When Neil Warnock described Fulham as “the Manchester City of the Championship” he was not talking about the transfer fees. Fulham had a net spend of around £3m this season and their most expensive signing, the forward Rui Fonte, has been a conspicuous failure. No, the Cardiff manager was talking about the passing. Top in the division for completion (83.1%) and total passes (24,857), Fulham were also the side with the most accurate short passes, second most shots on target and the highest average possession.
Fulham have a style that, as Warnock said, is easy on the eye. So how does Slavisa Jokanovic go about instilling such a style in his players? He drills them on turnovers. “At training, everything is about winning the ball back,” says the midfielder Kevin McDonald. “Press after loss, press after loss, all the time. We know we have to earn the right to play and the manager drills it in us every day. We will try and win the ball back as soon as we lose it and then keep the ball, make them run around and try and create chances, tire them out.”
That the manager of the Championship’s most attractive side, who contest the play-off final with Aston Villa on Saturday, concentrates first and foremost on work without the ball shows something important about Jokanovic. The 49-year-old Serb has been at Craven Cottage for two and a half years. It is his seventh club as a manager and the sixth country he has coached in. He has accumulated experience everywhere from Spain to Thailand and it is reflected in his skills. This is a manager rounded in his approach, one who can be flexible. Not that you would mess with him, as anyone who has been in his presence would confirm.
“I think Serbians are known to be voyagers,” says Jordi Cruyff who, as director of football at Maccabi Tel Aviv, hired Jokanovic as manager in 2015. “They’re really a country that exports a lot. Slavisa had an adventure in Thailand, he was in England, he was in Spain, then he was with us for a period of time. I think it enriches his football vision. It’s based on different ways of seeing football. I think that’s a benefit for any manager nowadays.”
Jokanovic spent only six months in Israel before accepting an offer from Fulham. But he left on good terms having qualified the club for the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in 11 years. His versatility and ability to react to circumstances was clear. “He played various systems,” Cruyff says. “He does like to play from behind but he also likes to adapt himself to moments that he might not have control of. I think his reading of the game was very good.”
By the time Fulham hired Jokanovic in December 2015, Tel Aviv had had several approaches. “He said no to everything,” says Cruyff, “including to clubs in La Liga. But when Fulham came we all knew that he wanted to go back. He loves London, he likes the style, he loves the football and maybe deep inside there was some unfinished business.”
Watford fans remember fondly the match that earned them promotion, a game at Brighton in which Jokanovic hooked Ikechi Anya after 26 minutes, changed the shape and saw the opening goal in a 2-0 win arrive three minutes later. Within a month Jokanovic had left, saying the owners’ reluctance to give him a new contract made it clear he was not wanted. This situation has not been replicated at Fulham; in December he signed a contract until 2019 and further negotiations are expected should the Cottagers achieve promotion.
Radomir Antic signed Jokanovic as a player for Real Oviedo in the 1990s and remains a close friend of his compatriot. Antic, the only person to have managed Real Madrid, Atlético and Barcelona, says he and Jokanovic still discuss tactical matters, such as the redeployment of Ryan Sessegnon from full-back to winger, a shift crucial to Fulham’s rampant form in 2018.
“He was an important player for me in the mid-90s,” says Antic, “When he took his first touch on the ball you could see he always had a solution for what to do next. I think he is like this as a manager. He will look for players who are ready to learn, and work with them to build a system that works to their strengths. This is the case, for example, with Aleksandar Mitrovic [who has 12 goals in 19 appearances since joining on loan from Newcastle].”
No one would describe the 6ft 2in Jokanovic as a pushover, however. His glare alone is enough to put fear into people, an indication of an intensity that has transformed Fulham from relegation candidates to being on the verge of the Premier League. “He can be a bit intimidating, I’m sure, for certain people,” says McDonald. “I wouldn’t say he’s scary but I wouldn’t cross him. He puts confidence in you and when you go out on the pitch you feel like you’re going to win. That’s what he wants. But if we’re drifting away from that, he’ll do whatever it takes to get back to it.”