Chaos and uncertainty reign at Fulham, where the excitement created by a record-breaking transfer window has drifted away with the autumn leaves. No Premier League side has ever conceded more goals in their opening 10 games, and Fulham’s defending has been so haphazard that Slavisa Jokanovic, their head coach, is running out of ways to analyse it. After watching the footage of last week’s thrashing by Bournemouth, Jokanovic’s reaction was straightforward. “Wow,” he said. “What the f*** is this?”
The situation has grown more worrying with each shot that nestles in the Fulham net. From being a side tipped to challenge for the top half of the table, Fulham are now on course to go down with the worst defensive record in Premier League history. Only Huddersfield, who are as blunt in attack as Fulham are shambolic at the back, sit below them in the league table. Monday night’s meeting at the John Smith’s Stadium — a clash between the movable object and the stoppable force — will therefore provide a clearer indication of just how dire the situation has become for both Fulham and Jokanovic, who may not survive another drubbing.
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To get a picture of just how muddled this campaign has been, look no further than the treatment of goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli. A London lad, who has spent his entire career with the club, Bettinelli was a key figure in their promotion run last season, which culminated with him sprinting around Wembley, a smoke bomb held above his head, in celebration of their play-off victory over Aston Villa.
Come the first game of this season, though, Bettinelli had been dropped from the Fulham squad altogether. Two new goalkeepers, Fabri and Sergio Rico, had arrived as part of the club’s £100 million outlay, and Bettinelli had already fallen to third choice. Except by the time played Fulham played Burnley, in the third game of the season, he was back in the side. An England call-up followed within a few weeks, and Bettinelli was promptly awarded a new contract. But then he was dropped again, two days after signing the new deal, for last week’s visit of Bournemouth.
The inconsistency in team selection goes far beyond the goalkeeping position. In defence, Jokanovic has not once played the same back-line in consecutive games, instead making 14 changes to his defenders alone so far this season. New recruits like Calum Chambers and Maxime Le Marchand have been error-prone, while more established figures such as Tim Ream have struggled to adapt. The constant changing of the side has concerned the players, and there is a growing feeling of uncertainty in the dressing room.
The club would surely have known that it would take their boatload of summer signings — 12, in total — time to settle, but the obvious question is whether there was simply too much upheaval. It is a concerning fact that in three of the last five seasons, the promoted club that spent the most money in the summer transfer window was relegated at the end of the campaign.
The club decided in spite of this that major investment was required to make them competitive. There was also a sense of opportunism around their recruitment, which was led by Tony Khan, the director of football operations and son of owner Shahid. The deadline day signing of £30m midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, for example, took place at late notice as the club did not originally think he would be available from Marseille. It is understood that this change of circumstances saw them pivot away from other targets, including Jokanovic’s first-choice defender, as funds were instead diverted towards the Cameroon midfielder.
If personnel is one issue, the system is another. Jokanovic is committed to the expansive style of football that achieved promotion, but it is leaving them vulnerable. The return to fitness of captain Tom Cairney, a controlling presence in midfield, could therefore be crucial.
Cairney has not been fit enough to start since their 4-2 win over Burnley in August, and Fulham have not won a league game since.
The squad has been built to play this type of football, though, and Jokanovic is unlikely to change his ways. Ultimately, this may prove his undoing, even if Shahid Khan has insisted he has “all the confidence” in his head coach. It should not be forgotten that Rene Meulensteen received “100 per cent” backing from Khan only 11 days before he was replaced in 2014. After a murky start, it is increasingly clear that the omens are not good, and that the stakes are high on Monday.
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