From one international break to another, Fulham’s fortunes have undergone a drastic change. Just a month ago, Fulham headed into the early October hiatus on the heels of two straight away wins, and we were waxing lyrical about the steel and industry of the Whites.
Yet fast forward a month and the Cottagers find themselves in a radically different situation. It would be no understatement to say that morale is at the lowest point since Slavisa Jokanovic’s first couple months in charge. With two lackluster home draws and three defeats, the Whites endured a torrid October and a dreadful start to November. Fulham now sit in 17th position, seven points off the playoffs and seven points off the bottom three. What explains this dramatic downturn and how can the Whites get their season back on track?
Although few predicted such a drastic shift in form, the warning signs were evident in the Nottingham Forest and QPR matches. Fulham may have picked up maximum points, but were far from their best against Forest and Rangers. Many interpreted this as a sign of grit and were hopeful better performances would arrive with time.
But the opposite came true. Instead of settling into last season’s electrifying form after the international break, Fulham barely grabbed a point against Preston, followed by a meek away loss at Villa Park. Bolton at home, the then-bottom dwellers, presented the perfect chance to get back to winning ways. But Fulham needed a last minute equalizer to salvage a solitary point, continuing their abysmal home form.
And the last two matches provided the most concerning of results. Fixtures against Bristol City and Wolves, two of the best teams in the Championship this year, certainly were challenging tasks. Yet last season, the Whites excelled against fellow promotion candidates, often elevating their playing style when faced with quality opposition.
But the Whites weakly submitted to both sides, losing 2-0 on each occasion while barely mustering up an effort. Frustrating problems persist in the defence, which has shockingly not kept a clean sheet since the away win over Ipswich in August. The formerly rock-solid partnership of Kalas and Ream has suddenly proven shaky; the pair now appear porous rather than formidable.
And herein lies the essential worry at the heart of Fulham’s recent demise: everything that worked last season seems to be broken this time around.
The attack is bereft of ideas. Long gone is the incisive, flowing football of last season, replaced instead by a languid pace of play that rarely results in chances created. The exciting penetration that was offered by dynamic dribblers such as Neeskens Kebano, Floyd Ayite, and the now-departed Sone Aluko is conspicuously absent. Also gone is the focal point that Chris Martin offered up top; no matter how much one may personally dislike the striker, he nevertheless offered a different dimension to Fulham’s attack.
Denis Odoi best summed up the Whites’ issues in an interview with GetWestLondon this week.
"Last year it was fairly new, because the gaffer wasn't there for long and was in a battle against relegation, maybe now they know more about our way of playing but that shouldn't be an excuse,” Odoi said. "We're just not on the same level, our passing game isn't up to the same level, attacking-wise we aren't at the same level and defensively it's too easy."
Teams have begun to figure Fulham out, according to Odoi, and it is a convincing theory. Last season was Slavisa’s first full year in charge at Craven Cottage, and the style he implemented took many Championship teams by surprise. Yet this year the element of surprise has vanished, leading sides to set up purposefully to stifle the Cottagers.
Jokanovic has recognized these issues and taken steps to remedy them, changing the first eleven and the formation. But again, these switches worryingly have had the opposite effect.
In response to the lackluster draw against Bolton, Jokanovic instituted a 3-5-2 formation against Bristol City. This approach was applauded by the Fulham faithful, as Odoi was drafted into the backline and it allowed Ryan Sessegnon to flourish in a more attacking position. But the Whites looked lost in defence and found themselves 2-0 down before the interval.
The Wolves match brought another switch in approach; back came the 4-3-3, Kalas was dropped to the bench in favor of Odoi, and Fonte and Kebano joined Ayite in the front three. Yet far from shaking up the status quo, the change failed to have the intended approach and Fulham failed to score for the second successive match while conceding two set piece goals.
It is clear that the Whites are in trouble, but it is no reason to call for Jokanovic’s sacking. This is the manager who took a team that was headed to League 1 and transformed them into playoff contenders. If anyone can turn around this poor run of form, it’s Slavisa Jokanovic.
The next two matches provide little respite, with fixtures against Derby and Sheffield United. The sides sit 7th and 2nd in the table respectively and will certainly test the Whites to their limits.
But if there was ever a time to gain a statement win that would set the season back on track, it would be now. A word of advice for Slavisa? Swap out David Button for Marcus Bettinelli. Last season, Jokanovic swapped the keepers after an away loss at Derby. What followed was a seven match unbeaten run that propelled us to the playoffs. Here’s hoping to more of the same luck this time around. COYW!