There was a quote from Sone Aluko in the build-up to the Newcastle game that caught the eye. Discussing why he had plumped for Fulham when there was widespread interest in his services following his summer release by Hull City, the Nigerian international said:
One of the reasons I came to Fulham is because he wanted to play me in what I call my natural position [number 10] and what suits my game. In pre-season, I think that has shown – I’ve been gelling with the strikers and the midfield and we’ve got a good understanding.
Eyebrows may have been raised amongst some of the Fulham faithful with Ross McCormack still at the club, but if ever there was evidence that Slavisa Jokanovic had engaged in forward planning, this was it. Aluko, born just down the road in Hounslow, was eager to get regular football, having been little more than a bit part player for Hull in a last frustrating season, and with plenty of Championship experience, he knows all about the rough and tumble of one of the toughest European leagues to get out of.
It was clear from the pre-season friendly against Crystal Palace that the 27 year-old’s activity in and around the final third would be pivotal. Breaking into dangerous positions behind a central striker, as evidenced by the first goal he took so calmly, Aluko also offers a combination of pace and guile that has been missing for a couple of seasons. Measured and understated both in his considered off-the-pitch statements and his play, you get the sense Aluko will be a key figure in this year’s campaign.
There was a further indication of just how successful Aluko’s initial link-up with the likes of Tom Cairney and Floyd Ayite has been during this short summer in Friday night’s win over Newcastle. Far too often, Fulham’s movement last year from deeper areas was ponderous and static, but there was a zest and energy about the way those three interchanged, offering angles and a precision to the passing that stretched Rafa Benitez’s under-par charges. Aluko was to the fore during Fulham’s most threatening moments – questionably brought to ground under a challenge from Grant Hanley and seeing a rasping drive spilt by the goalkeeper in the first half – but his busy nature and bright movement also brought blessed relief from moments of sustained pressure by the away side.
The evolution of Jokanovic’s side will depend on the reinforcements he drafts in over the next three weeks to supplement what appears at first glance like fairly conventional striking options – the beanpole Matt Smith or the more creative, deeper-lying forward in Cauley Woodrow – but Aluko’s importance in the hole has already been established. He’ll want to score more goals, as he’s never been particularly prolific, but his ability to beat opposition players in tight areas could prove invaluable. Flexibility remains the key, as Cairney often found himself on the periphery in a wide area last term, but Aluko’s electric start was greatly encouraging.