On the eve of the new season, Marco Silva is carefully evaluating the squad he has been bequeathed down at Motspur Park. He has spoken this afternoon of his desire to strengthen his squad further still in advance of the opening fixture against Middlesbrough on Sunday, but there still plenty of imponderables as we try to second guess the Portuguese head coach’s preferred starting eleven. With so much of pre-season held behind closed doors, the fans are still in the dark as to Silva’s top pairings throughout the side – especially at centre back.
Every successful side has a strong spine and that usually starts from the heart of the defence. Fulham are currently blessed with a surfeit of centre backs and almost all of them have significant Championship experience. American Tim Ream now probably fits snugly into the stalwart category, having made 213 appearances for Fulham, and although the veteran didn’t have the best of times in the top flight, he shone in Slavisa Jokanovic’s promotion season and has never let the Whites down in the second tier. Ream has racked up 260 Championship appearances and knows what he takes to thrive in one of the most competitive divisions around.
Given how impressively he began life at Craven Cottage, the fact that Tosin Adarabioyo remains at Craven Cottage – with no Premier League side seeing fit to trigger his £10m release clause this summer – seems like a real bonus. Adarabioyo honed his raw talent in the Championship, making 63 appearances in strong loan spells with West Bromwich Albion and Blackburn Rovers, which fuelled his desire for first-team football. A physically strong defender with an eye for a pass, Adarabioyo’s level might have dipped in the final weeks of the season – with a couple of costly mistakes creeping in – but you would expect the Fulham back four to be built around his immense talent.
Michael Hector had an almost as encouraging opening to his Fulham career after making the short move from Stamford Bridge last summer – and enduring a lengthy wait to pull on the white shirt. He stepped into a shaky back line as if he’d been playing there for years, immediately providing solidity and a physical presence that Scott Parker’s side had been sorely missing. But the mystifying collapse that came after the Whites went up left the man cheekily dubbed ‘Virgil van Mike’ looking completely clueless. His shakiness in a possession mirrored that of a schoolboy rather than the confident defender that had bossed games at the lower level and he was twice caught alarmingly out of position at Leeds before that shocking display at Brentford. There is a clearly good player there – as evidenced by that remarkable saving tackle at Cardiff in the play-off semi-final – and if Hector, who has 173 Championship appearances to his name and is fresh from helping Jamaica reach the quarter finals of the Gold Cup, can recapture the form of his early weeks at Fulham then he might be able to force his way into Silva’s plans.
We’ve still not really seen enough of Terence Kongolo to make an accurate assessment of his ability. The Dutch defender made one magnificent tackle during an otherwise unforgettable FA Cup defeat at Manchester City and promptly injured himself as the Whites were clinging to a narrow lead at Blackburn. Bringing him back on a permanent basis was clearly predicated on his strong displays at Huddersfield, but keeping him fit will be Marco Silva’s biggest challenge. Kongolo has now resumed full training and, if he can show the pedigree that saw him shine for AK Almaar and become part of the Dutch squad that finished third in the 2014 World Cup, then you wouldn’t bet against him muscling his way back in.
The other injury prone centre back on the staff at Fulham is Alfie Mawson, whose £20m capture in the summer of 2018 looked like good business after his eye-catching displays with Swansea had lifted him to the cusp of an England call-up. We all know that Mawson never really got a run in the side and has endured horrendous luck with injuries, which only continued when he badly injured his knee shortly after being handed the captaincy during a strong start to his loan spell at Bristol City last season. Mawson’s ability has never been in doubt and the ball-playing centre half seems to have shed some timber in a bid to impress Silva but it will all rest upon whether he can remain consistently available for selection.
Beyond those four, Silva still has options should he need them. The versatile Denis Odoi will always have his own place in Fulham folklore for any number of reasons – that ridiculous backflick against Newcastle on debut, his majestic header against Derby and the dancing on the crossbar at Wembley after promotion had been secured against Aston Villa – but it is difficult to see the Belgian getting a great deal of game time, given that Fulham also have three right backs competing against him in his other favoured position. Maxime Le Marchand has also been linked with a move away this summer, with the Frenchman’s catchy song certainly exceeding his footballing ability. Jerome Opoku, who will turn 23 by the end of the season, is poised to move to Denmark on loan – which suggests he is unlikely to figure in Silva’s long-term plans.
The new boss could conceivably want to introduce his own centre half into the club, but it probably wouldn’t be the most effective use of scant FFP headroom at this point. Plenty of Championship managers would kill for the sort of depth Fulham currently possess at centre back – the key will now be moulding a partnership to withstand the rigours of England’s second tier. Silva has been characterised as an offensive manager, but he spoke this afternoon of how much he likes a clean sheet. Solid defences win championships – and Fulham appear well stocked in that department.