Scott Parker’s tactical masterclass at Wembley is still fresh in the mind, but the hard work is underway to ensure Fulham’s forthcoming Premier League campaign is much more enjoyable than their last. In 2018/19, spoiled perhaps by the sparkling football that took Slavisa Jokanovic’s swashbuckling side up, Fulham fans endured a dreadfully disappointing season that saw virtually a whole new side relegated with barely a whimper. Nobody is interested in a repeat – and both Parker and director of football Tony Khan have suggested that retaining the core of the squad that has achieved promotion will be at the forefront of their minds.
That being said, it is clear to anybody that new signings are necessary to make Fulham even close to competitive in the top flight. We saw how easily the pace and power of opposition forwards can rip you apart at Premier League level and reinforcements, especially in a defence that conceded 81 league goals during that horrible season, are vital.
Fulham still haven’t adequately replaced Ryan Fredericks, who moved on to West Ham after the play-off final win over Aston Villa. Fredericks’ blistering pace was an asset in both boxes and was sorely missed over the course of a dismal season having been pivotal to our rise under Jokanovic. Cyrus Christie was a solid performer in the second half of this campaign but was proven to be well below the standard required in the top flight last term. Denis Odoi did brilliantly to keep Brentford at bay, but he’s not the answer either. Steven Sessegnon might be highly-rated but he hasn’t made much of a first-team impression since the early part of the season and a loan might be best for his own development. Fulham can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of their last experience in the top flight, where defensive naivety and giving the ball away in dangerous areas were far too commonplace.
We have yet to be linked with a right back, but it feels like a critical position to nail down early to give the new arrivals a chance to bed in. Matty Cash was a revelation once Sabri Lamouchi converted him into a right-back and I’d be wanting to test Nottingham Forest’s resolve to keep a hold of the Slough-born 23 year-old. There are already rumours that West Ham and Aston Villa are eager to offer him a shot at the Premier League and Fulham should really join that race without delay.
Michael Hector made such a huge difference to the durability of Fulham’s defence from January and single-handedly kept us in games with important interventions (see that sensational tackle and clearance on Robert Glatzel at Cardiff in the first leg of the play-off semi-final). While he would see your starting centre back, it is his first taste of Premier League football and it will be interesting to see if he can be quite as dominant at a higher level. Tim Ream did well at Wembley but was badly out of his depth two seasons ago. The American’s service to the club and ball-playing ability should see him remain part of the squad, but at least another centre back is vital. Both Alfie Mawson and Maxime Le Marchand have been poor since arriving a couple of summers ago and I would investigate the possibility of going back in for Huddersfield’s Terence Kongolo, who got injured just when his loan spell was getting up and running. His outstanding tackle on Gabriel Jesus in an otherwise forgettable pasting by Manchester City sticks in the memory and I’d love to see whether he could forge a powerful partnership with Hector at the back.
The indifferent displays of Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro gave Neeskens Kebano a late opportunity to impress as our promotion push really picked up and, although the Congolese winger, really came to the party, I feel we are going to need more dynamism out wide when the season kicks off. I’d love to bring Ryan Babel, so successful on loan, back to the Cottage. I’m fully aware that will be eighteen months older than the last time he pulled on a white shirt, but his Premier League experience, eye for goal, and pace would be tremendous assets to a side that has looked worryingly predictable at times in the Championship. I can only agree with Mawson’s assessment from the tail end of last season: ‘If we had him from the start of the season we would’ve had a lot better chance of staying up’.
If Babel’s age makes a permanent move a non-starter, there are younger alternatives around. I’d be tempted to make an audacious move for Daniel James, whose opportunities at Manchester United are likely to be restricted by the strength of the squad that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has to pick from. He was only a substitute as United struggled to breakdown FC Copenhagen in the Europa League on Monday and he has been left kicking his heels on the sidelines an awful lot this. James’ work ethic would mean that he could provide the necessary defensive cover, whilst his pace would add a different dimension in the final third to anything that Fulham have currently got.
There’s no doubt that Aleksandar Mitrovic, who has now scored 49 goals in a hundred Fulham appearances, will be the first name on the teamsheet when our Premier League campaign gets underway – and deservedly so. He was outstanding in a dismal team the last time we were at this level and I’d back him to better eleven goals this time around. But there is a strong case to supplement our striking resources should anything happen to the Serbian. I’m not convinced by Bobby Decordova-Reid, who covered plenty of ground but lacked the finishing touch in the Championship, and I feel that Aboubakar Kamara is better suited to playing out wide. Jay Stansfield is a hell of a prospect but it’s probably a little too early to throw him into top flight football.
I’d be happy with our rumoured pursuit of Ivan Toney bearing fruit. He’s been in outstanding form for Peterborough, having scored 24 goals in 26 appearances in League One. He’d probably be willing to be a squad rotation option in the Premier League and has something to prove at this level, having been released by Rafa Benitez at Newcastle. The difficult part will be beating off significant competition for Toney’s signature, with Leeds, West Brom and Celtic all apparently hoping to land the 24 year-old.