The clock ticks closer to the big kick off as Fulham’s first Championship fixture against Middlesbrough at Craven Cottage looms large. Marco Silva has had to work quickly since his appointment as Scott Parker’s successor, navigating a global pandemic and the difficulties of spending his first week in the job in isolation, rather than overseeing training at Motspur Park. He clearly has a different approach to the game than his predecessor and, hungry as he is to prove his point in English football, will want to play on the front foot.
Our first glimpse at what that might look like came in Saturday’s final friendly against Charlton. There should, of course, be a caveat that you can’t read too much into a pre-season fixture and that the opposition were a League One outfit. There were signs of little tactical tweaks, with the centre backs attempting more direct forward passes rather than rolling the ball to one another, and an attempt to support the lone centre forward with bodies from midfield in an enterprising 4-2-3-1. The other eyebrow raisers were some of the inclusions – Tyrese Francois and Fabio Carvalho quickly vindicated their selections, whilst the sight of Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa playing a prominent part teased the prospect of the Cameroonian midfielder playing a part in the Championship campaign. Whether that’s actually probable remains to be seen.
Antonee Robinson, preferred to Joe Bryan at left back, had a challenging afternoon against the tricky Diallang Jaiyesimi, almost gifting Charlton an opening goal in the first half and risking a couple of rash challenges in close proximity to the penalty area after the interval. The American’s rapidity is a real asset – both in terms of recovery speed and going forward – but must be balanced against the regularity which Joe Bryan found Aleksandar Mitrovic last time the Whites were in the Championship. That is probably Silva’s first serious selection dilemma.
In goal, Paula Gazzaniga got to introduce himself to the Fulham faithful without having to do a great deal – although Marek Rodak was understood to be resting a minor knock in the expectation that he will be available for selection this weekend. The Argentine showed his ability when deputising for Hugo Lloris at Tottenham but he has never managed more than 22 first appearances in a decade in English football. Rodak broke through brilliantly at Championship level two seasons ago before being jettisoned in favour of Alphonse Areola and has a strong claim on the number one shirt. What message would it send to the Slovakian to bench him again – and to the young goalkeepers in Fulham’s academy set up currently for that matter?
There’s an interesting set of permutations possible in midfield. Harrison Reed may still be fit to face Boro, in which case he should reprise his water carrying role in front of the back four, but Francois’ fine summer – referenced by Silva in glowing terms after the final whistle – makes him a genuine contender to start on Sunday. There was a rare sighting in a Fulham shirt of the lesser spotted Jean Michael Seri, although you’d suspect he will be plying his trade somewhere else when the transfer window closes at the end of the month. Josh Onomah didn’t get off the bench, but his magnificent form at the tail end of the last promotion-winning campaign shouldn’t be forgotten.
Carvalho is the clear contender to start at number ten in the continuing absence of Tom Cairney, who is still having to manage a return to training with his troublesome knees. The youngster looked more than comfortable in the Premier League last term and took his goal effortlessly – that sort of composure should serve him well when the campaign kicks off in earnest. He showed a commendable ability to withstand any physicality from Charlton’s defenders and will obviously add something different to an attack that had become painfully predictable.
The identity of Fulham’s two wingers remains an open question. Anthony Knockaert did what he does: a few promising dribbles, feint inside and deflected shot wide. He missed a very presentable header in the second half, kicking the Hammersmith End post in frustration, worked hard but also underhit a number of crosses and passes. You’d think Harry Wilson would be line to start against Middlesbrough, although the Welsh winger also missed a glaring chance to crown his first Fulham appearance with a goal from close range. Neeskens Kebano was a willing runner down the left, but I fancy Silva will restore his compatriot Ivan Cavaleiro to the starting line-up after the former Wolves winger was rested for this one.
The biggest plus for Fulham of the close season is that Silva has made clear that Mitrovic will be leading the line. Whilst the Serbian, who returned to pre-season after an extended break following his honeymoon, didn’t look at his sharpest against Charlton, there’s simply no downplaying his importance to the Whites’ promotion push. Playing in an offensively-minded side, set up to feed his considerable strengths, Mitrovic should be looking to exceed the 26 goals he scored last time at this level. Should he do that, the Whites will fancy contending right at the top of the Championship.