Usuallly, even in defeat a team can extract a positive or two. A failed experiment, perhaps, or a lesson learned about a particular player. For Fulham, their 1-0 loss to Huddersfield on Monday night came with no benefit at all. What Slavisa Jokanovic’s future now is remains uncertain, but this defeat was inarguably the low point of what has already been a disastrous season.
That wasn’t just because Fulham lost, though. Losing to this Huddersfield side is always slightly shameful, but it was really the texture of the game which was most troubling. While the statistics portrayed a fairly even contest, the tone of the match made it seem as if only one result was ever possible. Huddersfield are limited, but last night they were committed and connected; at least their dots joined up.
The same can’t be said about Fulham. Previously, perhaps as recently as before the loss at Cardiff, it had been easy to dismiss their early season form as being part of a learning curve. They made a lot of signings over the summer, the genetics of the side are fundamentally different, and so an adjustment period was always going to have to be suffered.
Monday night altered that perception, because it showed just how little progress has actually being made. This team is getting worse, not better. The defence still looked perilously vulnerable (against a team who hadn’t scored a home goal all season, no less) and the midfield and attack exerted almost no influence on the game at all. Even towards the end, when Huddersfield had begun to sit deep and hold what they had, there was barely even the suggestion of an equaliser.
Inaccuracy was also a theme. Across the entire 90 minutes, Fulham lost the ball 18 times in their own half, suggesting fundamental issues with the way they build and develop attacking moves. The defence is a problem, everybody knows that, but its fractured relationship with the midfield is an equally significant issue. Yes, the line is lead by Aleksandar Mitrovic and he’s a physical player, but he is not mobile enough to chase long balls into the channel and he is not technically good enough to hold the ball up when surrounded by multiple defenders. Moreover, he is supported in attack by players who require the ball at their feet. Andre Schurrle, Luciano Vietto and Tom Cairney are finesse footballers, not battering-rams, and this inability to develop possession from deep is deeply inhibiting them.
Diagnosing that is simple enough: last night’s back-seven (including the goalkeeper) involved five players who arrived at the club over the summer and, clearly, that lack of familiarity is a root cause. In the broader sense, it offers a warning to newly-promoted clubs about trying to evolve too quickly. In the short-term though, it suggests that Fulham would likely be wrong to part with Jokanovic now – or at least, that doing so wouldn’t cure this particularly problem. How is more turnover and change really going to help? The summer has happened now, it can’t be undone, and if Fulham are to survive they need to rediscover the cohesion which brought them back to this level in the first place.
Jokanovic is obviously complicit in the failure – after all, the lack of any discernible adjustment is deeply concerning and, ultimately, his responsibility. After eleven Premier League games, not a single one of his defensive players has more than eight starts and, even now in November, there’s really no sense of what his first-choice back-line actually is. While that remains the case, the side is going to remain without both proper stability and the necessary understandings to efficiently exit their own zones. At this point, picking a consistent defence is almost more important than the personnel within it. After all, the lower half of the Premier League is weak this season, there are some very limited teams at that end of the table, the implication being that basic competence in that defence should be enough.
So, no, Jokanovic is not an innocent bystander, but is still best-placed to arrest the decline. Another manager will doubtless bring further players with him in January, will take weeks or perhaps months to exert proper control over this squad, and that’s probably time that Fulham don’t really have.
Last season, they were often a wonderful team to watch. Not because they had a side packed with gifted individuals, but because their components often combined in such attractive fashion. Re-watch the goals scored by Sessegnon, Mitrovic and Cairney, for instance, and note how many of them were the product of slick moves and developed relationships between the various players. The higher standard of the Premier League would have had a restricting effect under any circumstances, yes, but the real problem has been Fulham’s willingness to voluntarily vent that chemistry away. Watching them now, particularly last night, is to see a side with almost no faith in their own shape. Players have no sense for where their teammates are and, with and without the ball, they are reacting to their own side’s movement rather than anticipating it.
Managerial change doesn’t solve that. In fact, it would represent a failure to appreciate why this team finds itself at the foot of the league and, more than likely, would just accentuate the problem.