The Season So Far
Along with big-spending, Jorge Mendes-powered Wolverhampton Wanderers, Slaviša Jokanović’s Fulham were supposed to show that the gulf between the Premier League’s bottom half and the Championship’s leading sides was being closed. Such expectations, let’s remember, were not unreasonable at the time.
With Wolves openly targeting a top-half finish in their first season and previously promoted and unfancied sides like Bournemouth, Brighton and Huddersfield all having survived and thrived in the top flight, the Cottagers’ hopes were high – even more so when Jokanović’s eye-catching side was augmented by the likes of André Schürrle and Jean Michaël Seri over the summer. Here, it seemed, was a worthy addition to the Premier League.
That being the case, Fulham must surely rank as the disappointment of the season so far: catastrophically open without the ball, naïve with and without the ball, unacceptably confused by or indifferent to their tactical responsibilities. They sit bottom, having lost the most games and conceded by far the most goals, and they are the only Premier League team to have sacked the manager. Jokanović was quietly sent packing on November 14th, having lost seven consecutive games in all competitions and having not won in the league since August.
The indescribably lovely Claudio Ranieri has taken charge and promptly won his first game, a bonkers to-and-fro home victory over the also-doomed Southampton, but if he’s to make Fulham into a proper football team, he’s got his work cut out.
The Season Ahead
The pre-season dreams of making a big splash in the Premier League have long been forgotten and Fulham’s sole focus will be avoiding relegation. They certainly have the raw talent to do so – as well as the aforementioned Schürrle and Seri, the Cottagers boast one of the genuine stars of the future in Ryan Sessegnon as well as established internationals like Aleksandar Mitrović and Stefan Johansen and a whole host of talented British ball-players. The problem has been assembling this talent and making it work together.
In short, Fulham have Roberto Martínez Syndrome. If they are to avoid certain disaster, they have to stop thinking of themselves as some kind of budget, under-the-radar totaalvoetbal sleeper hit, to whom the normal rules of the game simply don’t apply, and start playing as though actions have consequences. They have to discover a semblance of steel to complement their skill, and start trying not to lose as well as trying to win.
One of the reasons Fulham have been so porous this season is because of chopping and changing. To an extent, this has been forced upon them by injuries to key players and the returns from injury of others, but it’s also seemed at times like the system has been tweaked for aesthetic reasons as much as tactical ones. Mitrović is the only player to have started every game, while regular wingers Schürrle and Sessegnon have swapped sides on an almost weekly basis.
It’s impossible to gather momentum like that, so we should expect The Artist Formerly Known As The Tinkerman to do what he did with Leicester en route to that title victory in 2015-16 and play the same XI in the same system for as long as possible. Expect a more rigid, counter-attacking 4-2-1-3 with greater emphasis on shoring up the middle in the coming weeks, with an extreme version likely to be rolled out on Sunday afternoon at Stamford Bridge.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that in terms of being a pure footballing side, this is indeed a solid Premier League outfit. Seri nearly signed for Barcelona not that long ago while ex-Blue Schürrle is a World Cup-winner and Mitrović is easily Serbia’s leading scorer on their list of active players. Ryan Sessegnon is going right to the top of the game, while in another universe, Tom Cairney, Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen would have accumulated hundreds of appearances at this level. Alfie Mawson and Luciano Vietto still might. This is not a team to write off.
While their gung-ho approach has landed them in more trouble than it’s worth, we should also remember that on the occasions they haven’t lost the ball or sent it into Row Z from 40 yards, they’ve been genuinely effective: only five Premier League teams have scored more goals from open play.
No team has conceded anywhere near as many goals in the Premier League this season, and it’s hardly a surprise.
Only Burnley and Brighton have allowed more shots on their goal this season, and – in stark contrast to Fulham – both of those sides are set up to play reactively and weather the storm. Only Burnley’s goalkeepers have made more saves this season than Fulham’s. Only two teams have spent more time in their own final third. Only Burnley, Bournemouth and Newcastle have made more clearances. Only Burnley, Bournemouth and Brighton have blocked more shots. Only four more teams have blocked more crosses into their box. Frankly, they’re hopeless.
The biggest reason for their hopelessness is that they’re not even trying to stem the flow. Only three teams have blocked fewer passes, only six have made fewer tackles, while only eight have made fewer fouls and the same number have made fewer interceptions. Their attempts at defending have been only marginally more organised and coherent than Brexit.
Also, for such a prolific, attacking side, they’re surprisingly bad going forward. Their tally of 13.06 Expected Goals is only marginally more than supposedly defensive, attack-shy Newcastle’s. This is down to seemingly improvised, uncoordinated attacks, disjointed build-up phases and the frankly ridiculous shooting of Schürrle, who has had 43 efforts on goal this season for a combined 2.35 xG – that’s 0.0546511627906977 xG per shot. André: STOP! SHOOTING! FROM! 30! YARDS! SCHEISSE!
It’s entirely possible that Ranieri will go all-out-defence against the relative might of Sarriball to stop Eden Hazard single-handedly relegating his team. For now, though, let’s assume that he goes with the same eleven as last weekend.
As for Chelsea, we all know the drill now.
Chelsea 5-0 Fulham. Hazard (3), Morata, Alonso. Sorry, Claudio.