Fulham must adjust style to remain in Premier League
Fulham reached the Premier League with elegance and ambition, becoming favourites among many neutrals for their possession-based game. Technical and physical expertise overrides charm in the top flight, however. The Cottagers have struggled. Slavisa Jokanovic may have to conjure a better alternative.
Despite a 3-0 thrashing in which they were second best for large periods, Pep Guardiola spoke highly of Jokanovic’s attacking brand. That's understandable. Both graduated from the same school of thought. They worship aesthetically pleasing styles based on movement and possession. The difference lies in the Spaniard's mastery.
I give a lot of credit to Fulham. Fulham asked a lot from us because they want to play with good build-up. They didn’t come here to defend with long balls and set pieces. They came here to play. I like to watch these kinds of teams.
Guardiola’s remarks undermine the current situation in West London. Fulham isn't doing well. The Whites could only dicker a share of the spoils from Watford when they returned to Craven Cottage on Saturday. Aleksandar Mitrovic spared Jokanovic’s blushes late on following Andre Gray’s early strike.
Fulham’s keenly anticipated Premier League return after four years' absence is off to the worst possible start. Despite keeping two-thirds of the ball, they were outwitted by former boss Roy Hodgson's Crystal Palace. Tottenham displayed little compassion when they visited. While the Cottagers showed promise against Burnley, it faded in subsequent matches.
Overall, Fulham has picked up maximum points just once, lost everything thrice. They’ve shipped in an alarming 13 goals, third-worst in the division. Only eight have troubled the opposition. Serb poacher Mitrovic contributed five, highlighting his influence.
Fulham was fearless last term. Their passing was crisp and deliberate, not done just for the sake of knocking it around. Their pace provided a cutting edge. At 57.8 per cent over the campaign, Jokanovic's crew bossed possession in the Championship. When the ball was lost, they won it back quickly by pressing in ferocious packs.
In summer, the manafer retained the squad's spine while splashing almost £100 million to flesh it out. Jean Michael Seri alone cost a quarter the figure. Andre Schurrle, Luciano Vietto, Sergio Rico and Timothy Fosu-Mensah were high-profile recruits who joined on loan. Despite new arrivals, the Serb held on to the system that suited him so well in the second tier.
It isn’t working. Jokanovic has all his eggs in passing football's basket. Tom Cairney and Seri rack up over a hundred passes per game, creating chances while operating iclose to the opponent's box, relying on Mitrovic to bury those chances when they come. The aggressive system exposes them to the counterattack.
As with most attacking sides, Fulham operates a high defensive line and implements variations on its press, responding to certain triggers before harrying their opponents. Despite opponents exploiting those tendencies, the 50-year-old is headstrong.
We are not going to change the style. We are not going to hit balls or park the bus. It would not be a good plan. The Premier is very demanding, we need to change things, but we are not going to give up our style.
Guardiola said the same in 2016/17. His stubbornness paid off, as did an investment five times that of Fulham's. Jokanovic can't shop in the same luxury boutiques as Pep to build his squad. Like the average middle-class citizen, he must compromise.
A more conservative style would provide balance. He doesn't need to park the bus so much as drive slower. Nor should he abandon the press. A little more selectivity is all that is required. If they're less exposed at the back without isolating Mitrovic, Fulham will stop leaking goals and the Cottagers will win games.