Fulham have made a pretty good start to the season.
On the opening weekend they beat Newcastle, landing a brief blow on a team most expect to sweep the Championship aside, and since then they have won at Preston, been denied a victory at Leeds in the 90th minute, and drawn with Cardiff. They are fifth in the nascent league table after winning their first two games of the season for the first time in 16 years.
You’d think that manager Slavisa Jokanovic’s mood would be quite upbeat, then. Well, not quite.
For a start, they have achieved their start to the campaign without the two players who scored 36 of their 66 league goals last season, Moussa Dembele and Ross McCormack, sold to Celtic and Aston Villa respectively.
Jokanovic, as you might expect, was not happy firstly with these sales, and with the club’s sluggishness in replacing them.
“The season is very long and at the moment we are lucky to find good results,” Jokanovic said after the victory over Preston.
“Matt Smith works very hard and I am sure he will help us in the future but I need more people in this position. The league has so many games, and we don’t have a big enough squad to be ready for what is in front of us. I have talked about signings, Fulham need them. I want to be successful and so I need more options in my squad.”
So far, so normal: life is tough in the Championship, players are sold and managers always want more money spent on their squad, more options available to them.
However, this developing tension between Jokanovic and the men who pull the strings at Craven Cottage is a little more complicated, largely because of the methods employed by owner Shahid Khan.
Around the time that Khan took over at Fulham, in 2013, a man called Craig Kline was brought in to help oversee their player recruitment.
Kline is an American analyst, who had previously worked for the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL, also owned by Khan, and is a disciple of the sort of data analytics that many clubs are using as they embrace a more scientific approach.
Kline has reportedly clashed with Fulham employees in the past, and it looks like Jokanovic is the latest to not be entirely enamoured with his input. “It generally depends on this guy [Kline] who is going to sign for us or not,” Jokanovic said at the weekend, when asked about transfers.
“I’m a little bit disappointed because no one knows who this guy is. Instead he’s sitting in the directors box. I want to take responsibility for how I work with my team and how they perform but I am not part of the recruitment business. It is in the hands of people who believe they’re more prepared.”
All of that can be filed under ‘thinly-veiled barb’, and it would be easy to dismiss it as the sort of power-struggle and politicking that takes place at most football clubs.
The difference here is that it’s unusual for a manager to so publicly and openly criticise not just aspects of how a club is run, but a specific individual. And it could prove more damaging in the future.
“I’ve lost many players in this process in nine months,” continued Jokanovic.
“In the last two days I lost a few players who he believes are not good enough. I had an opinion from one of the best managers in the world on one of the players (thought to be Manchester United youngster Andreas Pereira) and he believes it is a good signing for us and I believe that too. Craig doesn’t believe it is a good signing for us and this guy is not with us.”
He sounds like a manager approaching the end of his tether.
The issue of analytics and how they can help football clubs is a tricky one. Clearly, they are being used and are aiding some of the better sides in the football pyramid, but suspicion remains among more traditional thinkers about these funny little men with their numbers and computers.
The most prominent example of a club who relies on this approach, Brentford, saw a popular and successful manager, Mark Warburton, depart because in that situation the two sides could not work together.
It seems clear that, as understanding of how analytics can help football grows, more clubs will use data models, but the other side will still need further persuasion.
The biggest issue for them might not even be the best way to use these models, but how they can work together with ‘football people’, like Jokanovic.
If Fulham’s good start to the season is to be capitalised upon, they will have to figure that out pretty quickly.