One of the most popular summer pastimes is picking your side’s starting line-up come August. This is tricky when you can’t take account of the potential new signings, areas of the squad that need to be strengthened, or who might be leaving. In Fulham’s case, the uncertainty is heightened by the impact of a traumatic relegation from the top flight.
But there’s no doubting what Scott Parker needs to improve ahead of that trip to Barnsley in August. For much of last season, Fulham were a shambles at the back. It was always going to be ambitious to try and play the adventurous football that got the Whites promoted from the Championship, but it quickly became suicidal. Even Slavisa Jokanovic chopped and changed his back four, whilst Claudio Ranieri tinkered with the tactics entirely – opting for three centre halves – trying his own chaotic tenure at Craven Cottage.
There have been rumours that Fulham might add further depth to their defensive resources this summer, with Levante’s Chema apparently interested in making the move to England. But, within the squad we currently have, Parker probably has the makings of a pretty useful Championship defence. Injuries permitting, and Marcus Bettinelli and Alfie Mawson have a history of starting seasons in the treatment room, Fulham’s defence at Barnsley might have something of a familiar look about it.
GOALKEEPER: MARCUS BETTINELLI
Whilst Fabri remains in the squad at the moment, it seems unlikely that he will be willing to spend another year on the bench – especially at a lower level. There’s a suggestion that he could be heading back to Besiktas or somewhere else in Turkey. He might not have been given a fair crack of the whip at Fulham, but it is probable that Parker will go back to a tried and tested goalkeeper at this level. Should he be able to shake off a troublesome knee problem, I’d have no qualms about putting Bettinelli back between the sticks. He has proven his quality at this level – becoming a consistent performer in two strong Championship campaigns – and should be rewarded for his patience over the past year. It is worth remembering that he was in Gareth Southgate’s England squad at the start of last season, too.
RIGHT BACK: STEVEN SESSEGNON
Fulham aren’t short of right backs. Cyrus Christie and Denis Odoi ended up playing a lot more first-team football than either of them might have expected last season, although I prefer Odoi in the middle of the back four, especially in the Championship. It would be a bold call, but I would like Parker to give Sessegnon an opportunity to make this position his own. He has impressed on his few first-team outings so far and a full pre-season under Parker could put him in good stead for the new campaign. Parker placed a strong emphasis on youth during his caretaker stewardship and this would be a chance to further Sessegnon’s development. He might not be as attack-minded as a Ryan Fredericks, for example, but he is defensively solid – and that’s no bad thing as we look to build a foundation in a tough league.
LEFT BACK: JOE BRYAN
This is probably the most straightforward choice of the lot. Whilst there were rumours that Newcastle were interested in taking Bryan north, those have probably died out with the imminent departure of Rafa Benitez from St. James’ Park. Bryan improved as a tough Premier League season went on – and he had already firmly established himself as one of the Championship’s most consistent performers during his time with Bristol City. He needs little invitation to get forward and is good on the ball, so should be a permanent fixture in Parker’s side.
CENTRE BACKS: ALFIE MAWSON AND MAXIME LE MARCHAND
Parker has four centre backs to chose from even before the club elects to acquire anymore. I would lean towards pairing Alfie Mawson and Maxime Le Marchand together due to their experience. Mawson has played Premier League football and, as long as he can remain fit, should have little trouble adjusting to life in the Championship. His physicality should help him deal with a more robust challenge in the second tier, whilst a lack of pace shouldn’t be too much of a hindrance. Le Marchand has a wealth of Ligue 1 experience to fall back on and often looked Fulham’s most dependable defender in a horrible season. There is the balance of a left footed and right footed combination and both should comfortably be able to play out from the back if Parker follows the Jokanovic blueprint.
The key to success in this league will be forming a solid foundation at the back. Leadership will be important. Bettinelli is a vocal goalkeeper, not shy of giving his defenders advice and organising his back four, whilst Mawson’s leadership credentials should come into play nicely. Bryan has had plenty of experience of the Championship and, whilst Sessegnon hasn’t seen too much first-team action, there is no doubting his potential.