Championship Preview: why Jokanovic must unify Fulham

jokanovic

Slavisa Jokanovic – www.skysports.com

Here are The Football Lab’s predictions for tonight’s games in the Championship. Brighton look to end their recent goalscoring problems against Ipswich, who have had some good results lately but are yet to prove themselves against the division’s elite. Meanwhile, Slavisa Jokanovic takes charge of Fulham for the first time, the visitors to Craven Cottage being Rotherham, who have climbed out of the drop zone with four wins in seven.

Brighton v Ipswich

Brighton have stuttered a bit of late, having lost 3-0 at home to Middlesbrough just before Christmas and clung on for a 0-0 draw with Brentford. They relied on a man of the match performance from goalkeeper David Stockdale at Griffin Park and were shaky at the back, despite keeping a clean sheet.

In the absence of Gaetan Bong, Inigo Calderon looked a liability when taking the position of Brighton’s first choice left-back. Chris Hughton does not seem to rate Adam Chicksen as a Championship level left-back but this blog would argue that he could do a job. He might not be the most flamboyant full-back in this division but he works hard and does the simple things well. Calderon has more talent going forward but every time teams attack him, he looks uncomfortable at left-back and that could be a problem for Albion.

Going forward, Brighton offered nothing on their trip to West London. Target man Tomer Hemed looked static and the typically rapid James Wilson was reportedly ill, and was taken off at half-time for defensive minded midfielder Andrew Crofts. The quality in Brighton’s play seems to have dropped a touch, so Hughton will be delighted to see Kazenga Lua Lua is back in training. Lua Lua was key for the Seagulls early on in the campaign and he is somebody who can provide the attacking spark they need.

One player who came off the bench at Brentford was Elvis Manu. The young forward was caught offside on a few occasions, but he showed some pace. Elvis is not suited to playing on his own up front – he can’t be too lonesome – yet there may be potential for him to play just off a taller striker.

Manu might enjoy some opportunities to run in behind Ipswich’s defence on Tuesday, as the East Anglian visitors tend to play a high pressing game. A lot of the goals Mick McCarthy’s side have conceded this season have come through quick counter-attacks, so Brighton will look to use the speed of their forward men to get in behind.

Ipswich have attacking wide men themselves in Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Freddie Sears. With right winger Maitland-Niles, there is a sense that he has become ‘McCarth-ified’ in terms of the way he tracks back and responds to losing the ball. It seems rather unlikely that the speedy 18-year-old has learnt his defensive traits from Arsene Wenger.

A lot of Ipswich’s attacks come down the left-hand side, but as a by-product of that, they concede a lot of goals via their left as well. Left-back Jonas Knudsen is often playing behind an attack-minded winger, be it Sears or Ryan Fraser, the latter being currently out. Knudsen is not the strongest defensively and can often be vulnerable when dealing with against opposition breakaways.

For that reason, there is potential for Rajiv Van La Parra to cause problems. The Dutchman is one of the quickest players in the Championship and, if he had a more dependable end product, he would be among the best. Van La Parra has impressed in the few games he has played at the AMEX and this blog fancies him to tear Knudsen apart.

Ipswich are on a good run but they have struggled against the best teams in this division, and that puts them in a category just below the automatic promotion chasers. Brighton will get back to winning ways.

Fulham v Rotherham

Fulham are, remarkably, the top scorers in the Championship this season, yet they are only 19th in the table. The West Londoners have conceded two fewer goals (41) than Bristol City (43) – the team with the worst defensive record – and have shipped two or more in seven of their last nine games. Clearly, the situation at Craven Cottage is that they do not have any problems putting the ball in the net, but they do have problems keeping it out.

New manager Slavisa Jokanovic inherited a Watford side last season that was having similar problems, albeit the Hornets were much higher in the table. In fact, one of Watford’s most important wins under Jokanovic came at Craven Cottage in December, when they won 5-0 thanks to a Troy Deeney hat-trick and an Almen Abdi stunner. If it was that particular Watford performance that made Fulham approach the Serb, they have appointed him for the wrong reasons.

Watford already had a side capable of playing good football – Jokanovic did nothing special on that front – but he instilled a sense of grit and doggedness into the side. He tightened up the defence and add steel to the midfield, Adlene Guedioura being a key acquisition, and a player who Fulham fans would surely welcome at the Cottage. Jokanovic will drill the players well in the first two thirds of the pitch and give them the freedom of movement in the final third. That was why he was so successful in the Championship last term, and that is what Fulham need. Their players have no shortage of individual talent, but they need some guidance – they need to be know what they are doing when out of possession and they need to be part of a cohesive system. Jokanovic is just the man to provide that.

Rotherham have picked up some vital wins lately. When they were thrashed by Ipswich at the beginning of November you sensed they could become cut adrift, but the Millers have won four out of a possible seven since then. It seems telling that the team have not dropped any points from winning positions under Neil Redfearn’s tutelage, and 12 of the 13 games since the former Leeds boss’ appointment have been decided by the first goal.

Some will look at that and criticize the team for a lack of spirit, or Plan B, but this blog would argue that simply being able to hold onto leads is good enough for a team battling the drop. If you want a play-off or promotion place, you have to be a bit more creative and adaptable at certain times. However, Rotherham only had to win 11/46 games to stay up last season, and if you can bank on holding onto the occasional lead, you have what it takes to stay in a division.

Rotherham are not a particularly special team, but given the financial gulf between themselves and their competitors, they are doing well to stabilize themselves in the Championship. If they can extend the loan spells of energetic midfielder Grant Ward and talented young centre-back Farrend Rawson, or sign those players on permanent deals, they will give themselves a great chance of remaining a Championship club.