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