Marco Silva might be relatively new in the Craven Cottage hotseat, but he’s quickly evaluated the squad at his disposal. While we don’t know what decisions the Fulham boss has taken in his first couple of weeks in charge, he can’t have been disappointed with some of the quality he has inherited. There’s no doubt that Fulham’s squad shapes up favourably with all of our competitors in the Championship. Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic have proven their quality at this level and Harrison Reed’s emergence as a tigerish midfielder over the past eighteen months was one of the few undoubted pluses of the Scott Parker regime.
Marek Rodak might have had a frustrating campaign – largely benched after the loan signing of Alphonse Areola – but the Slovakian goalkeeper is a proven performer at this level. He seized the first team shirt decisively from Marcus Bettinelli, having already displayed his Championship aptitude at Rotherham. He was one of the standout performers in the 2019/20 campaign, keeping fifteen clean sheets, and earning international recognition. Rodak now has the opportunity to stake his claim as Fulham’s long-term number one – and I hope we will see him push on and claim the golden glove of the Championship.
His current understudy remains one of Fulham’s forgotten men. Fabri, brought in during the £100m spending spree that followed our first promotion to the top flight under the Khans, is probably justified in thinking that he was never really given a fair crack of the whip at Craven Cottage. Can you judge a goalkeeper on two games? He might have dashed off his line a little recklessly against Wilfred Zaha but he kept goal well at Wembley against Tottenham – and we ended up recognising just how far short that back four was at the top level. You wouldn’t be surprised to see him farmed out on loan again in the coming weeks and the abiding emotion has to be one of sympathy with a player who hardly got an opportunity prove himself.
The defence is probably the area of Silva’s starting eleven that would deliver the most discussion. Centre back combinations have been a serious problem for Fulham in recent years. Injuries to the likes of Alfie Mawson and Terence Kongolo, the age of trusty stalwarts Tim Ream and Denis Odoi and problems with the defensive unit as a whole, have robbed a succession of managers of a steady base at the back on which to build. It took the arrival of Tosin Adarabioyo and Joachim Andersen to add a sense of security at the heart of the defence – and that promising partnership is no more after the Dane’s highly impressive loan came to an end.
Silva has eight centre halves to select from in his first team squad at Motspur Park at the moment – Mawson, Kongolo, Tosin, Michael Hector, Maxime Le Marchand, Ream, Odoi and Jerome Opoku, recently returned from a creditable loan spell at Plymouth Argyle. That’s far too many – and some will have to leave the club, if only for their own benefit, before the closure of the summer transfer window. Mawson appeared a good signing when Fulham were plotting a Premier League return, but the injury that wrecked his England chances perhaps should have been a warning when the club’s hierarchy were parting with big money to bring him in from Swansea. The ball-playing centre back’s dreadful luck – just think of how he injured himself putting on his boots against Huddersfield – was epitomised by another season-ending injury that cruelly cut down an impressive start to his loan spell at Bristol City.
Like Kongolo, you sense that if Mawson was able to remain fit for any length of time he would be able to demonstrate his capabilities at centre back. He has a chance to restart his Fulham career under a new manager – and the departure of Scott Parker could come at the perfect time for Mawson. It remains very difficult to pick out a preferred partnership because for all the little glimpses of Kongolo’s quality, he too hasn’t been able to put together a run of games since coming to the club. There’s also Hector, who is currently on international duty with Jamaica, to consider. He might have been found wanting in the top flight but if he can recapture the imperious form that followed his introduction into the side last January then the former Reading defender should be able to force his way into Silva’s plans.
Silva has a penchant for attacking full backs and that should be music to the ears of the Fulham contingent. Picking a first choice left back will be difficult: Joe Bryan has been there and done it in the Championship – both literally at Wembley with his brilliant brace against Brentford and in terms of supplying threatening service to Mitrovic from advanced positions. Antonee Robinson enjoyed an encouraging first season at the Cottage despite relegation and his pace could be an even bigger weapon at Championship level. I’d plump for Bryan, although it’s a tough choice.
The new boss has five possible options at right back. It would be difficult to look past Kenny Tete in the first instance. The Dutch defender might not have showcased all of his qualities in a tough first season, but we saw fleetingly how he can deliver a dangerous cross. He’s aggressive in the tackle and eager to get forward – and if Fulham can hang onto him – could prove a real asset in the Championship. The statistical analysis of Cyrus Christie’s loan spell at Nottingham Forest suggests he was one of the division’s strongest right backs last year and he will be a capable understudy, which means that the likes of Steven Sessegnon and Marlon Fossey might need more loan spells to get regular game time.
My favourite part of this squad is in midfield, where the side should come to life. There might be concerns about Cairney’s fitness after a couple of injury-plagued campaigns, but he remains Fulham’s most creative operator. On his day, we know he is one of the classiest midfielders in the Championship. Reed will offer industry, energy and bite at the base of the midfield and the talent of Fabio Carvalho is tantalising. There are question marks over whether Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa and Jean Michael Seri will feature in the Championship – the smart money must be on no – and, with Stefan Johansen set to complete a permanent switch to Queens Park Rangers, the rumour mill suggests the Whites are preparing to add central midfielders, with Swansea’s Matt Grimes and the Norwich man Tom Trybull reportedly on their shortlist.
It was clear from watching the Whites last season that Parker’s team was far too predictable and there was very little cover for Cairney in his preferred attacking midfield role. Josh Onomah shone towards the end of the promotion campaign and, after another stop-start season, you wonder whether he could reprise that role this term. Could Carvalho continue from where he left off with those eye-catching cameos in May? Or perhaps the imminent arrival, Liverpool’s Harry Wilson, could take a central role behind a lone striker. He has flourished in that sort of position before, mostly notably for Derby when they reached the play-off final, and has the versatility to make it work.
Who Silva selects on the wings will be intriguing. All of his favoured systems have seen wingers servicing a tall front man and, even when Mitrovic was on the field last season, Fulham didn’t play to his strengths. Most of Fulham’s wide options appear underwhelming. Neither Anthony Knockaert nor Ivan Cavaleiro have hit the heights expected after their big money moves – although we can hope that the new manager can get something extra out of them. Neeskens Kebano hinted at his potential when he returned from the wilderness to spark Fulham’s play-off run and I think we are yet to nail down Bobby Decordova-Reid’s most effective position.
Mitrovic remains the division’s most devastating striker. Keeping the Serbian has to be at the top of Silva’s to-do list. He might have considered leaving Craven Cottage after the disappointment of relegation and being sidelined by Parker, but the simple fact is that Fulham won’t be able to replace a forward of his quality. Adam Armstrong has had a couple of sensational seasons with Blackburn, but he has a legion of suitors – most of whom are now in the top flight. What’s worrying is that there is very little back up for Mitrovic in the current squad. You can’t call the use of Cavaleiro as a makeshift striker a success, whilst Aboubakar Kamara is still very hit and miss and Jay Stansfield, for all of his undoubted potential, remains very raw.
You can see why Silva is keen to recruit another forward because missing Mitrovic for any length of time would presently deal a hammer blow to Fulham’s promotion hopes. I like the excitement of the rumoured move for Rodrigo Muniz, a bright, young and agile forward from Flamengo, who is apparently interested in working with Silva in London. The new boss is able to point to success he enjoyed in nurturing the talent of Richarlison – which probably makes him very attractive to young Brazilian talent.
At this point, we probably have more questions than answers when we consider what Silva’s first team selection will look like against Middlesbrough on August 8th. You can put together any number of permutations for Fulham’s first starting line up, given the sheer number of players in the club’s current first team squad. My selection would look like this – Rodak; Tete, Tosin, Mawson, Bryan; Reed, Cairney, Wilson, Knockaert, Cavaleiro; Mitrovic – but I’d be interested in seeing what others think.