Why Fulham are still play-off contenders despite their mixed start to the season
Since returning to the Championship after their relegation from the Premier League, Fulham have finished 17th and 20th. For the Cottagers, a club that has featured in a Europa League final as recently as 2010, languishing at the bottom of the second tier of English football is unacceptable.
After a summer of much change, which saw key players Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele depart to pastures new, and 14 new faces arrive, fans did not know what to expect this coming season. An opening day defeat of Newcastle promised much, but results have varied since, with a new low being reached having been dispatched 4-0 by Bristol City at home last weekend.
Despite having not registered a win all of September, the performances, the potential of the squad and Jokanovic’s experience at this level, should have Fulham fans quietly optimistic of achieving a play-off place this campaign, or at the very least a significant improvement on previous seasons at this level.
In Jokanovic’s first full season in charge, there is a clear difference from the Fulham team of last season, not only in terms of personnel. The London outfit look well balanced. Regular midfielders in the pivot McDonald and Parker provide the required bite and ball-winning qualities required in the Championship, combined with the touch of quality on the ball to influence the game going forward.
Having that extra bit of quality on the ball in the middle of the park enables the club to play intricate football in attacking positions. For defences at this level, if Fulham can move the ball in the final third as quickly as they’ve shown at times, it becomes a huge challenge to defend against.
Complementing the two midfielders who play in the pivot, Tom Cairney is the key man in this Fulham team. The English born attacking midfielder is easily one of the best in his position in the Championship, and on his day, can be the difference for Jokanoci’s men. Following blockbuster performances in early wins against Blackburn and Preston, the benchmark has been set for him to reach for the rest of the season.
For Fulham to be around the play-offs come May, performances like this will be needed consistently. Normally playing just off the striker, Jokanovic has trusted him in a free role, which allows Cairney to flourish in attacking positions, finding space and trying to unlock defences – which the star man has the ability to do on a regular basis.
Alongside the 25-year-old, Jokanovic has a plethora of attacking talents at his disposal, with Chris Martin, Sone Aluko, Matt Smith and Chelsea loanee Lucas Piazon all part of his squad. Each of these players bring different qualities to the Fulham side, allowing Jokanovic to implement a variety of tactical systems. The former Watford manager also expects his full-backs to play very high, meaning the likes of Denis Odoi, Scott Malone and 16-year-old Ryan Sessegnon are expected to not only carry out their defensive duties, but to offer an outlet further up the field.
Whether Fulham play the neat, possession based style Jokanovic prefers, or a pragmatic long ball approach, the club have multiple options within their squad to employ either style. Having the ability to change it up on a game-to-game basis is a vital ingredient to success over the long grueling Championship season.
Defensively, Fulham have proven at times this season to be particularly hard to break down. This is especially true away from home, which after their recent 1-1 draw away at Forest, has seen them only concede three times in five games. A solid defensive base on the road has allowed them to go five unbeaten, with wins at Preston and Blackburn. Nonetheless, results at Craven Cottage are still a worry. If their home form continues as it does, the club stands no chance of reaching the play-offs.
Despite sitting in mid table following their start to the season, Fulham have a solid platform to build upon going forward. With obvious deficiencies to address, Jokanovic and his team will be looking to replicate their away form at home and continue their push towards the Premier League after a short absence. Even if not achieved this year, promising youngsters Sessegnon, Edun and Adeniran have given fans every reason to believe that promotion is on the horizon in coming years.