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How Slavisa Jokanovic won Fulham’s power struggle over transfers to reignite their Premier League push

Slavisa Jokanovic cuts a far happier figure now he has wrested back control of players coming in and out of Craven Cottage – and results are vindicating his methods

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Friday 02 March 2018 15:15 GMT
Slavisa Jokanovic has led Fulham up to fifth in the Championship
Slavisa Jokanovic has led Fulham up to fifth in the Championship (Getty)

The point sounds obvious but to Slavisa Jokanovic it was a vindication that he had been right all along. “I am working here in England, I want English people, or people who know what the English game is.” Matt Targett, Cyrus Christie and Aleksandar Mitrovic all signed for Fulham in late January, and have reignited Fulham’s push for promotion back to the Premier League.

Jokanovic speaks in a low growl but when he looks back on the triumph of the transfer window, he starts to get animated. “All these three players came to the training ground, opened their bags, put on their boots and played football. I don’t have time now, in this level, to bring in people from another part [of the world]. Especially with 12 games in front of us. I need people who know about driving the car in the English style. Who know what life in England is.”

That is what Jokanovic got in January, but it has not always been so simple during his time at Craven Cottage. His two years there have been characterised by progress on the pitch, some of the best passing football in the division, but a political war over signings that has only just been resolved in Jokanovic’s favour.

For too long, Fulham’s director of statistical research Craig Kline had too much say over transfers. He was a close friend of Tony Khan, the son of owner Shahid Khan, and was bizarrely given control of transfer policy. Using his own secret algorithms, Kline vetoed good signings and made bad ones, much to Jokanovic’s exasperation. It all ended in tears: Shahid Khan was finally persuaded to sack Kline last October. Kline called the police.

Since Kline’s departure, club sources have noticed how much more relaxed and happy Jokanovic is. He no longer has to fight battles over transfer policy and he is no longer imposed with players he has no idea what to do with. Speaking to The Independent in his office at Craven Cottage, he still looks back on the summer transfer window – the last of the Kline era – as a missed opportunity.

“We bought a few players in August without any preparation, without pre-season, without these players knowing how we want to play, without me knowing what exactly they can offer us,” Jokanovic reflects. Yohan Mollo, Rafa Soares and Marcelo Djalo have barely been involved this season, not because they were ‘data’ signings, but because they were never of the right standard for the team. “If the club brings some players that I don’t use, there can be two reasons for that,” Jokanovic explains. “One is that I don’t believe he’s good enough. The other reason is if I am a completely crazy man, and I want to blame the player. But that would be without any sense.”

This January, Jokanovic and the club were finally working harmoniously on signings again. Yes, the new players still needed to have good objective data but they were also Jokanovic picks, all with his most important criteria: experience of this level. “I am now more satisfied than I was in the past,” Jokanovic smiles. “It is simple: from my point of view, we are working with more sense, and we make better steps. Part of work is making mistakes. But we must be careful to make less mistakes.”

Jokanovic: ‘We bought a few players in August without any preparation’ (Getty)

These better steps meant signing those three new players, first Targett from Southampton, then Christie from Middlesbrough and finally Mitrovic on loan from Newcastle. “You need to find people who you can trust, and who can help you immediately.” Jokanovic’s colleagues saw a man reenergised by the deadline day arrivals, especially Mitrovic, who came on loan from Newcastle United.

Jokanovic had known about Mitrovic for years. When Jokanovic started his managerial career 10 years ago at Partizan Belgrade, Mitrovic was a teenager in the club’s academy. By the time Mitrovic made his debut in 2012, Jokanovic was off coaching Muangthong United in Thailand, but he has always kept well aware of the burly centre-forward. Mitrovic lost focus and motivation at Newcastle United, and did not help himself with his disciplinary record. But Jokanovic has given Mitrovic a fresh start, and a platform to get fit before the World Cup in June.

So when asked if he had taken a risk on a man with a bad attitude, Jokanovic backed his player. “If I knew about this bad reputation, I don’t sign him,” Jokanovic smiled. “First of all, he is Serbian, I am Serbian. He was top scorer in the qualification for the World Cup. He played for the team I did, Partizan Belgrade. I know what this player can do, his characteristics. He has the characteristics my team needs.”

Jokanovic’s Fulham are probably the best passing team in the Championship, even out-playing Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves last Saturday. But they had been lacking a focal point up front. Chris Martin struggled last season, as did Rui Fonte and Aboubakar Kamara this year. Jokanovic, comparing this Fulham team to his free-scoring Watford team that came second in 2014-15, rues Fulham’s lack of strikers. “I always played with two strikers at Watford,” he explains. “Because my best players were strikers: Troy Deeney, Odion Ighalo, Matej Vydra and Fernando Forestieri. The team was really clinical.”

But this Fulham team is different, more about possession and controlling the midfield. “With these players I have in my hand right now, we take the decision to play in this way,” he says. “Because I believe we are more safe with the ball than we are without it. We believe we can dominate the opposition with the ball. We are not the strongest, tallest team in the Championship. We miss the set pieces, we need to win some points in this situation, but we don’t do it.”

All of which explains why Jokanovic was so keen to sign Mitrovic, and so pleased that in the post-Kline era, the club would support him. This nice team needed a nasty edge and Mitrovic was the man to provide it. “First of all, the important character of this player is that he is a winner, he shows ambition to win the game.”

Mitrovic was a long way from fitness when he arrived at Fulham but after taking a few games to settle in he is showing his value. At Ashton Gate last week he opened his account, from a Cyrus Christie cross. Then he terrified champions-elect Wolves at Craven Cottage last Saturday, setting up the opener before beating three men to hammer in the second from 20 yards. Vindication for Jokanovic, already.

“Mitrovic is strong. He gives us different options. We are not talking about the fastest player in this position in the world. But he can hold the ball, we can connect with him. He can be our target man. He can improve our set-pieces, and he can improve us in our defensive set-pieces. Football players can link with good players, easily.”

There are still 12 games left in the Championship season and Fulham, now fifth, have eight points to catch up to Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City, still confounding expectations in second place. They have Derby County and Aston Villa ahead of them, too, but Fulham go to Pride Park this Saturday and who would bet against them? They are unbeaten in eight in the league, a run in which they have only conceded three goals, ironing out the defensive frailties that dogged them last season.

Jokanovic is a Championship expert, and when you throw in Targett, Christie and Mitrovic then this team now has the final pieces to its jigsaw. Jokanovic knows this is how football works. “If I coach in Italy, I will try to have more Italian players. If I coach in Serbia, more Serbian players. Football is different in different parts of the world. English football is English, the Championship is the Championship.”

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