Along comes another Premier League season. In these very strange times, one thing that feels familiar now are those nerves mixed with heady anticipation. Fulham are back in the top flight – after another memorable Wembley success – and everyone is desperate to ensure that it isn’t as forgettable or fleeting as our last brief visit. To that end, Scott Parker has called on the club to be prudent in the transfer market and seems to want to shape his side around the core of the squad that won promotion from the Championship to build togetherness and continuity.
The aims are laudable and, at least on paper, Fulham should stand a better chance of survival than they did when adopting Slavisa Jokanovic’s far more adventurous approach. Jokanovic’s football is more to my own taste and is lovely to watch, but the shortcomings at the highest level saw his Fulham side hammering the nails into their own coffin. There are still plenty of nagging doubts. The pundits have written us off already – that isn’t as much of a problem as it should help foster something of an ‘us against the world mentality’ – but the prospect of starting the season without central defensive reinforcements fills me with dread.
We’ve been over this regularly in recent weeks as we waited in vain for a credible link to a centre back. Michael Hector was fantastic following his introduction to the first team in January, but aged 27, he has yet to play a Premier League game. The step up is still considerable – and it remains to be seen whether he will be as assured in the top flight as he was when he slotted into Parker’s back four. His likely partner, Tim Ream, has been a wonderful servant to Fulham but he was exposed at the highest level, like most of his team-mates, two years ago. It seems illogical to have made moves in the transfer market without addressing this pivotal position – but we can only hope that Tony Khan and company are concluding a deal for a commanding centre back as I write.
Parker has plenty of puzzlers to ponder as he considers his team selection. Does Alphonese Areola go straight in between the sticks having signed earlier this week? Such a decision would be exceptionally harsh on Marek Rodak, who did so much to get Fulham back to the Premier League and has been so impressive since claiming the first-team shirt off Marcus Bettinelli. But Areola has not come on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, with his hefty wages, to sit on the sidelines. The composition of the defence, notwithstanding the central defensive dilemma discussed above, is also up for further debate. Kenny Tete, who looks at steal even at £3m, should start at right back. But is it Wembley hero Joe Bryan, whose defensive frailties were regularly exploited by Championship sides, or Antonee Robinson, the raw yet rapid American international at left back?
You can see that Parker’s strategy for survival is based around a powerful and disciplined midfield that makes Fulham hard to play through. Harrison Reed offered the back four proper protection last year and he will likely anchor the midfield. Has Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa been reintegrated into the Fulham squad successfully enough already to have another crack at the Premier League after his barnstorming season in Spain? Does Mario Lemina, something of an enigma at Southampton, come straight into the side? How to solve the conundrum of fitting both Josh Onomah, arguably Fulham’s most improved performer in the second half of last season, and Tom Cairney, the club captain who has yet to prove himself at the highest level, into the same side?
There are options in the front three as well, if you believe that Parker’s preferred system will remain unchanged. Both Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro had rather underwhelming first campaigns at Craven Cottage, but Fulham saw enough in each of them to want to make those deals permanent. Neeskens Kebano’s cameos were worth their weight in gold at the end of the last campaign, but he is probably likely to be an impact substitute at this level. And what of Aboubkar Kamara? Probably the most changed figure at Fulham since Parker oversaw his rehabilitation into the side, you’d think that the Frenchman’s mix of pace and unpredictability would add something different to an attack that has been a little predictable in the past. Getting Aleksandar Mitrovic, one of the few Fulham players with genuine Premier League pedigree, more service and support will be vital. He scored eleven goals in a horrendous team two seasons ago – imagine what he could do were the Whites more competitive?
There couldn’t have been many sides who would provide a sterner examination of Parker’s blueprint for survival than Arsenal. The Gunners might be a side in transition, but Mikel Arteta is doing a good job of making them both more streetwise and successful. There are question marks about their own defence, especially with injuries robbing Arteta of a number of experienced options this weekend, but Arsenal look formidable going forward. They’ve improved since our last meetings – and that’s a frightening prospect when you consider the second half annihilation at the Cottage remains seared on my brain.
Fulham might be able to exploit early vulnerability if, as expected, Arteta goes with a back three and hands an Arsenal debut to the talented wonderkid William Saliba, who spent last season on loan with Saint-Étienne. They may be a start for Rob Holding, with Calum Chambers – one of the few players to come out of Fulham’s dreadful 2018-2019 campaign with any credit – only just returning to training. If Arsenal are uncertain at one end of the pitch, the prospect of Aubameyang, Willian and Eddie Nketiah, who warmed up with a hat-trick for England’s under-21s in the week, wreaking havoc in the final third isn’t doing much for my own pre-match nerves.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Rodak; Tete, Bryan, Hector, Ream; Reed, Anguissa, Cairney; Kamara, Knockaert, Mitrovic. Subs: Areola, Odoi, Robinson, Lemina, Onomah, Cavaleiro, Kebano, Decordova-Reid.