“Keep calm and carry on” as the saying goes. Or perhaps it should be “Keep quiet but be very alarmed!”. You’ll hopefully be relieved to know that this opinion piece isn’t a plea for drastic measures to be taken. I am very much behind Slav and will be eternally grateful for last season’s breath-taking football, climaxing with that day out at Wembley that we will never forget. The Serbian hasn’t stayed at any other club for as long as he has in SW6 and it feels as if he likes the club as much as we like him. In return, I think he’s earned the patience and faith of the fans and owners alike. We just have to be careful that what begins as patience doesn’t soon lead to excuses to protect his legacy, which can be so easily done.
Two years ago, when we played Leyton Orient at Brisbane Road in the League Cup, I said to my brother-in-law that there was a presence about Jokanovic on the touchline. An authoritative figure like nothing I’d seen before in the Fulham dugout, who potentially would go on to become the greatest manager in our history. He certainly isn’t quite there yet but the foundations have been set for that to happen one day, but only if he’s successful in the Premier League. Will he be successful? That’s impossible to say because it’s so early into the first season. But one thing you don’t get in the footballing world is time (especially when there are hundreds of millions of pounds at stake!), and awkwardly, that’s exactly what the past three seasons are suggesting Slav relies upon. No matter how good a system or a philosophy is, if it takes until December every season to get it right, you aren’t going to achieve a great deal, particularly in the Premier League when you’re surrounded by better teams with, arguably, better players. I would argue that as great a fairy tale as it was going 23 games unbeaten and winning at Wembley, or even chasing 6th for the playoffs the season before, that we missed out on the initial target of automatic promotion in both seasons. Not because we weren’t good enough for the top two, but because it took too long to get it right, leaving ourselves with an avoidable mountain to climb.
That pattern has continued this season and Slav needs to find a solution much quicker this time around. The reality is that we spent £100 million in the summer, becoming the first promoted club to do so. As owners, I don’t think the Khans could have done any more to back our campaign and in a recent poll on our Twitter account, we asked: “when all our players are fit, do we have a squad capable of staying up?”; the overwhelming majority said yes, so it seems that most of us are in agreement that the tools are there for Slav to work with. So why hasn’t it worked and why does it take so long to implement Slav’s footballing philosophy? Could it be communication? For the life of me, I can’t understand what he’s trying to say in his interviews, so is communication the reason his coaching methods take so long to be put across to the new players? Or perhaps the system is so detailed and precise that it can’t function successfully if it has a broken link within it? Meaning if just one of the eleven isn’t perfect for their role, the whole system breaks down. It’s a weird situation where something that matures so wonderfully like a fine wine can taste like sh*t when having to drink it from a sippy cup.
Against Arsenal, we played with a back three and went with something different. The cry has often been that Slav doesn’t have a Plan B or that he is too stubborn in his approach, so it was interesting to see his tactics in action yesterday. For pretty much the whole game we were extremely open at the back with gaps everywhere. Our back three were being pulled all over the place by a combination of Arsenal’s pace, movement and the performance of Cyrus Christie. As I mentioned, Slav’s style of play requires no missing link in order to succeed and sadly yesterday the link at right wing-back had well and truly broken. None more so than for the first Arsenal goal when replays showed Christie on the halfway line, ball watching as Arsenal counter-attacked with the cross eventually coming in from the right-hand side. This was a regular feature of the first half as waves of Arsenal attacks exposed the space down the right channel forcing Odoi to come across and cover time and time again. Just that one movement of Odoi moving out of position meant that the dynamics of the back 3 were ever changing, from a tight compact unit across the 18-yard box to gaping holes everywhere, like an over-stretched potato waffle. This didn’t happen at all down the left as Sessegnon provided the perfect balance between defence and attack and had fantastic positional awareness throughout. Arsenal targeted the right flank because it was such a clear weakness and sadly Cyrus didn’t seem to understand the position at all, failing to track back on numerous occasions; something which strikes of just pure laziness. Last season, Ryan Fredericks was forever the player back on the cover recovering the ball thanks to his lightning speed. The void left by Ryan has been exposed time and time again this season and it wasn’t necessarily down to the formation change on Sunday. Even at right back during the defeat at Goodison Park last weekend, Tosun had enough time in the box to ask the Irish International if he wanted his popcorn sweet or salted as the fullback ball watched as the Turkish international scored a free header. You just can’t keep on defending like this! I don’t like to pick on one individual but sometimes a player is just out of his depth and it appears that may well be the case for Christie, which is a concern considering Timothy is out injured at the moment. It was so frustrating to watch yesterday because there were elements of the back 3 which seemed to work in the first half and with a different wing back it could have been the answer to our defensive woes. The tactical decision to take off Ream and go to a flat back 4 caused us to capitulate as everything but the heavens opened up in that second half, yet ironically it still pissed all over our performance suggesting the back 5 seemed to cope better with the Arsenal attack. It’s all food for thought anyway. Maybe we need to try Denis at right back considering he originally joined us as one and see if he does any better. Defensively he offers much more, but I recognise going forward he may be a little suspect but at least he can do back tricks! On a serious note, I’m not sure Christie and Fosu-Mensah offer a massive amount going forwards anyway so if Slav is to persist with his trial and error approach to finding the right solution, maybe it’s time to give Denis a go there and see if Mawson can make amends for a woeful start to his Whites’ career. Roy Hodgson always claims that you fix a broken defence first before looking at your attack. Our attack is fine so I’d hope in training that a lot more emphasis is placed on defending as a team and fixing a very alarming problem.
Last season we had continuity at the back: Targett, Ream, Odoi and Fredericks picked itself during the final run-in. This season we haven’t had the same back four in any two games in a row and are the only side yet record a clean sheet. So whatever the solution is, we need to find it quickly and field a settled side. I appreciate that Slav hasn’t been helped by injuries but the decision to drop Joe Bryan when he seemed to be playing perfectly well was strange; the chopping and changing of Fosu-Mensah and Christie wasn’t ideal, and the whole indecisiveness surrounding what’s our best eleven is unacceptable 8 games into a season. The players need to do so much better but at the same time, so does Slav. I did some digging to see how the stats compared with our previous 13 years in the Premier League. The worst for goals conceded after 8 matches was 14 during the Great Escape season, we’ve conceded 21! This is also the only season where we haven’t recorded a clean sheet after 8 games and points-wise, it’s the joint worst with 2005/06. It’s a blessing in disguise that the bottom 3 are winless. That has only happened once before during the seventies where 3 clubs in the top flight are all winless after 8 games. In any other season, we could easily be bottom right now and all of a sudden the reality of the situation really hits home. So in that sense, it’s a blessing because Slav has been bought more time to get this right and surely we all want him to get it right! But with 21 goals conceded in 8 games, and as much as you love what he’s done for us, there really is no defence for that… literally.
Notoriously, Slav does this every year and eventually proves what a fantastic manager he is. We all know what a fantastic manager he is. So fingers crossed the traditional Slavtastic Christmas turnaround comes early in time for Colin’s Halloween Frightfest across the Severn Bridge…