After Saturday’s lovely pre-season friendly against Palace, mostly thanks to the rain staying away and a warm enough overcast afternoon at the Cottage – it brought realisation just how close to the new season we really are; aided by kicking off with a Friday night fixture. As with most (if not all) football clubs, Fulham’s transfer business isn’t complete before the first game of the season, but the signs suggest progress has been made. This post (I don’t like calling them articles) will try to address exactly where we are ahead of this Newcastle game and what is afterwards.
Progress in personnel:
Whilst trying to hold back excitement for the foreign boys I’ve seen nothing more than the odd YouTube compilation, it does appear that we’re going into this season with a better, more balanced team with more depth and exciting options. After securing the permanent deal of Michael Madl fairly early on, Fulham have gone and brought in Floyd Ayite, Sone Aluko and Tomas Kalas who all seemingly wander straight into Slavisa Jokanovic’s starting eleven. The versatile Denis Odoi appears to be starting the season at right back after the unfortunate news that Ryan Fredericks is out for the start of the season, which potentially leaves an opening for Scott Malone. David Button is rated very highly in the division and will potentially be an upgrade upon academy product Marcus Bettinelli and certainly one over Andy Lonergan. Whilst Kevin McDonald, a player described by Richard Stearman to be ‘probably the best passer of a ball, I’ve played with’ as well as praising his positional sense in midfield and his presence in the dressing room; McDonald appears to move into the deep lying playmaker role in a 4231.
When you theorise Fulham’s best eleven with Jokanovic’s pre-season in mind, there’s certainly two gaps which cry the loudest: central midfield and striker. Firstly, whilst Scott Parker was impressive in the closing stages of last season, it would be irresponsible of a football club aiming for promotion to be happy with a near 36 year old as a starting central midfielder. As a supporting depth player? Brilliant, Scott Parker is a great leader and still has the quality for spurts of 20 minutes to help hold out results be a massive gain over Championship rivals. We do however need to upgrade our starting slot and after watching closely against Palace, I do feel like Kevin McDonald could do with some legs around him to hide his quite sluggish movement/running in defence. I think straight away to a Danny Drinkwater type player who had gas in the tank to go for 90 minutes and longer on a weekly basis, but still possess’ the technical ability to dominate football matches and continue circulation of possession. We’ve been linked (albeit not recently) to Thomas Delaney in this window and possibly the imminent arrival of Eddy Silvestre could help but it’s difficult to know.
Ross McCormack’s future has been the main reason for Fulham to be in the papers since January and that rollercoaster seems finally to have come to an end with a likely move to Norwich on the cards. Fulham now need a striker that works for Jokanovic; and in the 4231 system worked on all pre-season, that’s a well-rounded forward who will press the opposition intelligently, hold the ball for supporting runners and most importantly put the ball in the goal himself. Tom Cairney, Sone Aluko and Floyd Ayite are all capable of chipping in respectively but finding that 20 goal a season forward could well be the cherry on top. Fulham could well be adding Montpellier’s Steve Mounie to the squad in this window; that combined with a loan move for a James Wilson or Patrick Bamford with give our strike force a much needed boost of quality and competition.
On top of these two vital gaps there are a couple more things we could do with addressing. One of which a more physical and imposing central defender, there will be sides and strikers in this division that will try to bully us particularly with two centre backs (Madl and Kalas) where neither of which are over 6ft. The presence of a ‘monster’ to aid the defence in these dodgy situations would certainly be beneficial. As well, competition in the wide areas would be much welcome; with Tom Cairney currently occupying the right flank, Sone Aluko in the hole and Floyd Ayite on the left; the squad depth appears to be Lasse Vigen Christensen and beyond that moving a defender – whether that’s Scott Malone, Sean Kavanagh, Denis Odoi or Ryan Fredericks – out of their normal position. A player like Ben Marshall would be ideal, somebody who in any of the positions behind the striker and his recent experience at a right back could provide attacking tendencies if we were to move to a wing back system.
As hinted in this post, Slavisa Jokanovic has set up his side to play 4231 with Sone Aluko revealing that they’ve worked on that one system and the details that come with it. Many of us pondered whether we’d build to play with 3 at the back and wing backs as our Serbian Head Coach largely utilised taking Watford into the Premier League; Slavisa also has admitted an admiration of Barcelona, his early matches at Fulham applying a 433 with Ross McCormack pushing left or even just one of McCormack or Moussa Dembele in the starting team.
The team is certainly taking shape with Kevin McDonald looking at ease already with the deep lying role in midfield as it seems Fulham will take a while longer getting the right partner in for him. We’ve already brushed upon the three that will play behind a lone striker – Cairney floating from the right (perfect for an overlapping full back) with Sone Aluko utilising his pace, direct running, scoring instincts and eye for a pass in the hole with the lightening quick Floyd Ayite on the left hand side.
The centre of defence seems agreed upon, Michael Madl and Tomas Kalas as it stands, will enter the new season as the starting centre back pair – a welcome bit of stability in the back line. There are still some question marks in the full back area that hasn’t been helped by the aforementioned injury to Ryan Fredericks. It appears that Denis Odoi (who can also play on the left) will start at right back; this puts the starting left back against Newcastle up in the air. Whilst Scott Malone played for the U23s on Saturday for “valuable match fitness” and Tim Ream missed the final friendly with illness; it was 16-year-old Ryan Sessegnon who started in the left full back position, handling Andros Townsend with relative comfort. A start against Newcastle would make the much-hyped youngster the second youngest player ever to play a game for the football but it would be a bold decision from our ballsy Head Coach.
Despite missing the Crystal Palace match with minor knocks, it seems one of Marcus Bettinelli and David Button will start with an intriguing battle for the goalkeepers’ shirt in the upcoming season.
Whether he’s injured or not, I don’t expect to see Ross McCormack play any part against Newcastle which – as I type – leaves a battle between Cauley Woodrow and Matt Smith who are two goals apiece in official pre-season matches and five-four in Smith’s favour in all matches; both have their pros and cons but it highlights the job we need to do in replacing the goals of Ross and Moussa – the three in behind can contribute, supply and compliment the goals of a leading man. The cherry on top of our window would be finding a 20-goal striker and still have a good chunk of change out of the circa £12m from the Ross McCormack sale.
Whilst the likes of Marcus Bettinelli, Jack Grimmer, Lasse Vigen Christensen and Cauley Woodrow are still young footballers in the early stages of their careers; when I say this I mean the new crop of teenagers that spent time around the first team this summer. The teenage five of Ryan Sessegnon, Tayo Edun, Dennis Adeniran, Luca De La Torre and Stephen Humphrys impressed in games against professional opposition and appeared to gain the respect of the seasoned players at the football club. Whether or not every player makes their debuts this season is unknown at this stage, but their comfort of playing and contributing their youthful quality to the team would lead to believe that they could cope if required to play and also that Jokanovic is happy to use a youngster. Eyes for this may be towards the Capital One Cup match against Leyton Orient prior to a tough away game against Preston; the tie of London’s two oldest professional football teams in the League Cup could play host to some of Fulham’s brightest young talent.