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Tactical Philosophy: Slavisa Jokanovic

While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. Patrick Mills has a look at Slavisa Jokanovic’s emergence.


Slavisa Jokanovic enjoyed something of a journeyman career as a player, spending an average of just over 2 years at each of his 8 clubs. Having started his career at local club Novi Sad, the Serbian went on to play for Vojvodina and Partizan Belgrade before moving to Spain. There he played for Real Oviedo, Tenerife and Deportivo La Coruna. He would return to Spain to play for Ciudad Murcia after a brief spell at Chelsea. Jokanovic also represented Yugoslavia and FR Yugoslavia 64 times, scoring 10 goals in the process. The former defensive-midfielder started his managerial career in 2007, having retired from playing three years prior, taking the reins at Partizan. During his 2 year tenure with crno-beli, they achieved back-to-back domestic doubles. He then took three years out of football before spending a year managing Thai club Muangthong United to an invincible season.

Unsuccessful spells at Levski Sofia and Hercules followed before becoming Watford’s fourth coach in five games in October 2014. Remarkably, Jokanovic went on to lead the Hornets to Premier League promotion, at the time making him just the third foreign manager to achieve the feat. Even more remarkable was his subsequent departure. Reportedly unhappy with the contract on offer, Jokanovic stepped down, with Quique Sanchez Flores his replacement. Yet another short stint at Maccabi Tel Aviv was next, where he took them to the group stages of the Champions League in 2015. Finally, Jokanovic returned to England in December of that year to take the post at struggling Fulham. He kept the Cottagers in the Championship last term, finishing 11 points clear of relegation. This season has been much more impressive, however, seeing the west London club reach the play-offs. Interest in Jokanovic has been reported recently, with West Ham and Werder Bremen rumoured to be amongst his admirers. He is, however, expected to still be at the club next season.

Tactical Philosophy

During his time at Watford, Jokanovic generally set his side up in a 4-3-1-2 formation. This was probably based on the fact that Watford boasted three strikers among the best in the league. Troy Deeney played most often with Odion Ighalo as the two furthest forward, with Matej Vydra operating just behind. Jokanovic was, however, flexible throughout their promotion season, using a variety of formations depending on who was fit, or who they were playing against.

At Fulham, he mostly uses a 4-3-3, once again in an attempt to get the best out of his players. Scott Malone and Ryan Fredericks play as attacking fullbacks with Ryan Sessegnon and Sone Aluko cutting inside to support the striker, either Chris Martin or Floyd Ayite. Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen play advanced of Kevin McDonald in the 6 role. Tim Ream and Tomas Kalas usually occupy the centre of defence with David Button in goal.

Button(27)– Fredericks(2), Kalas(26), Ream(13), Malone(3)– McDonald(6), Johansen(14), Cairney(10)– Aluko(24), Martin(25), Sessegnon(30)

Attacking Approach:

Generally speaking, Fulham are a possession based attacking team, scoring the joint most goals in the league this season(85) along with Champions Newcastle. They recorded an average possession of 59.1% and an 83.9% pass accuracy, both league highs. They were widely regarded as the most attractive side to watch, almost always attempting to build established attacks from the back. Jokanovic has said he shares many mutual friends with Pep Guardiola and would talk about football for hours with former Real Madrid and Barcelona coach Radomir Antic while he was living in Spain. He calls himself an artificial Spaniard.

Focus on Wings for Creating Chances –

Fulham place huge emphasis on good wide play as a method for creating goal-scoring chances. Despite this being a recurring theme, their opposition have continued to struggle to deal with it all season. This is down to the variety with which they exploit wide areas. The most basic of which involves Fulham’s wingers or fullbacks receiving to feet and taking on their opponent one v one before delivering a low cross or cutback from the byline. This can be seen below, mainly featuring right-back Fredericks and right-winger Aluko. The second video shows Scott Malone receiving to feet and delivering to the box, something Fulham also make regular use of.

If, unlike in the situations shown above, there isn’t sufficient space to simply dribble past the fullback or deliver and early cross, Fulham’s wide players will often use quick combinations to get beyond their defenders before crossing, as shown below.

The third way Fulham exploit the wings is by building the play on one side, drawing their opponents block to shift across, and then switching to find a free man on the opposite side. They often use decoy runs in these situations to ensure the ball-far fullback on the opposition team is occupied and dragged infield, creating space for the overlapping run of the free man. The free man can then either have an attempt at goal or cross to the numbers arriving in the box.

Fulham also occasionally utilise the blindside in relation to the wings. One of the central midfielders, either Cairney or Johansen, or Aluko cutting in from the right, will attempt to receive the ball in between the opponent’s line of defence and midfield before playing a through ball between the central defender and fullback to find a teammate’s run, out of the eyeline of the fullback. This can be seen below.

Although most of their chances tend to come from good wide play leading to crosses or cutbacks, the technical ability of their central midfielders means they are capable of creating opportunities directly from central areas as well. Cairney and Johansen both score regularly from long-range but also utilise combinations through the middle to create openings, as shown below.

Defensive Approach:

Fulham conceded 57 goals in the league this season, 17 more than Newcastle. Given that both their fullbacks started their careers as wingers, and two of their midfield three are also mainly focused on attacking, Fulham’s extremely attacking approach is bound to come at a cost. There is often too much space in behind the fullbacks, and this combined with the lack of defensive support from the central midfielders, leaves them open on the counter-attack. It is therefore somewhat unfair to criticise the central defenders for their occasionally sloppy performances. They don’t get much protection but regardless, their individual errors and poor positioning remain a weak-link in Jokanovic’s team.

Pressing Variations with Triggers –

As with most attacking sides, Fulham operate a high defensive line and implement variations of the press, responding to certain triggers before harrying their opponents in an attempt to win the ball back high up the pitch. Usually, the attackers press from the front using passing-lane orientated pressure to force a long ball or mistake. If the opposition play lateral passes or take a bad touch, this acts as a trigger for one of the attackers to press the man on the ball aggressively to complete a turnover. The video below shows an example of this.

Three Career Defining Games

14/15 Championship- Brighton 0-2 Watford – Troy Deeney and Matej Vydra scored as Watford clinched promotion. Both players had been crucial to the side’s success all season scoring 21 and 16 times respectively. Watford had been away from the top tier for almost 10 years and as mentioned previously, the win against Brighton made Jokanovic only the third foreign manager to gain promotion to the Premier League. The Hornets went on to finish second to Bournemouth after drawing against Sheffield Wednesday on the final day.

16/17 Championship- Newcastle 1-3 Fulham – A brace from teenager Ryan Sessegnon and a long-range strike from Tom Cairney ensured an impressive victory for Fulham at League leaders Newcastle. Sessegnon’s day could have been even better too after he was brought down for a penalty. However, despite his wish to complete a hattrick, the ball was taken off him by defender Tim Ream, who struck wide. The win was not only a show of just how capable Jokanovic and his team are, it also brought them within two points of the play-off places, with a game in hand.

16/17 FA Cup- Fulham 4-1 Hull City – Despite fielding a near full-strength team, Hull couldn’t contain Fulham’s attacking threat. Goals from Aluko, Martin, Sessegnon and Johansen helped Jokanovic overcome Premier League opposition and new Tiger’s boss Marco Silva. The emphatic victory set up a fifth round tie at home to Spurs, a game which would mark the end of Fulham’s cup run.

Three Key Players Developed

Scott Malone – Before joining from Cardiff last summer, Malone had drifted from club to club, never really nailing down a definite position. Slavisa Jokanovic decided he would play him as an attacking fullback, and it’s paid off. As mentioned previously, the Scot is one of Fulham’s most important attacking outlets, earning him a place in the Championship Team of the Year this season. He is perhaps the best crosser in the league and having played much of his career as a winger, Malone is also an excellent dribbler. The role he has been given by Jokanovic has undoubtedly got the best out of him.

Ryan Sessegnon – At just 16, Sessegnon was given his debut by Jokanovic at the start of the season. He became the first player in the football league born in the 2000s to score in a first team game, as well as becoming the youngest ever championship scorer. He is expected to develop into a left back over time and has been likened to Ashley Cole. Despite interest from every top team in the Premier League, his manager appears to have convinced him to remain under his guidance for the time being with Sessegnon expected to sign his first professional contract this month.

Tom Cairney – Having been released from boyhood club Leeds United at the age of 16 for being too small, Cairney joined up with the Academy at Hull City. It was there that he made his breakthrough before moving on to Blackburn in 2013. Having impressed at Ewood Park, the 26 year old made the move south to join Fulham in the summer of 2015 for around £3million. This season saw the Scotland International become one of the most impressive midfielders in the Championship, scoring 9 goals and assisting 3. Much like Malone, the system and style of play implemented by Jokanovic is seeing him fulfil his potential.

Read all the other articles from this series here

Patrick Mills

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