Fulham had a choice. Having sacked Slavisa Jokanovic, the manager who earned them promotion ostensibly because he was unable to organise a defence, they had the option to call upon one of the pragmatists who has made survival their forte. They are the four words that haunt the dreams of every bottom-half Premier League manager down on his luck: Sam Allardyce is available.
We don’t need hindsight to conclude that Fulham were never likely to go down the Allardyce route, shining that pint of wine signal into the west London sky. The pair share different footballing spheres. Instead they opted for the ‘halfway house’ pragmatism of Claudio Ranieri.
Given the Italian’s success at Leicester, it was hardly a controversial appointment. Ranieri’s task was fairly simple: improve what was the worst defence in the division by some distance. Over their first 10 games, Fulham were conceding goals at a quicker rate than any team in Premier League history. If the assumption was that doing so might blunt their attack a little, that trade-off was accepted. Fulham had little choice – in every Premier League season, the team with the outright worst defence has never survived the drop.
The Ranieri experiment is not working. If it still feels unreasonably early to make such a sweeping conclusion, the timescale of Fulham’s predicament legitimises such urgency. In 15 matches under the Italian, the Cottagers have drawn three and lost nine. They are closer to relegation than they were at the time of his appointment.
If Ranieri has indeed made Fulham stronger defensively, you have to squint your eyes to see it. Fulham have now gone seven matches in all competitions without a clean sheet, conceding 17 times in the process at an average of 2.4 goals per game. In the 15 matches before Ranieri’s arrival, they scored 16 times. In the 15 since, they have scored 15. Fulham have still not won an away league game this season. In terms of results at least, nothing much – and certainly not enough – has changed.
But watch Fulham’s matches under Jokanovic and Ranieri, and you quickly see a vast difference. Jokanovic had an attacking philosophy, but preferred a passing style that aimed to play through their attacking midfielders. If it was slightly naive to believe that sunshine football could work in the Premier League, Jokanovic did at least have the attacking players to fit the plan.
Ranieri believes in a different way. Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon, two of the stars of Fulham’s promotion campaign, have been pushed into the wings. Literally in the case of Cairney, picked on the right of a front three; figuratively in the case of Sessegnon, who has started two of Fulham’s last 10 league games.
Instead, Ranieri has asked his Fulham players to play far more directly, cutting out what he deems to be needless possession in favour of getting the ball forward quickly. “I get crazy when we keep possession and go back to our goalkeeper, because the opponent’s goal is the other side,” he said before the 3-0 home defeat to Manchester United.
There are merits to every plan, but you’d have to be an optimist to say that this one is working. Aleksandar Mitrovic is isolated, the attacking midfielders are too regularly bypassed and the defence is performing at the same miserable level as before. The most caustic assessment is this: from a team with an identity playing badly, Fulham have become a team without an identity.
If Ranieri is struggling for relevance, Fulham have played their own role in this season of anguish. Denis Odoi and Tim Ream started against Manchester United. Both have looked out of place at Premier League level all season, and were part of a defence that conceded the most goals in the Championship’s top five during their promotion campaign.
Off-field own goals
Fulham’s transfer business has been conducted on a scattergun approach and mistakenly ignored the myriad defensive issues. Ryan Babel, Lazar Markovic and Andre Schurrle seem like players bought on reputation rather than natural fit, but it is the sheer volume of transfers that is so striking.
Eighteen new players in one season, and still the defence has not been improved. Fabri, Andre Zambo Anguissa, Luciano Vietto and Timothy Fosu Mensah have fewer than 30 league starts combined.
As if to compound those mistakes, Fulham have also played a miserable PR game since promotion. The club announced vast hikes in season ticket prices in June, with some under-18s asked to pay £999 and fans in the Riverside asked to pay £1,150 – up from £839. Matchday prices have also increased, leaving supporters angry about a club attempting to squeeze more money out of their loyalty. The Premier League provides enough financial benefits that Fulham could have thanked supporters with a noble gesture. They chose the opposite strategy.
The theory is that no club can fail in the Premier League – more money, more exposure, yet more money. But Fulham have come as close as is possible. The transfers haven’t worked out, the manager didn’t work out, his replacement isn’t working out and supporters are disillusioned. It’s hard not to conclude that Fulham are frittering away their season in the sun.