With perhaps the most important six games in the calendar coming up for Fulham, we thought it would be best to get a look from across the Fulham spectrum to see what the general consensus was on how we go about this—from how many points Fulham need to who should start up front.
Last year Fulham’s style lent itself to playing the top teams, but we haven’t seen that really reciprocated in such an obvious way this year. Why do you think this is and do you think Fulham’s style will come back into its own over the course of the next few games?
FT: I think its more a case of the top teams being more defensively focused football teams this season – the current top four are also the current top four if you organise the table by goals conceded. Cardiff are in the bottom four for average amount of possession in games, with Derby and Aston Villa midtable. Neil Warnock, Gary Rowett, Nuno and Steve Bruce have all brought an organised pragmatism to the Championship which solidifies Fulham’s place as the best footballing team in the division, and bar Wolves, keeping pace with the others despite a forward thinking and dominant style.
Fulham have felt unsettled all season which may play a part, Tom Cairney has yet to be fully fit, Stefan Johansen is yet to hit form, and the strikers purchased in the summer weren’t a real factor until December. I don’t think there’s a theme of Slavisa Jokanovic sides starting seasons slowly, but rather that this football club has started both of these full seasons with Slavisa at the helm having near complete rebuilds featuring players that need to adjust to Championship football and life in England.
GS: I don’t think necessarily we’ve done that badly against some of the bigger teams, with some fairly credible draws at the Cottage. However, it’s the away performances that we’re struggling to replicate from last year. One of the commonalities between the tough away results has been the lack of captain Cairney. Whilst we rarely struggle for possession, without him in the team we lack the kind of player who takes the game by the scruff of the neck and forces chances for our strikers. His fitness is going to be a key factor in our next set of games – if he can get back to full fitness we stand a much better chance.
LC: Although we played some unbelievable football against a number of the top sides last season, I’d argue that it was only really Huddersfield who we totally blew away. I’m not trying to downplay the fantastic results against Reading at home and Newcastle away, but I reckon that people are maybe over-expectant when it comes to playing the bigger teams. When we did outplay the bigger teams, it was down to the sheer number of accurate passes that we played at pace. If you have ever been coached in football, or any game like it, you will have been told to pass in triangles, do it quickly and to be constantly on the move. Most of the top teams in any division will be used to doing that to their lesser opponents, but won’t attempt it against the top.
The difference with Fulham last year in some of those games was that Slav insisted on the passing game no matter what and the top sides, who weren’t used to it happening against them, just couldn’t handle it. This season the top teams have expected it from us. That’s not to say that they had us all worked out, but they have sat deeper and encouraged Fulham to pass the ball without giving us the option of passing it forward, resulting in Fulham finding it harder to come by positive results against the top sides. I think that now that we are in the business end of the season, the likes of Villa, Derby and others around us won’t be able to afford to sit back, as all the teams around us are as in need of points as we are. The games ahead of us will be tough, but I also expect them to be open, which should allow us to find our attacking groove
NM: I think it comes down to timing and scheduling more than style of play. Preston, Bristol City, Wolves and Villa all played Fulham at a time when the Whites were low on confidence, had only one win at home and were surrounded by turmoil both on and off the field. I think this time around though, the aforementioned teams will be playing a Fulham team that more confident and in much better spirits and have every right to be fearful of Fulham over the coming weeks. Style-wise, I think we’ve already seen a return of Fulham’s “all-out attack” approach compared to the confused approach of the first three months of the season. Since the conclusion of the November International Break, Fulham have easily pushed aside arguably two of the top three best defensive teams in the league in Cardiff and Sheffield United. Will we see that return of last year’s form against the “good teams” now? That remains to be seen.
JC: The trick is in getting teams to open up. If we look at the Sheffield United game, they came flying out of the traps at us and it allowed Ryan Sessegnon and Sheyi Ojo the time and space to cause mayhem with their running. They were at home that day, and I’m less concerned about travelling because home fans from these high-flying clubs will expect their team to have a go—especially at, say, Bristol City, who now need wins to stay in the hunt. What needs to happen at home is that Fulham need to go ahead in these games, preferably early, and force teams to chase the game whilst the Whites maintain possession and can therefore use the lightning strikes that we have at our disposal—a team charging forward to chase the game is far less likey to be able to deal with a flowing Fulham passing move that opens them up across the field. If we can get ourselves in the lead at home, we’re far more likely to see results like last season—if you look at Huddersfield and Reading, we scored early in both!
Tom Cairney is supposedly close to a return to fitness – do you think the skipper will start against Aston Villa and how huge could his influence be?
FT: If Tom Cairney is fit, he plays. When you talk about a team’s best player, Tom Cairney is that in the purest sense – his technically magnificent with elite characteristics in being both creative and caring with the ball at his feet. When he’s on song, the team is on song, and whilst the style remains similar without him, it’s much less probing, flowing and full of chances. The one thing Aston Villa have over most sides in the division is knowhow, in the shape of the top level experience of John Terry, James Chester, Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak. Unlocking a team containing so many wily veterans will require the teasing left foot of a talent like Tom Cairney. (A side note, Aston Villa have won only one of the away games in which they’ve conceded in this season: the rest have been draws, losses or wins to nil. Fulham are on a run of seven games in which they’ve scored at Craven Cottage and have only been shut out once in their late 13 at home. Food for thought…)
GS: The short answer is probably not, as Slav will likely (and rightly so) not want to risk a knock when we have not games coming thick and fast. Norwood is also doing a fine job as understudy, and has settled in well with McDonald and StefJo. However, Cairney’s talent for finding space in the final third – an area where he considerably outperforms Ollie – which will be critical against a Villa team that can pack the midfield. Therefore, if we can keep the game even until the 70th minute, and bring on Cairney for Norwood, I trust Tom will be the man to unlock a tiring defence and get us the result we need!
LC: If he is deemed fit then Cairney should play. Throughout my articles on Hammy End this season I have made no secret of my admiration for Ollie Norwood but Tom Cairney, when fully fit, is an upgrade on the majority of midfielders in this division. Cairney will give a lift to the whole Fulham family. That’s the thing with captains, they improve the mood in their camp and that could work wonders against the strength of Villa. Cairney is the sort of midfielder that other teams fear so if he does have to miss out, that will be a boost to Villa. His influence for me is more to do with what he can bring to the mentality of Fulham, than just his footballing ability. Norwood can bring a lot to the side, but he can’t quite match Cairney’s ability to give us all a lift—and that could be huge.
NM: No, solely for his own safety. Fulham can’t risk another setback for easily their most influential player in the team and playing him against the likes of Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak isn’t an easy physical task for a player who’s returned from a myriad of knee injuries. Rather, I would send him on with half an hour remaining when the midfield battle hopefully won’t be as combative and allow him to dictate the final thirty minutes, if the scenario dictates it as necessary. Jokanovic and the medical team will then at least be better informed to see whether or not he could play further time against Bristol City and Wolves, two teams who are arguably less physical than Villa.
JC: This is one of those impossible dilemmas where you can’t be right for wrong. If he doesn’t start, and we lack a cutting edge, then we’ve missed an opportunity; but if he does, and then he looks like he’s struggling, we can’t afford a passenger. The medical team at Fulham did a sensational job last year at keeping everyone fit and healthy, and we have to trust their judgement, but realistically I would love to see TC back in the starting fold. The battle with Jack Grealish should be a duel between the two best No10s in the Championship and any football fan should be jumping at the chance to see that—if TC is fit, he should start.
How many points will Fulham get over the next six games – where can you see teams being able to hurt Fulham?
FT: This run of fixtures has been daunting since the start of December and although I do not believe it to be the be all and end all, I do think it’ll make or break our season for automatic promotion. I think we’ll dominate possession and shots against most – if not all – of the teams we play in this stretch, but I do worry about the counter. With Fulham typically pushing on numbers, chances will naturally open up for the likes Albert Adomah, Diogo Jota, Ivan Cavaleiro, Matej Vydra and Tom Lawrence, all of whom can punish with a single stroke . I am more worried about the Aston Villa, Wolves and Derby County matches than the others, as they just possess a bit more quality throughout their squads.
GS: Wolves aside, the team that worries me the most over these games is Derby County. As expected, Gary Rowett has drilled them into a great unit, and their home defence is the best in the league. Matej Vydra is having the season of his life, and has scored 10 goals in 14 games at Pride Park: a terrifying record we’ll need to be wary of. I think we should be able to get a win from one of our next 3, and Sheffield United at home looks winnable too. Therefore I’m going to (slightly pessimistically) predict 9 points from the next 6, which should be just about enough to keep in touch with the playoff rivals.
LC: With 18 points up for grabs, all against teams in and around us, it would be fair to say that this is the most important phase in our season. We have done the ground work over the past 8 matches or so, but now is the time to really grab our season by the scruff of the neck and get this thing done. It’s hard to put a total on what we will get, but I reckon that we need at least 12. How many points have we taken from our next six opponents already this season? Five. A victory over Sheffield United and draws against Derby and Preston have went alongside losses to Aston Villa, Bristol City and Wolves. The biggest worry for me is the sheer strength and power of Villa and the lightening pace of Wolves. Interestingly, Marcus Bettinelli didn’t play in any of those games, so hopefully the upturn in results since his recall to the side can continue. Our defence is going to be under an awful lot of pressure so Betts needs to marshal his men and stay tight.
NM: I think the Whites will end up with 10 points, an average of 1.67 PPG, which is roughly 6th place form. I think they’ll end up with wins over Preston, Bristol City and Sheffield United, draw against Villa and lose to Wolves and Derby. That should be the minimum expectation and if Fulham achieve that, then they’ll have put themselves in a good position to succeed against what I feel is an easy final nine games.
JC: I’m going to suggest that 11 points from these 18 is the return we should be looking at as a good standard. I’m more concerned about this Villa game than any other, truth be told; and I think we’ll know a lot more about the fight and bottle of this Fulham team come 5pm on Saturday evening. Anything less than 9 is a huge disappointment, anything over 12 would have us right in the mix. If Fulham can’t take their chances in these games, we will be punished by teams with similar calibre of squads to our own—profligacy is what has the potential to really hurt the Whites.
Which Fulham player will be key to Fulham’s success over the next six games?
FT: If Tom Cairney can get back to even 75% of the Tom Cairney of last year, it’d make a huge difference and will play a factor. If not, Lucas Piazon has returned from injury like a bionic man and if he can keep getting more and more of the football, his movement and technical ability will open up spaces for others to penetrate: even if he is not to create chances, doing simply that is as good as. Piazon’s movement and manipulation of space is better than anyone at the football club and really helps out a fairly immobile midfield trio of Kevin McDonald, Oliver Norwood and Stefan Johansen.
GS: With Cairney’s return still doubtful, for me Targett is the key to helping Sess and the team continue our winning form. Finally having a dedicated left back playing behind him, Sess has been flourishing in the last couple of games. It’s free’d up some of his defensive shackles, and allowed him to play as an out and out forward, which really suits him. As his game thrives on being in the right place at the right time, he should now be there more often. Targett has started his Fulham career brightly, and I’m really hopeful he’ll keep delivering the goods against some more challenging opposition wingers.
LC: It’s a toss-up between Ryan Sessegnon in attack and Tim Ream in defence for me. Sessegnon is touted to be the next big thing in England so this should be the perfect platform for him to really test himself. On the other hand, our defence needs to stand strong. Obviously, we want to win as many games as possible, but not losing in some of the games could be just as pivotal come the end of the season. Our defence is the foundation on which we need to build this promotion push, and for that reason Ream could be key.
NM: Without a doubt, Tom Cairney. His presence causes so many issues in central midfield for other teams so much that they have to gameplan for him and his passing opens up Fulham’s attack to a whole new level through the middle. Tie in his threat from long distance (as Leeds found out the hard way last season) and Fulham can easily beat any team in the league when he is on song. If our Captain is ready to go and able to play a full 90 soon, then there is no reason why Fulham can’t push for the automatic spots.
JC: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that with Cairney still out injured, which Stefan Johansen we see will be a major factor in how this run progresses. Safe to say that Stef’s recent form has improved after a tricky start to the season, but there’s still work to be done and maintaining that positive trajectory is hugely important to the Whites playing well in these fixtures. I was pointed yesterday (H/T Charlie) in the direction of this infographic which highlighted that even in a tough season, Stef’s passing accuracy and key passes per game have still both been high, and he remains Fulham’s third top scorer for the campaign. If Stef can continue on the path he’s been on and start to hit the heights of last season again, it will be a huge positive for Fulham.
Who will start at centre-forward for the majority of these six games?
FT: It’s a really tough pick and I’m glad that I am not the person that has to choose. Until Aleksander Mitrovic is 100% fit, he doesn’t start for me, not in fixtures of these importance. That leaves you with two polar opposites, the athleticism and physicality of Aboubakar Kamara or the silk and guile of Rui Fonte. Slavisa Jokanovic has options and can plug players in dependent on tactical analysis. I wouldn’t be 100% percent surprised if it was fairly evenly split in terms of minutes between the three, which I fully accept is a copout answer.
GS: If I was Slav, I’d look at moving Abou Kamara back into the starting lineup. His goalscoring record is really strong, averaging more than 1 goal every 2 games – a stronger record than Fonte and Mitrovic. Whilst he’s a great weapon against tiring legs, he’s also great at tiring people out in the first place – something I don’t think we’ve made the most of recently.
NM: I’m going to reluctantly say Rui Fonte, although I’m not sure if that lasts past Wolves. I’ve been extremely pro Fonte for the entire season but his performance against Forest was seriously underwhelming and that miss against Bolton was appalling. Having said that though, subbing him off five minutes into the second half against Wanderers was slightly hasty by Jokanovic, destabilised Fulham and allowed Bolton back into the game. I think we’ll see Aleks Mitrovic slowly integrated into a starting role, probably from Derby onwards. I’ve been impressed from what I’ve seen that the Serbian has brought to the table and he has the physicality factor to trouble the likes of Willy Boly, Richard Keogh and John Terry that we haven’t seen Fonte and AK bring so far.
JC: Prediction: Fonte vs. Villa, Kamara vs. Bristol City, Mitrovic vs. Wolves, Mitrovic vs. Derby, Fonte vs. Sheffield United, Mitrovic vs. Preston.
Obviously Slavisa has options – but do you think he will choose to rotate because of the reasonably heavy schedule or will he stick once he finds a formula that works?
FT: I don’t think Slavisa is one to rotate, I believe he changes things if he spots a weakness during tactical analysis in the build up to matches and form doesn’t necessarily comes into the thinking. Stefan Johansen has been underwhelming compared to the standards he set last season yet has continued to keep starting matches with no change of shape or personnel to try to find a better solution. He’ll stick with the formula and shape with (I expect) pretty minimal personnel changes. Most managers and coaches talk about the ‘game by game’ mindset, and most of them I don’t believe. Slavisa Jokanovic however, I genuinely believe he focuses on winning each game as it comes with no forward or backwards thinking.
GS: Predicting what Slavisa will do is impossible, but I’d like to think he’ll look to rotate. Not only is our schedule very busy, with alternating matches between the North & South of the country, but different players will suit different oppositions. I’d like to hope that Slav has a clear plan for each game plan, and is planning on deploying weapons at the right time. For instance, against an ageing Terry, the answer may be Ojo & Kamara instead of Piazon & Fonte. As long as we don’t see another Johansen false 9 experiment, I’m happy!
LC: Slav has rotated all season, although this is maybe more to do with the fact that he hasn’t quite found the perfect combination upfront than just wanting to freshen things up all the time. I would like to see Mitrovic having a go at leading the line for Fulham against Villa and if that works, then I’d be happy to see that continue for the foreseeable future. However, with each of the next six games as important as the next and the fact that two of them are midweek, I fully expect to see rotation.
NM: In terms of rotation, I think he’ll have to rotate not for fitness but for tactical adjustments – Kamara and his pace have serious potential to trouble a recently porous Bristol City backline, which wouldn’t work against Wolves’ 343 in my opinion.
JC: Slav and rotation don’t always go together lightly, although the gaffer does have a penchant for the weirder decisions sometimes. I think minor rotation is necessary in a sequence of fixtures like this, but I can’t see him switching things up for the sake of it. There will be rotation in the front three, and with the reintroduction of Tom Cairney, but you’d imagine the back six will stay mostly the same, aside from I believe we’ll see Cyrus Christie get a start in at least one of the midweek fixtures to give Ryan Fredericks’ gas tank a bit of a recharge and stop him burning out too early.