Tactics Explained: Fulham’s Premier League shape

Words by Feargal Brennan Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 27, 2018

After sealing their return to the Premier League, Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic set about making some changes and bringing in reinforcements.

In the summer transfer window, he brought in just over £100m worth of new faces, paying £27m for Nice midfielder Jean Michael Seri, £15m for Swansea defender Alfie Mawson and £18m to Aleksandr Mitrovic move to Craven Cottage permanent.

Jokanovic laid down an early marker to his squad by employing rotation, after defeats in their opening two games, to Crystal Palace and Tottenham.

Despite bringing in two new goalkeepers, Jokanovic looks to be reverting back to last season’s first-choice Marcus Bettineli, favouring him for his greater physical presence and the quality of his long range distribution.

In defence, Fulham operate with a traditional back four of two attack-minded full backs and two positionally disciplined central defenders. Timothy Fosu-Mensah, on loan from Manchester United is at right back, with highly-rated Joe Bryan on the left. Both players are encouraged to get forward, but in differing styles. Fosu-Mensah is charged with overlapping, using his pace to get to the byline, and cut back from there. In contrast, Bryan, who is an established crosser, will look to deliver from deeper and wider areas.

Denis Odoi, who played a key role last season, is partnered with new man Alfie Mawson. As a pair, Odoi is highlighted as the more mobile, and with Fosu-Mensah and Bryan still inexperienced at the highest level, he will look to move across to assist in one-on-one situations. Mawson will look to occupy the box, dealing with the majority of aerial challenges, he will also look to carry the ball out, with Odoi stepping in to cover.

In midfield Jokanovic has kept faith in Kevin McDonald and club captain Tom Cairney, alongside Seri. McDonald acts as a traditional anchor, deployed in the No.6 role to protect Odoi and Mawson. Although he operates in a fairly rigid role, his passing brief is to break the opposition midfield press with balls to Cairney and Seri, as they push forward.

Seri has made a real impact since signing, netting twice already and providing a driving force in midfield. He operates to the right of McDonald, with Cairney on the left, in a narrow three. The Ivorian international’s main strength is his ball carrying ability, which he looks to utilise to push opposition midfields back. He also operates alongside McDonald when Fulham are out of possession, looking to initiate a counter attack when the ball is regained.

Cairney is given a freer licence in midfield, but he is charged with finding a different method to penetrate the opposition. Jokanovic deploys the 27-year old as an advanced quarter-back in their system when Fulham look to create goal scoring chances.

Positioned in a narrow, left side of midfield berth, Cairney consistently looks to go forward in his movement and passing. The positions he takes up allow him to operate in the space between midfield and the advanced left back, allowing him to deliver passes from inverted areas with the aim of accentuating the impact of Mitrovic.

At the top of the field, Jokanovic continues to rotate his front three, with the tactical structure changing depending on the personnel in use.

Mitrovic is at the heart of the trio and his movement and strengths are catered for to ensure the best goal return possible. His physical, bustling style is an issue for defenders, but the runs he makes and the movement of his fellow attackers are the key ingredient in how Fulham look to unlock sides.

Elsewhere, Jokanovic also dipped into the loan market to bring in former Chelsea forward Andre Schurrle and Atletico Madrid’s Luciano Vietto. Neither is a specified winger by trade, however, given the battering ram nature of Mitrovic, Jokanovic has had to adapt to allow them to have a creative role. With both players preferring to cut inside from the left, Vietto has taken a position on the right, but they are comfortable swapping wings.

Despite not forcing full backs out to the touchline, they do drag them to the corners of the penalty box and attack them in 1v1 situations. Crucially, this opens up additional space for Mitrovic, and from deep, Cairney, to exploit. The idea is to create a lopsided attacking diamond, with Cairney at the left sided base.

This creates issues for defence as central defenders will have to step out to monitor the threat of Cairney, leaving Mitrovic marked by just one player. This allows him to make the near-post runs his thrives on, pulling defenders with him to either score, or leave a space in the centre of the penalty area.

Ryan Sessegnon remains a key player for Fulham, after the 18 year old impressed with sixteen goals from a left wing position in 2017-18. But Jokanovic has been keen to state their will be no room for sentiment this season, and after finding it tough in the opening two games, he was left out.

He returned for the defeat to Manchester City, but at left back, in place of Bryan and has kept his place since. However, his strength is further forward and Bryan is likely to come in again in defence, meaning Sessegnon may have to settle for a substitute role in the coming weeks.

With Mitrovic as the focal point, Fulham could be mistaken for something of a one-trick pony in the top flight, but the structure of the midfield cleverly enables fluidity and attacking threat to flourish.

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