Slavisa Jokanovic is gone and another young manager with an attacking philosophy has bitten the dust. After masterminding their promotion from the Championship, he was rewarded with £100m to spend on players to help bolster their squad for the upcoming Premier League season. But, at the time of sacking he leaves Fulham rock bottom, leaking goals left, right and centre and the board has called for survival expert and all-round nice guy Claudio Ranieri to save a sinking ship. How will he turn this around?
As of gameweek 12, Fulham currently sit at the bottom of the table with 5 points, 3 points from safety. Winning only one game, drawing two and losing a, league worst, nine games. Yes, nine games you read that correctly. They also boast the league’s worst goal difference with -20 as they have conceded a, league worst, 31 goals. To put it another way, if they carried on at this rate, they would concede 98 goals; which is crazy considering the Derby team that could only muster 11 points all season in the league in 2007-08, conceded 89 goals. But good news for Fulham fans because it is very unlikely, they are going to concede more than 89 goals and win only one game all year as Derby did, because Ranieri, their saviour, is here.
But let’s look at the defence. Many believe the problems have arisen from Jokanovic’s team selection and the lack of consistency within it. The back four has been constantly changing, not once has the same defensive line up been used twice. That in itself breeds a lack of rhythm and harmony as the players have to constantly adapt to who they are playing with and the different strengths and weaknesses those players have. However, it isn’t entirely the managers fault as Ream, Bryan, Mawson, Fosh-Mensah, and Chambers have all been injured at various points leaving the manager little choice in his team selection. This is a big factor in their disappointing start. Centre Back pairings need that run of games to build a relationship and become a real unit. Pairings such as Steve Cook and Nathan Ake, Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy and Mee and Tarkowski are examples of pairings that have had that time to bond and build that vital chemistry. Going forward they need their defence to be settled and have that pairing that they can trust and rely on to be playing week in, week out.
The potential of the squad is there, the summer acquisitions of Jean-Michaël Seri, Andre Schurrle, André-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Aleksandar Mitrovic along with the loan signings of Chambers and Fosu-Mensah showed good intent as Fulham became the highest spending promoted club ever. There have been little flashes of brilliance such as Seri’s wonder goal against Burnley, Schurrle’s long range beauty against Cardiff and Mitrovic’s five goals so far. But there just hasn’t been enough to constitute anything close to consistent. Individual errors, giving the ball away and summer signings struggling to make an impact have been the story of the season so far. Nevertheless, there is that quality there.
Ranieri’s first job is to find himself a settled starting XI as well as a settled back four. Too much chopping and changing has not helped the many new signings to settle in to not only this team but the Premier League. Ranieri is known as the tinker man and he may have to do more than tinker at the start as he figures out his new team. When he came in at Leicester, he quickly settled on a back four which became the foundation for the rest of the team to build off. While the defence is getting the bulk of the criticism, the attack hasn’t scored in their past four matches and scoring goals is becoming as much of an issue as conceding them is. Another big point is to play Ryan Sessegnon in an advanced position rather than left-back. He has a lot of talent at such a young age, but the Premier League has a wealth of skilled attackers which are causing him problems when he plays in that defensive role. He needs to be playing as a front three or playing left attacking midfield in a three behind Mitrovic.
Finding a settled team that can be solid in the middle of the park utilising Seri’s dynamic abilities and Zambo Anguissa’s defensive awareness; combining that with the talent of Sessegnon, Schurrle, Cairney and Mitrovic will give them a more of a balance in midfield and attack. Also, a pairing of Mawson and Odoi is probably their best bet at a centre back pairing as Tim Ream and Chambers have struggled early on. Add in Ranieri’s fight until the end ideology and this team can begin to pick up the pieces.
In the next five games they face, Southampton (H), Chelsea (A), Leicester (H) Man United (A) and West Ham (H). There are two tough away games in there against two top six teams, but the three home games have the potential to be a season changer. Nine points against those three teams will lift the tension and the negativity and really spring start Ranieri’s reign as manager. Especially since there is only four points between 14th and 20th. There is definitely a lot to play for and Ranieri will be keen to get this team feeling positive as soon as humanely possible, the Tinker Man has a job on his hands and so do Fulham.