Slavisa Jokanovic prides himself on being a footballing fundamentalist. He is a coach who doesn’t just prefer to play passing, attacking football but insists on it.
Ultimately it was to be one of his undoings as newly-promoted Fulham failed to adapt to the harsh realities of being back in the Premier League. They couldn’t score enough goals to cover up an expensively-assembled but porous defence.
Having swaggered to promotion they were staggering to relegation with Jokanovic in charge, and though he is not the only man to blame, he is the only one to pay the price for now.
Club owner Shahid Khan and his son, Tony, whose role is so muddled that he describes himself as the “Owner/Director of Football/GM/Sporting Director” on his Twitter profile, took great umbrage with reports a few weeks ago that Jokanovic would be fired if Fulham lost to Bournemouth and Huddersfield, calling them ‘fiction’.
They were true though, and Fulham did lose those two games and Jokanovic was fired. After that limp defeat to David Wagner’s men where the Cottagers looked utterly lost, the final decision was taken that had been spoken about weeks before. The club met with Claudio Ranieri between the defeat to Huddersfield and the defeat at Liverpool, and while it might be no surprise that they decided the Italian was the man for the job, there are ulterior motives at play here.
Recruitment has been a testy issue for Fulham over the past couple of seasons, prompting major fallouts internally and nearly leading to Jokanovic’s exit many months before his dismissal on Wednesday morning.
The Cottagers received praise for their work in the summer after spending nearly £150m but those arrivals have not played well and, worse than that, they’ve disturbed a team that was.
Tim Ream spoke recently about the lack of camaraderie in the squad, something that was not an issue last year and refocuses the issues of trying to inject too many players into a new squad. The old one was functioning, if short of quality. The current one is listless and the quality they have bought has done nothing to drag Fulham away from trouble. The money has been spent but there has been no benefit received.
Ranieri’s job is to save Fulham, obviously, but his arrival is well-timed because if the lovable Italian brings the immediate impact he so often does in new jobs, then it will prevent more questions being asked about the Cottagers’ summer spree ahead of the January window. Should they head into the New Year still looking doomed, there will be a pressure to go on another unwieldy splurge.
While Khan praised Ranieri as a “risk-free” appointment, he is anything but. There remains the huge risk of relegation and the financial hit that comes with it because, despite Ranieri’s achievements with Leicester, the playing style with which the Foxes won the league – forgoing possession, pressing high, playing on the counter – is virtually the opposite of what Jokanovic was so fundamentally committed to.
Fulham have some good players who will be able to adapt and others who might have been more suited to Ranieri’s plans anyway, but while the slick immediacy of this managerial change removes that horrible feeling of limbo when relegation-threatened teams look for a manager, the adaptation might take a little time.
By sacking Jokanovic now, Fulham are gambling that they have enough of it to turn the ship around – but don’t let anyone tell you this is a “risk-free” move. Not with this much at stake.