Instead of the usual mid-summer angst fueled by a lack of signings, Fulham fans were recently treated to a delicious and refreshing set of prudent acquisitions.
On July 13, Wolves winger Ivan Cavaleiro penned a season-long loan deal with an option to buy. Eight days later, Brighton winger Anthony Knockaert did the same.
Two pacy, direct, dangerous players had been signed, adding a predatory element to the Whites’ strikeforce. The double signing revealed that Tony Khan had learned from the mistakes of last summer and returned back to basics.
One of the main errors from the misguided business of 2018 was the targeting of players whose styles were poorly suited to the Premier League, and in some cases, had never played in the division.
But with the capture of Cavaleiro and Knockaert, Fulham have the services of two players who not only know the Championship inside and out, but have thrived at that level. While some may be suspicious that their respective clubs were so willing to ship off the attackers, they hold the title of being superb in the second division but not quite good enough to be a consistent starter in a top-flight squad.
The attribute of experience playing in a certain division can be overblown, and yes, it is not a prerequisite to have played in England to succeed in England. In recent years, just look at the successes of Brede Hangeland, Clint Dempsey, Mousa Dembele, Stefan Johansen, and more at Fulham.
But there is something to be said for being familiar with the league’s physical requirements, its speed of play, its energy, and its level of commitment. Failing to grasp these or arriving inadequately prepared to step up to England’s game is a major obstacle for any footballer.
Take a look at some of the flops from the past campaign. Andre Schurrle, although formerly of Chelsea, returned to England some five years later without the pace or strength of his earlier days. He was languid, weak, slow, and ineffective, terribly suited to the demands of the Premier League.
Jean-Michael Seri, who evidently splits opinion, clearly failed to live up to his potential. Used to the slower, more leisurely pace of Ligue 1, the helter-skelter nature of England passed him by and left him as a frequent bystander in tough matches.
Luciano Vietto, brought in from Atletico Madrid, was ineffectual for large stretches of the season, often out-muscled and out-hustled to the ball. Clearly, the strength required to cut it in England was too much for the winger.
Sergio Rico, another import from the Spanish leagues, impressed with his superb saves but maddened many with his failure to catch the ball and command his penalty area when under pressure from crosses. Look no further than his capitulation during the West Ham away match to see how woefully unprepared Rico was for life in the Premier League.
And it’s no surprise that the only new arrival that came out of the season with largely positive reviews, and who in fact won the Player of the Season award, was Premier League-tested: Calum Chambers.
Now, none of this is to say that players from foreign leagues are automatically set out to fail in England — that view would be jingoistic and misguided. But what I would argue is that for leagues as demanding as the Championship and the Premier League, it is vital to bring in reinforcements with knowledge of the division and what it takes to either get promoted or stay up. And that’s not even to say that you need a team chock-full of experienced division players — an even mix will do. But when you end up with a situation like Fulham did last season, mistakes happen.
Look at the squad, and the lack of Premier League experience was striking. Tim Ream had 13 appearances at Bolton. Kevin McDonald played 26 games for Burnley in 2009/10. Cairney stepped onto the field 11 times as a teenager for Hull back in 2009/10. Schurrle featured for Chelsea for a season and a half back in 2013 to 2015.
Only Chambers and Mitrovic, two of Fulham’s best performers, had played regularly in the top flight in recent campaigns.
Yes, Premier League tested players were also poor- Timothy Fosu-Mensah jumps out, but he had been recently shut out at Palace the previous season, a sign that we shouldn’t have signed him in the first place. And Alfie Mawson, although bright in flashes under Ranieri, had endured a poor start with Jokanovic.
But put together, the lack of Premier League nous and know-how was apparent and came back to bite the Whites. That’s why Tony Khan’s early emphasis on tried-and-tested Championship stars is an encouraging sign for Fulham fans eager to return to the top flight. And if we get there, maybe the club will heed 2018/19’s lesson and lean more heavily on Premier League regulars.