Craven Corner: Pressure is Mounting

6th December 2017
Image: Rex Features

On paper, November seemed to treat Fulham well. With the club picking up 7 points from the four fixtures, but things don’t appear to be so rosy as some would believe.

It’s safe to say, Fulham had a slow start to the month after being outplayed throughout the game against Wolves, and then a poor second half against Derby County cost Fulham a much-needed three points.

Although wins followed against Sheffield United and Milwall, performances often fell below expectations of the fans, and team selections have asked more questions than they have answered.

For example, in the Derby game Fulham looked the better side for the first 45 minutes, and despite Cairney only being around 70% fit, he looked to be back to his best. It was clear to see how much impact he has on this Fulham side. But after the break Derby came out as a team with a purpose, constantly pressing and posing the bigger threat in front of goal.

That pressing game was always going to reap rewards for Rowett’s men, as Fulham were caught playing the ball out from the back, and before you knew it, Lawrence had put Vydra through one-on-one and Derby had equalised. Some may argue that a point against Derby County is a good result, considering the quality that they possess in their squad, but it’s disappointing as it seems to be the same mistakes costing us goals, time and time again.

I understand that Slavisa Jokanovic wants his side to play the ball out of the back, and stick to the methods he has ingrained in his players, but there is a time and a place for those methods, and his plans need to be much more flexible depending on the in-game outcome.

Yes, Fulham have probably played their most attractive football under the Serbian, but there simply isn’t a plan B, and that’s something that I’ve discussed all season. Last season it worked well, because teams simply didn’t expect that from us, and we pressed much higher up the pitch and therefore, the possession style of play that we grew accustomed to was fruitful.

But it’s a different situation this year, as our opponents know exactly what we want to do, and are therefore pushing us further back towards our own goal, and this is when mistakes happen. Often, we see Button playing it short across his own goal, or to a defender under pressure 15-20 yards away from his goal. This seems to end in some panic while we have possession, allowing the opposition to push more players up the field and apply pressure, forcing a misplaced pass, and leaving Button exposed.

Image: Rex Features

You only have to take a look back at a number of goals this season to see that our persistence to play out from the back has cost us a number of goals, let alone the amount of points we have lost from winning positions.

This goes back to not having a plan B, and I think Slavisa and his staff are in a lucky position at the moment, considering there are very few managers available to put his role at risk.

Despite last year’s season being our best in a while, Slavisa’s persistence and ignorance of a backup plan has cost Fulham far too many points at this stage of the season. Sometimes teams have to play longer and that’s not a bad thing, after all, points aren’t awarded for style – Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City are a great example of that — they are in the play-off spots and Fulham are not.

Even the best footballing sides have a tendency to go long when needed, just to reset the state of play, forcing the opponent to track backwards, allowing your team-mates to push further up the pitch into a safer position, preventing the defenders from having to play risky passes across the face of their own goal.

Relieving the pressure by playing longer can help players regain their position and it also creates opportunities for winning the second ball further up the pitch, switching the pressure onto the opponent. But, this is something Fulham simply haven’t done all season, and while playing a target man would benefit this, Fulham could choose to start a diminutive forward like Floyd Ayite or Neeskens Kebano and still achive the same end result by pressing higher up the pitch, forcing the errors on their opponents, a concept which Fulham took far more advantage of last season.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s easier to say than do, but it’s not like the players would have to learn a new system or position – it’s just simply doing the basics right and clearing their lines if under pressure, rather than trying to play their way out of trouble.

The importance of changing the system and philosophy of the side is growing every week. Especially when you realise that Fulham hadn’t kept a clean sheet in thirteen games prior to their 1-0 victory over Millwall; and for a side that is targeting promotion this season, that’s simply unacceptable.

Time is no longer on our side, and we’re no longer discussing the first five games of the season. We’re approaching Christmas and Fulham sit 15th, nine points behind the play-off positions, with just five games left of the calendar year.

Image: Rex Features

There has been a positive this month and that comes in the shape of Ryan Sessegnon. The youngster capped a tremendous performance at Bramall Lane by scoring a hat-trick — a performance that settles the argument that he should play further forward on a more regular basis.

For his age, Sessegnon is probably the best youngster we’ve had at the club in a number of years, and despite being asked to play at left-back, he is much more naturally suited to playing on the left-side of a front three. Considering we still have Denis Odoi and have signed Rafa Soares on loan this season – a player with a £15m buy-out option in his deal – it baffles me that Sessegnon is still asked to play in a back four and this is something that has to change.

Despite Ryan only being seventeen and still considered a raw product by some fans, he’s been our brightest spark going forward and with our other forwards failing to hit the target, there’s no reason why Sessegnon shouldn’t be the first name on the team-sheet in attack.

Thankfully, Sessegnon signed a new contract this summer, but don’t be surprised if a number of Premier League clubs look to buy him in January. While, I think the chances of Sessegnon leaving Fulham this season are small, there will be interest and media stories of a big money transfer for him.

But his future at Fulham depends on the club turning the results around, because if Fulham can develop their position alongside Sessegnon, he would have no reason to leave as we could potentially offer Premier League football and game-time, something that is a high priority at this stage of his career.

Personally, I think the club would only sell if an offer of £30m or more was officially submitted, but I don’t think he would leave if Fulham were in a stronger position come the new year. If Fulham could close the gap on the play-offs, get Tom Cairney back to full fitness and become more ruthless at defending leads, it would fill the youngster with confidence that this is a club moving in the right direction.

If the remaining 2017 fixtures end in disappointment then he may believe the grass is greener on the other side, and weigh up his options. For now, I’m trying to remain positive and I’m still hoping that Fulham have a strong end to the year to keep our hopes of promotion alive.

To conclude, I think Slavisa’s position will start to come under threat as we approach 2018 if the results don’t pick up, because I think his honeymoon period from last year has come to an end.

Furthermore, I think December will be the month where we see if Slavisa is the right man for Fulham’s long-term future, as this can’t carry on. But that isn’t going to be easy and he has to find the right solution sooner rather than later, because out of the five games that remain, we still have to play the likes of Sunderland, Cardiff and Hull City, all of whom that can beat anyone in this division on their day.

It’s been a rollercoaster of a season so far, and although it’s been disappointing for the fans so far, I’m remaining positive and hoping that we can still make a late push for the play-offs this season.

Thank you ever so much for your ongoing support and taking the time to read the article.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me on Twitter – @ABronsSmith it’d be great to hear from you!

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