Much has been made of the manner of Fulham’s second half collapse in last night’s friendly against Olympique Lyonnais and what it may mean with the start of the Premier League season now under three weeks away. The manner of the defending in the latter stages of the game might well be a cause for concern, but you’d be wise not to read too much into a pre-season friendly.
For a start, Fulham’s recruitment for their return to the top flight is clearly far from done. The Whites currently only have seventeen senior professionals on the books, which is nowhere near enough for a Premier League season and Slavisa Jokanovic has used the summer to cast a critical eye over some of the promising talents from the academy. His squad remains short of options in goal, arguably in both full back positions, at centre back, on the wings and up front. There’s very little chance that the eleven that lined up in Bourgoin last night will take the field for Fulham’s Premier League opener against Crystal Palace on August 11th – and the side that finished the game will bear little comparison with the eleven picked for Roy Hodgson’s return to Craven Cottage either.
The pre-season games are all about fitness work in any case. Kevin McDonald, Marcus Bettinelli and Neeskens Kebano have all attested to just how hard the boys have been put through their paces in France this week as part of the preparations for a gruelling nine-month challenge in one of the toughest leagues in the world. By the friendly with Sampdoria at Aldershot in a week and a half’s time, Jokanovic will be beginning to offer his first-choice players something closer to a full ninety minutes – and the impact of the second half changes definitely diluted both Fulham’s performance and their cohesion last night. It was no coincidence that Lyon’s most impressive spell came after seven substitutions, with the likes of Moritz Jenz looking a little off the pace against such top-quality opposition.
There’s plenty of precedent to set aside pre-season results as a barometer of a team’s performances when the serious stuff starts. Fulham’s displays last summer were far from encouraging, with the Whites getting hammered 8-2 by local rivals Chelsea and losing to West Ham in a lethargic display during their tour of Austria, but the strenuous fitness work was all worth it as Jokanovic’s side eventually outlasted Aston Villa in the play-off final back in May. The pace of these games is some way off the rather breakneck speed of top flight football and Jokanovic would have learnt an awful lot about the shortcomings of his squad last night.
Although the scoreline hides it rather well, there were some positives to take from a tough test against a strong side who finished third in Ligue 1 last year and went deep into European competition. Fulham held their own comfortably in a first half where they restricted the French to few clear-cut chances and there was an impressive debut for Jean-Michael Seri in the holding role. Once McDonald gets back to match sharpness, I would be intrigued to see what the Ivorian midfielder could do in a more advanced role alongside Tom Cairney. Maxime Le Marchand looked strong at left back in the first 45 mintues, although once again he might well be more suited to the centre half role he clearly prefers.
There are clearly positions that need to strengthened and depth that has to be added to the squad before the big kick-off. Friendlies are an intriguing exercise for the fans who try to plot a club’s course long before the start of the season. but when the result in this case was affected by a raft of changes and a couple of more than questionable refereeing decisions, drawing strong conclusions from what is still an early stage in Fulham’s summer preparation seems ill-advised.