Football is a cruel sport. Slavisa Jokanovic performed miracles turning Fulham from a mid-table Championship side into a Premier League one, and yet within three months of beginning his adventure in the top flight the Serbian is already out of a job. Having been sacked by Watford the summer after gaining promotion in 2015, Jokanovic has every right to feel hard done by.
Then again, things had got pretty desperate at Fulham. Five points from the first 12 games is a dreadful record, and yet it pales in comparison to the goals against column of the Premier League table: 31 conceded is among the worst records in history at this stage of the season. The change was always likely to come, and in Claudio Ranieri they have hired well.
Fulham fans might have enjoyed the risky expansive football of the Italian’s predecessor but it was simply too open for this level, and in time they will find Ranieri’s defensive organisation wins them plenty more points. Both tactically and psychologically, Ranieri can be successful with the Fulham squad.
His first job is to fix that leaky defence, which probably means switching to a more conservative approach. Fulham may well adopt the deep-lying, counter-attacking system that won Leicester City the title in 2015/16; staying in a narrow shell, the porous Fulham midfield will be plugged and the low-quality centre-backs better supported. Ranieri still needs to sign a new defensive midfielder – Kevin McDonald isn’t a Premier League player – but the system switch should work well.
There’s already evidence of this, with Jokanovic having deployed a considerably more defensive approach for his final match in charge, a 2-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield. Sitting in a cagey 4-4-2 shape, the Cottagers limited space in the final third for the Liverpool front three surprisingly well. Ranieri will surely use this game as a template for things to come.
A new system will also benefit Fulham’s attacking players, who may have started the season scoring freely but have since lost confidence; Ranieri’s side have failed to score in each of their last four matches. By sitting deep and waiting for the opportunity to spring forward on the break, Fulham’s quick wingers should find themselves gaining possession with wide open spaces in front of them.
Ryan Sessegnon and Andre Schurrle seem tailor-made for a Leicester-esque approach, bombing forward to get in behind a defence lured forward by Fulham’s low block. Alexandre Mitrovic should also benefit from Ranieri’s more direct approach, and Jean Michael Seri has the technical ability to get back in the team after struggling with the pace of the English game. Ranieri’s conservatism will ease Seri into the league.
Then there’s the mental side of things. Ranieri is clearly a good motivator, his laid-back approach helping to relax players at a time when the pressure is on. Fulham need calm heads if they are to avoid the drop, and with Ranieri they will at least begin to enjoy themselves again.
Premier League survival will be extremely difficult no matter who is in charge of Fulham. But with a man of Ranieri’s experience, track record, and defensive coaching, they will certainly be competitive.
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