Craven Corner: Watching Warnock Wobble

Ad Brons-Smith 13th April 2018

Nineteen games unbeaten. Ad Brons-Smith talks all things promotion in the latest edition of the Craven Corner.

Let that number sink in for a minute, because it still feels like I’m living in a dream land as a Fulham supporter right now.

2018 has been sensational for Fulham, and with Wolves beating Cardiff last week, we’ve managed to get ourselves into the race for the automatic promotion places. With Fulham just two points behind Neil Warnock’s men, and Cardiff still having to play Aston Villa, the promotion dream could well become a reality.

With Fulham breaking records and playing at full speed, it truly would be the icing on the cake if we managed to finish 2nd. Especially when you think that after 17 games, this season we were 17th.

At that time, the squad hadn’t really gelled and it seemed that last year’s play-off defeat to Reading was still lingering over the players. After the defeat to Sunderland, there were whispers of fans losing faith in the staff and the club, but one thing this unbeaten streak has proved, is that it’s not over, until it’s over.

Since the defeat to Sunderland, Fulham have managed to sign Aleksandar Mitrovic and Matt Targett on loan from Newcastle and Southampton, while the side has been boosted by captain, Tom Cairney’s return from injury.

All smiles as Fulham keep rolling (Photo: Rex Features)

These two signings and Cairney’s return have re-energised Jokanovic’s side, and Targett’s arrival has allowed Ryan Sessegnon the freedom to play further forward, and is the main reason behind the young talent’s rise to fame this season.

With Cairney returning to form and full fitness, Fulham once again have the midfield trio of McDonald, Johansen & Cairney again, and it’s the balance that these three bring, that is vital to the way we play.

With the discipline of McDonald and the engine of Johansen, Cairney is allowed the freedom of the park to be the main architect to carving out chances in the final third, and often the main outlet for hitting the wide men in attack.

Whilst, up front we have finally managed to sign a striker who is not only confident of finding the net, but has the physical attributes required to spearhead this side. While, we spent £9m on Rui Fonte, the Portuguese forward hasn’t settled nor does he have the physical side of the game to bully defenders, which has often seen him marked out of the game.

As for our other options, Kamara has shown glimpses of what he possesses but his talent is still very raw, and with the mounting pressure on the side to return the Premier League, time isn’t on our side.

Enter Mitrovic.

I remember shouting the house down and fist pumping late into the night as the news broke about his arrival at Craven Cottage, and ever since then it’s been a constant celebration with the Serbian loanee firing 9 goals in his last nine appearances.

Despite Mitro’s up and down form at Newcastle, there was no doubting his ability as he was on the watch-list of many top European sides during his time at Anderlecht, before his move to England. Although, he hadn’t found the net regularly for Newcastle, it was his fiery passion that made him a fan favourite, even if he found himself outside of Benitez’ plans.

Therefore, a move to Fulham was the perfect remedy for all parties involved. Mitrovic would be guaranteed game-time, Newcastle would be able to off-load him for a few months and see what he can do given the opportunity, and Fulham received the target man they have desired since Chris Martin’s betrayal last season.

But, let’s go back to an earlier point about Mitrovic – his strength. This is a key factor to the Serbian’s success at Fulham, as he is asked to play a similar role to what Zamora did during Hodgson’s successful reign.

With Mitrovic having the ability to play with his back towards goal, without being out muscled by the average Championship defender, the Serbian is allowed to hold the ball up in the final third, and get the better of the most dominating centre-backs.

Photo: Rex Features

Even against the better sides in this division, they’ve had to get two players close to Mitrovic to try to nullify his threat, and with very attack-minded wingers and full-backs in the final third, space is quickly created for those runners to find and cause trouble within.

That’s the thing, whoever gets the opportunity to lead the line in this side, will get plenty of chances to score, but there will be a lot of pressure on them to be that focal point, when we are moving forward as a team so there’s always an out ball for the defenders or the midfield to reach when they have to go direct.

This is something we have lacked with Kamara and Rui Fonte at times, and is the same issues we’ve faced when playing a ‘false 9’ this season, and should Fulham make the promotion dream a reality, I’m confident every fan would love to see Mitrovic at Craven Cottage for many years to come. A fiery and explosive character, but under the right management and system, a truly magnificent striker in the modern game.

It’s hard to be critical about a side that has just gone 19 games unbeaten, but it was really interesting to see the Fulham fan base after the 2-2 draw with QPR a while ago. Although, Fulham managed to continue the unbeaten streak, it’s safe to say the mood was deflated for a couple days after.

Photo: Rex Features

Which is completely fair, considering we took a 2-0 lead against a side in the bottom half of the table, and when we’d been in this form, it’s safe to say it was a slight wake-up call, that we have to keep going – something we have done in other games this season, with vital goals in the dying embers of a game.

As strange as it sounds, the home draw with QPR could have worked in our favour in terms of being a firm reminder that we have to continue to be at our best, and can’t drop down a gear if we are serious about finishing 2nd.

With some tough fixtures still to play, Fulham will have to be at their best, and not ease up when leading a game and hopefully Cardiff will slip between now and the end of the season.

There’s two points between us and a return to the Premier League. If Fulham can keep calm, focus on their own games rather than the results around them, promotion can and will happen.

Plus, it’d be sweeter to knock Neil Warnock out of an automatic promotion place too, wouldn’t it?

As always, please don’t hesitate to contact me on Twitter, with any thoughts & feedback – @ABronsSmith.