The Post Season Post Mortem

After the start we had this season, if you told a fan that they would have had the chance to finish 2nd on the last day of the season, they wouldn’t have believed you.

Despite the heroic performances of 2018, I think it’s safe to say that Sunday’s result hurt.

As strange as that sounds, that’s not just because we lost 3-1 at Birmingham, it was more due to the point that Cardiff only drew, and if we had played the way we have done over the course of 2018, we could be a Premier League club by now. But, it simply wasn’t meant to be.

The performance at Birmingham has actually taken me a fair few days to get over as I expected so much more from such a talented and promising side. Then again, as a fan, maybe I’ve been spoiled in 2018 by Fulham, and that I shouldn’t have such high expectations. It is hard to digest though as too many passes went astray and on a day where we needed Captain Cairney, even he looked dejected and our side looked like a team relegated, rather than one still fighting for an automatic promotion spot.

But, if Lucas Piazon had taken his chance early in the first half, would we have seen different outcome? Would Fulham have bottled a 1-0 lead or would have Cardiff turned it up a gear to make sure that they got all three points against Reading, rendering any Fulham victory pointless. There’s many ‘What if?’ scenarios we could play out in our minds, but I completely understand the disappointment and negativity at the final whistle.

Even though the season ended on a dull performance, when you look back at what we’ve achieved this year it truly is remarkable. It proved that Slavisa Jokanovic has a side capable of promotion, and probably even winning the league but to be champions you’ve got be the best team over 46 games and not 24.

Fulham were always going to steal the headlines when their inevitable change in form begun, and while I’m not a fan of Neil Warnock, you’ve got to applaud what he has done at Cardiff this season.

As I’ve said before, the Championship is a strange league as anyone can beat anyone, and there’s always one team that gets promotion which no one expects, and this year it was Cardiff. Over the course of the season, they were a team, it weren’t glamourous, they didn’t have any superstars but they were consistent and worked hard as a team throughout it, and that’s the difference between 2nd and 3rd this season. Fulham left it far too late, we had a mountain to climb, and while we worked damn hard to get to the top, there were too many games that we blew a lead against poor opposition. QPR and Burton spring to mind – and we should have never lost to the leagues poorest side, Sunderland. Which now leaves us in the play-offs for the second season in a row.

If I’m honest, I really want to be optimistic and ambitious about Fulham’s chances in the play-offs, but it’s probably the hardest play-offs the league has seen in years. Middlesbrough, Derby, Aston Villa & us. All teams that have Premier League ready stars in and each team has their own game winner. Middlesbrough will cause Villa problems no doubt, with the likes of Adama Traore and Bamford against John Terry and James Chester.

Villa still have a Premier League budget, have a leader who can handle the pressure in Terry, but also possess the creative minds of Jack Grealish & Conor Hourihane, who at this level are top quality midfielders. Then we have our opponents, Derby County who have Tom Lawrence & Matej Vydra, two players that I’d love to see in a Fulham shirt. Not only that, but our engine room will have an incredibly tough duel with the likes of Tom Huddlestone, Bradley Johnson and Joe Ledley, all of which still possess the talent needed to play at the highest division.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re a great side on our day, and I genuinely think we could beat most of the teams in the Premier League when we are at our best. But our record in the play-offs isn’t the best, and I think the loss at Birmingham could really effect us, especially as it kills the momentum that we had built over the previous 23 games.

I know, this isn’t the most optimistic article you’ve read this week, but these play-offs have such a big impact on the club. If we make it a success and return back to the Premier League, we should be able to keep this squad together as we’ll be able to offer the likes of McDonald, Cairney, Fredericks & Sessegnon Premier League football, rather than having to sell them to PL admirers.

But, if it doesn’t happen, we’ve got the toughest season the club has faced ahead of us next year. Not only would we lose 4 or more top quality players, but we would have to rebuild a side from scratch again. Yes, we’d raise funds through player sales, but we’d be limited by Financial Fair Play, and replacing that talent within such tight boundaries would be a mammoth task. But, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

I’ve listened to the player interviews this week, and McDonald especially seems confident going into this game, but we’ve got to make sure we repeat our last trip to Pride Park.

Dominate the ball from the first whistle, and really stretch that Derby back line and midfield with willing runs from the likes of Sessegnon and hopefully Kamara. The reason I mentioned Kamara is because while he’s not the most technically gifted player we’ve seen in a Fulham shirt, he is one of the fastest we’ve seen and while he is incredibly unpredictable, it’s that rawness that causes problems in the final third.
Plus, he provides a bit of fiery passion and strength when playing off Mitrovic. Kamara’s return to the side is the only change I’d expect in the starting eleven, as I feel that if we started Piazon he could get played out of the game quite easily. With Piazon’s tendencies to drift inside, it won’t be the game for him I feel as the centre of the park will already be very busy with all the pressure on Derby’s midfield to close the space around Cairney and co.
Finally, I do believe we’ve got to go and get a win at Derby on Friday, despite being the away team. We can’t go out and play safe, and come back with a draw. We’ve got to really put the pressure on and dictate the tempo to best suit our players. Derby have more than enough quality to cause us trouble, but a possession heavy performance and an early goal would calm any Fulham nerves on and off the pitch!
I also want to say a massive thank you to the team at Fulhamish & Fulham Focus for their organisation and hard work behind the scenes in arranging the Football game in April which helped boost the #Fulham2BirminghamWalk campaign, raising money for The Calm Zone. It was a true pleasure to be a part of and it was great to meet a lot of fellow fans too.
While, Fulhamish’s Jack Collins stole the show with four goals, it’s great to see the Fulham fan-base using their exposure to raise money for such a worthy cause. We live in a world where there is a lot of pressure on people, and it’s okay to talk. Reach out, talk to a friend, a relative or seek support if you are feeling low. Discovering that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 is frightening, and if there’s anything we can do together as a fanbase, then let’s keep raising money for the likes of CALM who help people through the dark times.
Thank you ever so much for your support again this season. The Craven Corner has been going for over six years now, and I can’t thank you enough for all your support.

Please do keep share your feedback, thoughts and feelings with me on Twitter by tweeting to @ABronsSmith.

Any retweets, and help with sharing the Craven Corner with fellow fans is really appreciated. Let’s hope that next month’s article can label Fulham as a Premier League club once again.

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Warnock Wobbles as Fulham make it 19 Unbeaten with a Serb on Fire

Nineteen games unbeaten.

Let that 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. 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 receive 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 done 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. 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. 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?

Thank you ever so much for taking the time to read the latest Craven Corner article, and I really do appreciate the ongoing support the blog has received over the past 6 years!

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

Thanks again for reading, and please share this with your fellow Fulham Fans! Keep the faith! COYW’s!

 

 

 

The Unbeaten Streak Continues. 12 and counting..

Five tough games welcomed Fulham in February, and after 3 wins and 3 draws the dream of finishing 2nd this season is still alive.

In my last article, I said we had to aim for 9-12 points from the four games against Bolton, Aston Villa, Bristol City & Wolves but we’ve only fallen short of that target by 1 point, and realistically it’s been enough to keep us on our promotion charge.

Up to 59 points and despite Cardiff’s win putting them 8 points ahead of us, when Fulham are in this sort of form, catching them up isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Twelve games unbeaten in the league, and we are only getting better as a team.

After a tough first half against Wolves, Fulham turned the screw and got the two goals they deserved. Wolves made it tough for Slav’s men by playing a back-five for most of the game, with the three centre-halves sitting deeper than normal, preventing the likes of Sess and Ayite from running in behind. To be honest, Wolves done a really good job of it for most of the game, but once Sess was the first to react to Mitrovic’s parried effort, Wolves had to take the game to Fulham and it became an exciting game to watch. Jota went close, and Diego Cavaleiro looked a threat for most of the game, but Mitrovic’s goal was tremendous.

Mitrovic held it up, and then turned Coady who had been a pain in his side for most of the game, and from about 18-20 yards beat John Ruddy at his near post. While this was an outstanding goal, it was proof of how important a decent target-man is for our style of play.

Rui Fonte doesn’t have the nasty-side of the game needed for that role, and despite Kamara becoming a bit of a fan-favourite, he’s still too raw of a talent to rely upon week-in, week-out just yet. Mitrovic played really well throughout the game, even if he cut a lonely figure up top on his own when we were under-pressure. He remained disciplined, and gave Boly and Coady a really tough evening, dropping short to link up with the wide men and busting a gut to make sure he was in the area when a cross was put in. A few pundits suggested that Mitro’s still not 100% match-fit, and if that’s the case he’s going to unleash hell in our remaining games if he continues to get a run in the side.

There have already been a number of stand-out performances in recent weeks from certain individuals, but I have to take the time to applaud Matt Targett’s work since joining our club in January. The Southampton loanee has settled incredibly quick at the club, and really embodies the quality you’d want from a modern full-back. His tenacity and understanding of the play in both ends of the pitch has really strengthened Slav’s team in 2018.

For a young footballer, I’ve been really surprised with how calm and patient he is under pressure and he’s not once forgotten about his defensive duties too – something that seems to happen with many full-backs these days.

While the chances of him signing on a permanent deal at the end of the season may be low, his arrival has proved to be invaluable. Finally, we have a top-quality left-back and at the same time it’s allowed Ryan Sessegnon to be set free and really develop as a forward, something we’re reaping the rewards from already.

Actually, the whole back four had a great game against Wolves, and it’s now over 400 minutes since we last conceded a goal at home – a tremendous achievement by everyone and is vital to getting out of this division.

Ream and Kalas have seemingly built a stronger relationship over the last 2-3 months, and this coincides with Bettinelli’s return to the side. While the Button or Betts argument seems to happen every day on social media, Bettinelli’s return to the side has been a blessing. Yes, he’s not the most talented footballer with the ball at his feet, but he’s a much more commanding presence than Button. Betts communication and leadership from the back, helps keep the back four in place, and with Bettinelli much more adept at collecting crosses and commanding his area, there’s no surprise the back four have also looked more solid in recent months.

Although, I’ve mentioned a few names above, it’s exciting that we have so much strength in this squad, and have so many options to choose from. For example, Ayite was probably the player that shone the least against Wolves but Slav has the likes of Ojo, Piazon, Kamara, Kebano & Fonte waiting in the wings, if he wants to swap it around. Out of the choices, I’d probably use Piazon, Kebano or Kamara over Ojo and Fonte, as I feel they provide a lot more threat, even if Ojo had a good run of games earlier in the season.

But this is something, we’ve not really had in previous seasons, and even if Tom Cairney isn’t 100% fit in the centre of the park at the moment, we can still call upon Oliver Norwood to deputise without seriously weakening our starting eleven – a factor that will be priceless for our promotion charge.

Having a squad to rotate and utilise for the final part of the season may well be the difference in the sides that get promoted, and those who miss out. This, will be highlighted when we have to play Derby on Saturday, followed by Sheffield United on Tuesday – this league is cruel.

Having to play two teams in the top eight, in just a few days will push the squad to its limits, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Cyrus Christie deputise for Frederick’s, just like the Bristol City game.

But, these are games that we have to win, especially with Derby sitting just above us, and despite Sheffield United’s recent drop in form, they still have the quality to beat anyone in this division.

It may sound a bit greedy to demand six points from these two fixtures, but it would push us up to 3rd based on the other results, and close the gap on Cardiff in 2nd. While I’m still pinching myself to remind myself our unbeaten streak is actually happening, the hard work is only just about to start for Fulham. It’s the business end of the season, and there’s no time to take our foot off the pedal as we need to have near-perfect points total from the remaining fixtures to secure an automatic spot – I don’t think I can deal with the nerves of the play-offs again!

It’s been a tremendous couple of months, but we’ve got to keep going. The fans have been unbelievable, and the feeling around the club is incredibly positive. We’ve got to keep going on and off the pitch, and dreams may just come true!

Thank you ever so much for reading, and for your continued support. Please share the article with your fellow Fulham & Football friends.

If you have any feedback, or want to discuss it further, you can always contact me on Twitter – @ABronsSmith

 

 

After a perfect January, there’s plenty of reasons to get excited at Fulham.

The transfer window has closed, and Fulham have kept their stars, while adding a few top quality additions over the course of January too.

First of all, the board deserve a lot of credit for their work during January. Not only did they manage to keep the likes of Ryan Sessegnon, Tom Cairney and Ryan Fredericks at the club after some serious interest from Premier League clubs. But, we managed to sign Cyrus Christie, Aleksandr Mitrovic & Matt Targett – three signings that add true quality to this squad.

Mitrovic is an outstanding signing and will be the name that gets the headlines now the window has closed, but upon reflection the three signings strengthen any weak points in our squad. Mitrovic is the answer to our striker worries, after Aboubakar Kamara and Rui Fonte haven’t scored consistently over the course of the season, and Targett is the perfect addition to allow Ryan Sessegnon to play further forward for the second half of the season.

As for Cyrus Christie, it’s a signing I never expected to happen, but after thinking it through it makes a lot of sense. With Fredericks’ long-term future at the club still in doubt, Christie brings a similar profile to that right-back position. While, I still expect Fredericks to be the first choice for that role, Christie signing on a long-term deal means we have a decent replacement ready to go for next season, should Ryan not sign a new contract before the end of the year. Fredericks has been in contract talks with the club for a good six months, and with both parties failing to reach an agreement so far, Christie’s arrival means we haven’t got to panic buy in the summer, and that also means Cyrus can settle at the club before taking the right-back slot on a full-time basis next year.

As for the players that departed Fulham this month, my pre-window predictions came true. With Yohan Mollo & Rafa Soares both having their contracts terminated, after failing to impress Slavisa this season. While there were further departures for Jordan Graham, Michael Madl & Ragnar Sigurdsson, all of which struggled to make an impact at the club and while I wish Madl all the best for the future, he sadly fell behind Kalas, Ream & Odoi for the centre defensive role in our side.

But, there’s a great vibe around Craven Cottage at the moment, both the fans, players and staff all seem optimistic about what we can achieve this season and once again, Fulham were rampant at home this weekend. Slavisa stuck with the same front three that destroyed Burton in our last home fixture, and while it was the right thing to do, Fonte failed to make the same impact against Forest as he did against Burton. His performance lead to an introduction for Mitrovic before the hour mark and the Serbian’s presence was definitely felt by all. It’s safe to say that the Newcastle loanee is a passionate player, and his work-rate and physicality proved a tough challenge for the Forest back four, with the Serbian coming so close for a debut goal after his header was cleared off the line. Despite his fiery past, Mitrovic is still only 23 years old and with his talent and structure, this loan move to Fulham could be the changing point in his career, and if his cameo was anything to go by, Jokanovic has finally found a striker he can rely on.

Although, I have been a fan of Kamara this season, he will be behind Mitrovic for the second half of the second. But, I do hope that we see AK47 feature a lot in the remaining games, and with Jokanovic having both Mitrovic & Kamara in his match-day squads, I really hope we see Fulham line up with both strikers starting before May, as that would be a really exciting duo.

Despite all the excitement around our attacking talent, I have to commend the efforts of Marcus Bettinelli and Tomas Kalas this weekend. Betts’ double save in the second half was just as valuable as a goal, and Kalas looked back to his best, being calm on the ball and dominant when called upon. Their efforts were rewarded with a much deserved clean sheet, and it’s great to see Bettinelli improve on his distribution too this weekend, as that’s been an aspect of his game that many fans have criticised.

As for the second half of the season, the sky is limit if I’m being honest. We’ve really turned the screw in recent months, and have climbed up the Championship week after week. Currently in 5th, with Tom Cairney still to come back to the side again once he’s fully-fit which means we’ll only get stronger as the season progresses. Not only that, but we’re currently unbeaten in our last 8 league games, and if we keep up that form there’s no reason why we can’t make a push for the automatic places this season.

February will be an incredibly tough month for the club though, and it will determine how good this squad really is. With games against Bolton, Aston Villa, Bristol City & Wolves to come, Fulham will be taking points from the sides around them if they are successful in February. If Fulham can take 9-12 points from the next four games, then Slavisa’s men would have closed the gap on the automatic spots, putting themselves amongst the promotion places at the business end of the season.

After such a successful January, on and off the pitch, I can’t be more excited as a Fulham fan as I really feel we’ll get even better with each passing game; and with Mitrovic leading the line and Cairney still waiting in the wings, Fulham will have a great opportunity to prove just how good they really are.

P.S – For those of you who are travelling to the Bolton game you may see a Q&A with me in the match-day programme!

Thank you ever so much for reading and for your continued support. If you have any thoughts or feedback, please don’t hesitate to message me on Twitter – @ABronsSmith

The Transfer Window has opened, but what’s in store for Fulham this month?

With 2017 firmly behind us, the New Year brings a fresh start for everyone, but could there be some fresh faces arriving at Craven Cottage this month?

Well, I think it’s safe to say that the rumour mill will be in full flow this month, with many of the stories set to focus on the likes of teenage superstar, Ryan Sessegnon. Although the fans are in for a month Sessegnon being linked with every top European club, I’m fairly confident that the talented youngster will stay with the club this season. He’s well looked after, and is a regular starter at our club and that could be something he may not achieve elsewhere.  Even though, we’ll have to endure a month of rumours linking him with the likes of Real Madrid, PSG & Manchester United; unless a silly offer of around £40m or higher is received, I really can’t see the club selling their prize asset this month. Personally, I have a lot of faith in Sessegnon, and I think he knows that he is at the best club for his development right now, and with him becoming one of the first names on the team-sheet at this age, I really can’t see him jumping ship in a similar style to Patrick Roberts anytime soon.

There will definitely be a lot of movement around the club this month, and if I’m honest, I think a lot of the moves will be players being off-loaded rather than flooding through the gates to the club.

One of the first names that could be leaving Fulham this month is Austrian defender, Michael Madl. Many news outlets are now linking the defender with a move back to FK Austria Wien. With the Austrian struggling to find regular game-time under Slavisa Jokanovic, the move makes a lot of sense, although I will be sad to see him leave. Madl arrived during Kit’s reign and made an immediate impact, and even last season formed a strong partnership with Tomas Kalas. Despite some strong performances, the resurgence of Tim Ream pushed Michael Madl down the pecking order, and with Jokanovic preferring to use Dennis Odoi at centre-back, Madl’s time is coming to an end.

Another player that has been linked with a move away is defender, Ryan Fredericks with Premier League sides, Swansea & Stoke City interested in the former Spurs man. This is an interesting story, as the club have denied receiving any contact from the aforementioned clubs, but it’s a story that has definitely gathered some pace in the last 48 hours. Maybe, it’s a story driven by his agent, considering the player only has six-months left on his contract, and talks over a new deal stalled in the summer. I’d hope the club keeps Fredericks, as I believe he makes such a big impact on the side, especially with his pace and contributions in the attacking third of the pitch. But, if there was concrete interest, I wouldn’t be too surprised if the club decided to cash in around the £4m mark. While, it would be hard to replace the attributes that Fredericks has, that sort of money for a player with just six months left on his contract, could make financial sense. I hope the story ends with Fredericks receiving a new contract, as I’ve been really impressed with how he’s developed in the last two seasons, and I think he’ll only get better with time too.

Finally, for the departures, I wouldn’t be too surprised if some of the summer signings that have failed to make an impression are moved on. Yohan Mollo and Jordan Graham are the first two names that spring to mind. Both wingers have failed to feature heavily in the starting eleven, and with their game-time limited to reserve team football, I’d expect the loan for Graham to be cut short, to free up some space for new faces, while Mollo will either be sold for a nominal fee, or his contract mutually cancelled. If you had told me if this would have been the case at the start of the season, I would have been shocked. With Mollo’s early cameos and career, I really thought he would take this league by storm and have a strong impact on our season. While, after hearing the glowing references from Wolves fans about Jordan Graham, I honestly thought he’d be a player that would be part of that front three rotation, but for one reason or another, they have both struggled to be a part of Slavisa Jokanovic’s plans.

As for the rumoured arrivals, Bournemouth forward, Lewis Grabban continues to be mentioned. After scoring twelve goals for Sunderland this season, Grabban decided he no longer wanted to play at the Stadium of Light, and his loan spell was terminated. Now he is back at his parent club, Bournemouth, Eddie Howe has confirmed that the striker is looking for a permanent move this month; with Fulham, Aston Villa, Cardiff City & Wolves all reported to be interested in the forward. For me, I don’t think Lewis Grabban is the much-needed forward for our team, and that may come as a surprise to some fans. Despite, his goal-scoring record this season, he’s been very inconsistent for the past few seasons, and hasn’t consistently delivered for a season since his first season at Norwich City, during the 2014/2015 season. Furthermore, with the player reported to earning around £30,000 a week, plus Bournemouth wanting a fee around the £3-5m mark, I think our money is better invested elsewhere.

Not only that, but Grabban isn’t a target-man and I feel that’s the role we are most lacking up front in our current squad, with Fonte failing to deliver after his £9m move in the summer. With Kamara now finding his feet in this division, I think a move for Grabban would hinder AK47’s development, and with the Bournemouth striker now 29 years old, there’s better options to pursue. If there is money available to sign a forward, I’d still like the club to take a second look at Wout Weghorst at AZ Alkmaar. Weghorst was the player, I wanted to sign instead of Rui Fonte for a number of reasons, and with value around the £3-5m mark, any potential Grabban money could be spent more wisely by going Dutch. The Dutchman was enquired about back in the summer, and after another impressive season in the top division in Holland, the 25-year old, 6’6 striker looks a real talent, and someone that I would adore at the club. A player of his stature would provide the focal point we’ve lacked this season in the final third, and would provide the squad with a real target man, something we utilised so well with Chris Martin, before the contract & McClaren affair.

Finally, with the upturn in form from AK47, I have a feeling that the board may not invest in a striker at all. Considering the £14m that was spent this summer on Rui Fonte & Aboubakar Kamara, with one of them now firing, the board may think the money could be invested in another position, and if so, I hope the money is invested in the defence, which has been our weakness all season.  With Denis Odoi and Marcelo Djalo our only options as back-up for Tomas Kalas & Tim Ream, should either defender be suspended or injured in the second half of the season, our defence could be even weaker, and that’s something we really can’t risk, should the aim of this season still be to achieve a top six finish.

Outside of the world of transfers, I think we’ve been very lucky to have finished 2017 within touching distance of the play-offs. At times, we’ve looked very lacklustre and often lacked any real cutting edge, but somehow we’re only four points behind sixth, and should the team have a good run of form early in the year, a top six finish is definitely achievable. As for the managerial situation, I’ve said a few months back that Jokanovic’s honeymoon period as coach is well and truly over, and last season’s achievements no longer mean anything. Now, the Serbian has to prove that he is the right man for the job, and the constant outbursts in press-conferences about the transfer situation and whatever else needs to stop. It isn’t professional, and it doesn’t bode well for any fans listening in and I’m sure it doesn’t help the team’s morale and confidence, while he throws his toys out of the pram in front of the cameras. These are conversations and aspects of his role that he needs to keep behind closed doors, and I’m confident these were things he was more than aware of when he signed his new contract last February.

After all, I think January will be a defining month for Fulham this season, and with the club now out of the FA Cup, the managerial and playing staff can now focus on the league and breaking into that top six. While, I’d love to see our club do all of its business early in the window, Fulham are notorious for leaving it late. So let’s just hope there isn’t any last minute distractions this window to de-rail any chance that we may still have of achieving promotion this season.

Thank you ever so much for reading. I hope you’ve all enjoyed the festive period, and I hope 2018 is a massive success for you!

Please feel free to contact me on Twitter – @ABronsSmith with any feedback, thoughts or feelings about the Craven Corner or football in general!

The pressure is mounting on Slavisa, and all Fulham fans want for Christmas is three points (or a plan B)

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, and 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 reward 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 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 accustom to worked well. But, it’s a different situation this year, our opponents know exactly what we want to do, 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. 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 for that, but 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, but press higher up the pitch, forcing the errors on their opponents, something Fulham done more 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, 9 points behind the play-off positions, with just five games left of the calendar year.

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 the long-term future at the club, as we can’t carry on the inconsistencies this season has shown. 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 which 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 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!

Time for Fulham to stand up and be counted.

In last month’s article, I stated that Fulham should take a minimum of nine points from our October fixtures, but we only got two.

A lot has happened since the last Craven Corner post, and it feels weird to be deflated as a Fulham fan, especially after a decent return of points in September.

On paper, October should have allowed the team to continue its momentum, and pick up at least six to nine points and continue their efforts for a promotion place.  With games against Villa, Preston, Bolton and Bristol it’s gutting to look back at the games this month and realise that we only collected two points, and we left it late to secure those too!

So what’s happened? Where’s it all gone wrong?

Well, it’s safe to say that Fulham have struggled with fitness this year, with the absence of Tom Cairney and even though he was reintroduced in recent games, it’s clear to see he’s not up to speed just yet.

But, we can’t pin all our misfortune on the absence of our captain, because we’ve got a very capable squad, and one player doesn’t make a team.

Last year’s success was built on the midfield trio of Tom Cairney, Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen, with the full-backs Ryan Sessegnon and Ryan Fredericks overlapping on the counter. This year, we simply haven’t seen that in action.

Despite, Johansen’s goals winning us points this year, he still hasn’t hit the heights of last season and at times has looked passive in the centre of the park. While it may be harsh to say, his goals have probably kept him in the side, when some may have questioned his involvement. McDonald, has been instrumental though, and realistically it could be a good idea to let him captain the side, taking off any pressure from Cairney as he returns from fitness. Although McDonald has been his usual self, unfortunately he hasn’t had the same contribution from team-mates, and time after time the back four have been torn apart by poor positioning or a simple through ball, which could easily be prevented.

Not only that, but we’ve been a blunt sword in attack this year too. Despite spending the best part of £14m on two strikers this summer, Rui Fonte and Aboubakar Kamara haven’t lived up to their price-tags. While, you can argue that Fonte has been played out of position on a number of occasions, it’s clear that a lot of people were short-sighted by his goal-return last year, rather than look at his career-wide contribution, which is far from what you’d expect from a striker for 9m. Kamara on the other hand, is still incredibly raw and I think he probably has more potential out of the two. Not only is he younger, but he hasn’t played at this level yet, and over time with some coaching I think the club can mould him into a decent forward. But, in the mean-time we simply do not have the forward needed to lead the line and be successful. Even though Chris Martin was a tool off the pitch, he was the perfect forward for us in terms of what he offered to the side.

While Kamara thrives from getting in behind the defenders, we need a focal point in attack where the ball can stick, and sadly Fonte has struggled to offer that, and it’s no surprise that we gone sideways when in the final third, or even backwards due to the lack of options. Despite having the attacking threats we have in Yohan Mollo, Neeskens Kebano, Sheyi Ojo, Floyd Ayite etc, their pace is nullified if we play against a team that sits deep, and it’s games like that where we need a target man, to play to and hold the ball up.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we need to play hoof-ball tactics and bring in the likes of Sam Allardyce, but I think Jokanovic needs to invest a lot of time into a plan-B for Fulham, because we simply don’t have it at the moment. Sadly, style doesn’t win any points at the end of the day and for a long time I’ve been writing about the need to win ‘ugly’ in this division if you want to get promoted.

While, it’s great to see a side play the ‘pretty’ or ‘tiki-taka’ style, teams in this division know exactly what Fulham are going to attempt to do, and in all honesty a well-disciplined team will easily nullify anything Fulham try to do.

This is why we’ve dropped points against the likes of Bristol City, Bolton Wanderers & Burton this year. There’s many ways a side can win ‘ugly’ and it doesn’t mean a complete re-shuffle of players, but more a change in attitude from the manager and the players on the pitch.

This means applying more pressure, and not being afraid to play more direct, should that mean earlier crosses, playing straight into the striker and shooting on sight, rather than taking the time to take ten or so passes around the 18-yard box, waiting for a small gap to open to thread an eye of the needle pass to create a chance.

Our forwards need to start creating a presence about them too. Look at the likes of Troy Deeney – not the most talented of forwards, and you wouldn’t see him doing tricks and flicks, but he’s one of the most feared forwards in the Premier League, simply because he causes troubles with his positioning and strength for centre-backs. He’s an outlet and always an option in attack to hit long or short, and with the right players close to him for knock-downs, Watford have been successful this year, and they play ‘attractive’ football while doing it. Something that Fulham need to start doing, and while Fonte and Kamara may not have shown that side of their game yet, it’s down to Jokanovic and his coaching team to be flexible with the resources he has and create a plan-b or a killer instinct in this side.

There’s no questioning the player’s talent in this side, but at the moment our side resembles a Lamborghini with flat tires – it looks good, but not getting anyway fast at all.

Address the lack of a plan-B and this season can still be a success.

Considering we’re only four points off the play-offs currently (this really is a bizarre season) there’s still plenty to play for, and if we can have a strong run until Christmas, then there’s no reason why we can’t still finish in the top six this season.

Finally, there has been some changes off the field too, with the news breaking that Craig Kline has left the club. Craig Kline became a name involved in most people’s rants over the last few summers and is now no longer involved with the football club.

This is interesting, as I know a lot of the fans were saying it provides Slavisa Jokanovic with the full control ‘he needs’ in January, but it is understood that James Lovell will step up to work in a similar role to Kline for the time being. Lovell has been at the club for a number of years, and has been heavily involved with the match and player analysis, as well as the club’s scouting process. Lovell was also part of the analyst team at Wolves during their promotion campaign in 2008/2009, so will be a lot more familiar with the nature of this division. Fingers crossed, he can work more successfully with Slavisa Jokanovic and his team in a working environment, as I know I’m not the only one that got a bit tired of Jokanovic’s little digs at Kline during the summer interviews, mainly as it gave the media a story to string about complete unrest every 2-3 weeks.

But, as I mentioned before, we can still turn this season around but it’s time for Slavisa Jokanovic and his team to step up and really prove their worth. They are unable to live off the successes of last season, and with fan and club expectations increased this year, time is running out on discovering a plan B.

I’m still going to remain optimistic about our season as it still is very early in our season, but these are the moments where both our players and managerial team earn their money and prove the talent and quality that they possess.

Thank you ever so much for reading, and continuing to support The Craven Corner.

You can always contact me on Twitter – @ABronsSmith.

Keep smiling!