, in what was a worrying sight.

The last thing Swansea need is a serious injury, especially to one of the team’s most important players. Towards the end of the game, the cameras showed that he was moving his leg more freely, but it is a concern nonetheless.

Naughton came in and did well, with one excellent challenge saving a goal in the first-half. The entire Swansea defence played well, with Kyle Bartley standing out as a Premier League centre-half.

The former Leeds United loanee won five aerial duels and made four ball recoveries. He could be required to step up if Mawson has to miss some of the run-in.

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Chelsea

Chelsea 4-0 Hull City – Willian plays himself into Champions League contention

Jake Jackman

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Chelsea

Chelsea continued their upturn in form with a convincing 4-0 win over Hull City in the FA Cup. The Blues were overwhelming favourites for the tie, but they had to get the job done and they did so effectively, scoring four times in the first-half.

They would have had one eye on the Champions League tie against Barcelona that is upcoming and that led to Antonio Conte making several changes.

The Italian decided to rest key players such as Eden Hazard, Ngolo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta. It was the right decision as they progressed with comfort. Here are three talking points from the match:

Olivier Giroud is off the mark

One huge positive to come out of the game for the hosts was Olivier Giroud’s first goal for the club. He signed in January to provide competition for Alvaro Morata and his performances have been encouraging since signing, but to hit the back of the net takes the pressure off the Frenchman.

The signing carried relatively little risk for Chelsea as the striker has lots of experience in England and his consistency is already shining through in a Blues’ shirt.

Early into the game, he had a great opportunity to open his account, but he blazed a volley over the bar. It was a difficult chance as the ball was lifted over the defence to play him in, but a striker of his calibre should have done better.

Three goals were scored and he didn’t score one of them. If he had finished the match without scoring, it would have been talked about and that is why his goal just before half-time will relieve the pressure from him.

The rest of his game was excellent as he got two assists and linked up the play well from the front-line. Although he was brought in to be the back-up striker, Conte may give him the start against Barcelona as he is the player in form.

Hull City showed fight in the second half

The contest was over by the time the players stepped back out for the second-half, but Hull City showed fight and commitment to keep the score down to 4-0.

Nigel Adkins knows the importance of every mental victory when battling against relegation and to draw the second half can provide the players with confidence ahead of a return to league action.

Their performance was markedly improved as they created good opportunities and came close to scoring from the penalty spot. David Meyler stepped up and saw his penalty saved, but that didn’t see the players lose focus as they continued to create opportunities. During the match, they had 10 shots to Chelsea’s 14, which shows that they were far from embarrassed. They just didn’t have the quality in the final third that their Premier League opposition did possess.

It would be a huge blow for Hull City to suffer back-to-back relegations and their manager will be aware of that. This match against Chelsea was a good occasion, but it was far from a priority and their defeat won’t live too long in the memory.

They are currently 21st in the Championship and only above the bottom three by one point. Their far superior goal difference provides encouragement, but they must show this level of commitment until the end of the season if they are to avoid the drop.

Willian proved his quality before the return of the Champions League

Rotation can cause problems in the FA Cup, but in this case, it provided an opportunity to those that are on the fringes of the first-team to play themselves into contention for the Champions League.

Willian is an interesting case as he does feature prominently, but he isn’t a guaranteed first-team starter, as Pedro often gets the nod to start ahead of him.

Willian was excellent against Hull City and certainly gave his manager some food for thought ahead of the match with Barcelona. He completed six dribbles, attempted four shots and made three key passes as he terrorised the opposition defence. On the day, he scored twice, but he easily could have got a hat-trick.

Antonio Conte will be aware that his team’s big weakness is an over-reliance on Eden Hazard. The return of Cesc Fabregas goes some way to providing some support to the Belgian, but if Chelsea can get Willian playing to this level consistently, that would be a positive. He is more dynamic than Pedro and offers more flair to the attack. This performance could see him start against Barcelona.

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Nottingham Forest

Nottingham Forest must give Aitor Karanka time to succeed

Nottingham Forest must give Aitor Karanka time if he is to achieve success at Nottingham Forest, writes Greg Whitaker.

Greg Whitaker

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Aitor Karanka
Photo: Reuters

The Championship is awash with British footballing institutions this season.

Leeds United, Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday and Wolves have all been Champions of England in their time, while Aston Villa have won nearly everything there is to win in the game, including the European Cup in 1982.

Yet, it is Nottingham Forest that hold one of the most unique records in football history, as the only British side to win back-to-back European Cups.

However, two decades of instability on the pitch, in the dugout and in the boardroom have frustrated the Forest faithful.

Twenty years since the Reds last graced the top flight, nights of European glory under Brian Clough and Peter Taylor seem an eternity away.

If new manager Aitor Karanka is to bring the good times back to the City Ground, Forest must break with the bad habits and mismanagement that have plagued the club in recent years and back their man – both with time and the investment needed to wake this sleeping giant.

Since taking the hot-seat at the start of the year, Karanka has not enjoyed the best of starts.

With just one win and five defeats making up his first six league games in charge, one could be forgiven for suggesting the Spaniard is already under pressure.

After all, Karanka is the 13th manager in just ten years to take the reigns at the City Ground. But paradoxically, this is exactly why the former Real Madrid man must be given time.

Indeed, it would certainly be fair to suggest that the painfully inconsistent nature of Forest’s league form over the past decade or so comes as a direct result of their trigger happy mentality when it comes to their manager, paired with their scattergun approach to appointing a successor.

In the last four years alone, Karanka represents the seventh man tasked with kick-staring the Tricky Trees.

What is more concerning is the blindingly obvious lack of consistency in these appointments. Never has a list of seven managers contrasted so much.

From Billy Davies to Philippe Montanier, Stuart Pearce to Mark Warburton, each manager has come with radically different ideas, approaches and management styles.

As Forest legend Garry Birtles was quoted as saying in the local media last month, Consistency breeds consistency but the same is true of inconsistency.’

Although it could be argued that the appointment of the pragmatic, Jose Mourinho-esque, Karanka, immediately after the very English style of management offered by Mark Warburton, smacks of no joined-up thinking at board level once again, the appointment was welcomed by fans.

Whilst he has garnered a bit of a reputation for his short temper, the former defender has a good record in the Championship, leading Middlesbrough to the Premier League in 2016.

Of the 13 managers to take to the Forest dugout over the past decade, Karanka is certainly one of the more exciting prospects and warrants the time needed to put his own stamp on this Forest side.

Despite a poor start, the Spaniard must now work with the ragtag squad of players he has inherited and ensure Forest are still a Championship club come May, before rebuilding in his own image next summer.

After all, the squad undoubtedly possesses a good deal of ability and potential, with a number of exciting young prospects also making their way into the first team fold.

However, much of this ability is raw or inconsistent.

Karanka’s first job is surely to inject much needed confidence and organisation into this group of players.

During his time at the Riverside, Karanka managed to turn an underachieving Boro team –  who were arguably in a similar state to that of the current Forest side – into promotion winners.

He did this through implementing his own pragmatic approach – making his side defensively very well-drilled and difficult to break down.

Although this style, labelled as negative by some, proved not as successful when applied in Middlesbrough’s single season in the Premier League, this meticulous focus on preventing the opposition from playing their natural game often pays dividends in the rough and tumble of the Championship.

What is certain is that Karanka views Forest as a project.

He has shown in recent interviews and press conferences that he understands and respects the rich and prestigious history of the club.

However, he has also indicated that he is under no illusions that making Forest a true force again will require time and, in the long term, large investment in his squad.

What it all comes down to now is simple.

After five chaotic years under the ownership of Fawaz Al Hasawi, will new owner Evangelos Marinakis show Aitor Karanka the patience and investment needed to revitalise one of England’s biggest footballing institutions?

After all, in the words of Nottingham Forest’s greatest ever manager, Brian Clough: ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day … but I wasn’t on that particular job.’

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