After an opening day Premier League defeat, Craven Cottage felt very flat.
Fulham’s promotion from the Championship came with them playing perhaps the most attractive football in the league. That, combined with the heavy financial investment in the first team, left fans dreaming of a top half finish in England’s top division.
On the opening day of the season, though, Crystal Palace swiftly brought the Cottagers down to earth serving them a 2-0 defeat and offering them the reminder that the Premier League is not a walk in the park. Tottenham added to Fulham misery with a 3-1 win in Wembley on Saturday.
Despite the success their footballing style brought them in the Championship, it has delivered poor results so far this season. Does Slavisa Jokanovic need to take note and change the system before it’s too late?
Last season’s success
Despite a nerve-wracking qualification to the Premier League, only arriving in the top division of English football through the play-offs, Fulham deserved to make it to the top flight.
A slow start to the 2017/18 season was followed by a 23 game unbeaten run in their charge for promotion. Key to this streak was Fulham’s free-flowing football and the arrival of Aleksandar Mitrovic in January.
Action Images via Reuters/John SibleySkipper Tom Cairney made 79 passes per game on average in the campaign — 15 more than anyone else in the Championship — and also registered the highest pass accuracy at 91.3%. As the key cog in Fulham’s machine, the Scotland international dictated the tempo of the Cottagers and defined their style for the most part.
With the forwards at their disposal, swift attacking play was integral to the success. Cairney routinely picked out Ryan Sessegnon who could break away from defenders. Quality crosses from Stefan Johansen resulted in four assists just to Mitrovic alone.
Time to dig in?
It would be naïve to judge Fulham’s capability to survive in the Premier League after two games, especially as one match came at Wembley against Spurs. But Fulham’s play style has not translated successfully in terms of results so far.
We’ve seen similar sides over the years struggle in England’s top division. Teams such as Blackpool and Wigan Athletic have been praised for their aesthetically pleasing and attacking style. However, the football failed to bring the required results.
Action Images via Reuters/Matthew ChildsThe much safer option is to play conservatively and negate the opposition forwards rather than play to the strengths of your own. Stoke City lasted in the top flight for ten years between 2008 and 2018 with their own brand of the game.
Rory Delap’s throw-ins will live long in the memory for any team who faced them and Charlie Adam felt like an addition purely for his corner taking prowess. It may not have been free-flowing football but it was effective and granted the Potters their longest spell in the top flight since the 1970s.
Can Fulham change?
Fulham are not equipped or ready to play this more conservative game.
Yes, they have Aleksandar Mitrovic, who bullies defenders and has the aerial ability to play to long balls, but Tom Cairney and new recruit Jean Michael Seri do not fit that system.
Both will make over a hundred passes per game and look to create chances in closer proximity to the forwards rather than from deep but they will not be a great help if Fulham look to dig in.
REUTERS/Dylan MartinezNow that Jokanovic has put all his eggs in the basket of passing football, he must stick to the plan. Neither he nor his players are designed to copy the Stoke blueprint.
The time it would take to turn Fulham into a side that look to park the bus and steal a goal or two would probably be too long and leave them languishing near the bottom of the table by Christmas.
If at first you don’t succeed
Fulham may be on no points after two matches but there is still a long way to go.
It is important, however, that the Cottagers get up and running as soon as possible as their fixture list is not kind in the final stretch: they’ll host Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City at Craven Cottage in March alone.
They have been playing well on the whole, too. Wayne Hennessey had arguably his best performance in a Crystal Palace shirt in the opening game and Mitrovic has already hit the post twice in two games.
Against Tottenham, Fulham’s best chance of the game, other than Mitrovic’s goal, was a chipped through ball by Seri which released Sessegnon who mis-controlled in the box. If they can find the finishing touches to their intricate play, Fulham should click into gear and survive with ease.
Now they face a key match at home to Burnley on Sunday. The Lancashire club has Europa League football to balance and have looked poor in the league.
Time for Fulham to get the ball rolling and prove that Jokanovic's football can bear fruit in the Premier League.