172 days ago. That’s how long ago Fulham was celebrating its first-ever win at Wembley, capping maybe the greatest five-month stretch in club history. The Whites were headed back to the Premier League, a feat that seemed more and more unreachable as the months in the Championship dragged on.
Slavisa Jokanovic was at the center of it all. He was hailed as a visionary. He was hailed as a calculated risk-taker. He was hailed as a manager who took an ideal and made it a reality.
172 days is the time it took for all of that to come crashing down. On Wednesday, Fulham – sitting bottom of the Premier League – unceremoniously replaced Jokanovic with another dreamer, another visionary in Claudio Ranieri, the man who did the impossible with Leicester City.
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Many fans are furious. How could they so quickly forget what Jokanovic brought this club? How could they tear down what he so tirelessly built up?
The reality of the situation, however, is clear: Fulham has not only sunk to the bottom of the Premier League table, they have been flat out terrible. Statistically, they claim ownership to the worst defense in the European top 5 leagues, but it’s about so much more than that. The squad lacks any semblance of ambition, energy, or purpose on the pitch; the players have appeared utterly devoid of life, a husk of their former selves. The same team that led the Championship in both possession and completed passes the previous two seasons was so thoroughly beaten by Huddersfield Town earlier this month, that it’s clear the past is just that – an unrecognizable memory evaporated into the annals of club history to take its place alongside Johnny Haynes, Bobby Robson, and the 2010 Europa League run.
Which is why, despite the sting of cutting ties with someone so dear to the fans and team, the club made the right decision moving on from Slavisa Jokanovic. The manager is most certainly not the only one to shoulder blame for the club’s horrendous start to its Premier League campaign, but he’s most certainly part of the crew. Jokanovic was caught between what worked last season and what he knew had to change, continually flip-flopping between loyalty to the players who brought him Wembley glory and the ones who were poised to bring the club into the new era. Jokanovic was partial to players like Kevin McDonald, Stefan Johansen, and Denis Odoi – who were critical to last season’s triumph but clearly not up to Premier League standards – with disastrous consequences.
As a result of his inability to resolve the internal struggle he faced, expensive new players like Andre Zambo Anguissa and Alfie Mawson struggled to mesh with their new teammates and it showed on the pitch. Fulham central defensive partnership was a carnival turnstile – they haven’t started the same center-backs in consecutive league matches since mid-September. The decomposition continued to manifest on the field as players became more discouraged with the results, coming to a head in the Huddersfield loss. The team that had led the Championship in every possession-based statistical category the year before was beaten in shots and attacking third passes by a team that hadn’t scored a home goal in over 650 minutes. Fulham, as they were know, had faded into nothingness.
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Undoubtedly, others share the blame. The players have looked disinterested and unmotivated over the past month, happy to pass the ball square around the midfield like zombies, without direction or purpose. Recruitment chair Tony Khan, who led Fulham to a massive summer spending spree of $126 million, seems to have missed on a couple of big-money buys like Anguissa and Mawson, while Jean-Michael Seri has cooled after a hot start. Khan built the Championship juggernaut with a statistical approach that led to shrewd purchases in the midfield and on the wing, but in the Premier League, his targets have struggled to make a serious impact as Jokanovic trended towards his more tenured players. In addition, the attitude on the pitch has been nothing short of pathetic, as the players have shown little fight when falling behind, and never has a collective lack of confidence been more apparent.
Still, those deficiencies fall back – at least somewhat – on the manager. Jokanovic proved unable to motivate a fractured and disjointed squad, beating the same drum week after week and throwing his players under the bus for their tainted attitude. He also showed an inability to adapt to a new situation, a naively egotistical approach in hoping to replicate last season’s possession-based tactical model against even Champions League sides at the top of the table. That not only saw his tactics beaten to a pulp week after week, but it also lent to a favoring of tenured players more suitable to his tactical approach rather than allowing the newer – and theoretically better – players a chance to break into the side. As a result, the team was shredded on a weekly basis as Tony Khan was resigned to watching his prized acquisitions rot either on the bench or in a squad with clear defects.
In the end, a change was painful yet necessary. Letting loose the triumphs of last year so fresh in the memory was a difficult one to swallow. Even owner Shad Khan said in his letter to fans, “I wasn’t anticipating having to make this announcement related to Slavisa and wish the circumstances were such that I didn’t have to.” Yet here the club is, with just one win in 12 and a mountain to climb. Jokanovic, for all his successes at Craven Cottage, was never going to provide the immediate on-field change this club needs so desperately, instead determined to plow through the oncoming wave with his feet buried in the sand. If the necessary points weren’t going to come against Cardiff City, Bournemouth, and Huddersfield, they weren’t going to appear against anyone else.
Jokanovic will always be remembered fondly by those at and around Fulham FC, but the only decision moving forward was to cut him loose. It was now or never for the Whites, as desperate as any in the Premier League in mid-November.