At the weekend, Fulham ended their pre-season with an impressive 3-1 victory over Premier League side, Crystal Palace.
While, some may say that ‘pre-season results don’t matter’, there are plenty of positives to take from Saturday’s performance. After hearing that a ‘virus’ was the reason for so many absentees in the squad, Fulham could have been on their way for a disheartening loss with less than a week before the season opener at Newcastle. But, while the options were limited, Slavisa Jokanovic and the squad pulled through to end their pre-season on a high.
Fulham: Joronen; Odoi, Kalas, Madl, Sessegnon; McDonald, Tunnicliffe (Parker 64′); Cairney, Sone Aluko (Stearman 84′), Floyd Ayité; Matt Smith (Christensen 70′)
Crystal Palace: Speroni; Ward (Kelly 75′), Dann, Delaney, Souare (Dreher 70′); Mutch (Anderson 62′), Jedinak (Williams 82′), Puncheon (Croll 70′); Townsend (Lee 75′), Bolasie (Wickham 46′), Zaha (Kaikai 78′)
With both goalkeepers, Marcus Bettinelli & David Button unavailable for selection, 23 year old, Jesse Joronen made the starting eleven. Some may remember, that Joronen did start our first game in the Championship under Felix Magath against Ipswich Town. But, since then the young Finnish goalkeeper has clearly developed. Throughout the game, Joronen looked assured and confident at collecting crosses and controlling the back four in front of him. Not only that, but he pulled off one of the best saves I’ve ever seen at the Cottage in the first half, when he saved a point blank header with his head! You can see the save here
After his performance at the weekend, I’m sure there’s been some fans calling for him to start against Newcastle but according to the reports after the game, it is rumoured that Joronen will in fact be loaned out for regular football before the window closes. While, Joronen could prove to be a valuable member of the squad in the future, with Marcus Bettinelli and David Button at the club, his pathway to the starting eleven is significantly blocked, so should he impress while out on loan, the flying Finn could force his way into Jokanovic’s plans in the future.
Although Joronen may depart, the two centre-backs at the weekend look to be the mainstay in the team next season. Michael Madl and Tomas Kalas continued to give the Fulham faithful reason to be optimistic, after they worked incredibly well together. Throughout the game, Madl and Kalas were both incredibly calm on the ball, and together they dealt with the attacking pace of Yannick Bolasie, Andros Towsend and Wilfried Zaha very well. Should both players stay fit and injury free next season, Fulham will, without a doubt have an exciting season. In fact, they were incredibly unlucky not to end pre-season with a clean sheet. Palace did eventually score, but it was a diagonal ball that caused a mix up between goalkeeper and defender which allowed substitute, Keshi Anderson to knock home. Other than that, most of the Palace’s attacks were dealt with efficiently. Joronen helped nullify the threats from corners and crosses, while the defensive pairing of Madl and Kalas worked well to sweep up or narrow the angles created from through balls. With Odoi and Sessegnon along-side them, the back four looked much more composed and solid as a unit.
It was also another impressive performance by the pre-season full-backs, Odoi and Sessegnon. Odoi does look like the full-back that we have missed for a number of years. His tenacity and overall play is a joy to watch. Being able to play on either side of the defence as allowed him to become a very technically gifted player, and he is able to comfortably be a part of counter-attacks and distribute the ball into the midfield. But, most of all, I’m positive that his work-rate and tenacity is something that will make him win the fans over.
Even against the pace of the Palace wingers, Odoi never gave up a loose ball and always tracked back to prevent a cross or put them under pressure and considering the Belgian reportedly cost under £1m, I don’t think any of our summer business will be more important. On the other hand, it was another impressive performance for Ryan Sessegnon and while he is only 16 years old, going forward the left-back put in a very mature display. My only criticism of the teenager is that he needs to work on the defensive side of the game a bit more, as he does have a tendency to not to chase back after committing to an attack.
But, he is only 16, and his game will develop immensely over the next few years – and that’s why he shouldn’t be rushed into the starting eleven for competitive games. Under the right tutoring and management, there is no doubting the potential of Sessegnon and with plenty of reserve team football and the occasional cup game, Ryan could improve to a level that he could fight for a first-team place in the next two years. But, if you watched the youngster during pre-season, you’ll realise it’s no surprise that some of the best English clubs have been scouting him for the past 12 months.
Kevin McDonald also started for Fulham at the weekend, and the former Wolves man looked very composed in the midfield. While, he may not cover the most amount of ground or be the fastest player in the team, he rarely misplaced a pass and the range of passing he possesses will be a big boost to the team as Jokanovic wants his team to control games by dominating possession. It will be interesting to see how McDonald performs against a high-pressing team, and if he can create the space he needs to orchestrate attacks, but the early signs are all positive.The arrival of the Scot is definitely more than welcomed and I’m sure over the course of the season, he will become stronger and fitter – potentially eradicating the question marks I have placed above him this early on.
In terms of system, Fulham adapted a 4-2-3-1 with Sone Aluko occupying the number ten role behind the forward. Interestingly so, Tom Cairney returned to a wide role being able to cut inside and create something in the final third. What was noticeable was the amount of space Aluko created. On many occasions, the summer signing drifted into a wide position, allowing Cairney to drift into the centre of the pitch, with the system evolving into a 4-3-3 with with Aluko and Ayite supporting Matt Smith in attack. What was pleasing, was the amount of pace both Aluko and Ayite bring to the side. Being able to stretch teams in wide positions and press them in their own half, was one of the reasons behind our first goal.
With the front-men pressing, Crystal Palace were forced into a mistake, which allowed Cairney to feed Aluko before rounding Julian Speroni to open the scoring. With Fulham facing Newcastle on Friday, Fulham’s high tempo game will need to be maintained throughout the game, to prevent Newcastle’s better players from creating space and building attack after attack. If the team manages to defend from the front as a unit, the pressure on the back four will be reduced and clean sheets should be easier to come by next season.
To conclude, with Aluko being asked to play in a number ten role for the upcoming season, does he arguably take Ross McCormack’s role should the Scot stay this summer? With Ross being more of a natural number ten as opposed to a lone forward, does Aluko’s future at number 10 signal the end of McCormack. I’m sure we will hear more regarding our talismanic forward’s future by the end of the week, with talks ongoing between the two clubs. But, if Ross does a U-turn on his potential departure, it will be very interesting to see how he adjusts to Fulham’s new system and style of play.
I would just like to thank you all for your ongoing support of the blog. It was a proud day for myself on Saturday as the first ‘Craven Corner’ column was published in the match-day programme. Hopefully, throughout the season there will be a few more of these articles appearing in the programmes, but this won’t change anything. Just like any articles, I want to hear your feedback – good or bad. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to come this far and have the opportunities that have been presented to me. Thank you – it truly means a lot to me.
Thank you for reading – You can tweet your thoughts to me @ABronsSmith