Three games might be a small sample size, but nobody expected Fulham to be heading to the Emirates Stadium this weekend still unbeaten on their Premier League return. The playful song of praise that begins by registering our rage at Scott Parker acclaims his successor Marco Silva as ‘a genius’ and the ten-a-penny pundits protested that was premature after the Whites’ record-breaking Championship campaign. The true test would arrive among England’s elite, especially as Silva has failed in the top flight before, they said. The fixture computer wasn’t kind – handing his side a first assignment against Liverpool, a trip to Wolves and a derby day with the hysterical hounds of Hounslow, who are apparently still in vogue as loveable minnows punching well above their weight.
Judged by a five point return from those three fixtures, Silva has passed his first exam with flying colours. The Portuguese perfectionist won’t be celebrating just yet – as football is littered with examples of flash in pans who fade alarmingly – especially after the meek midweek malfunction at Crawley, but those demanding Motspur Park drills have delivered an encouraging start to life back in the big time. What is most impressive about Fulham’s re-acclimatisation to top flight football is that Silva has surprised everyone whilst both retaining faith with many of the club’s promotion heroes and battling an injury crisis which robbed him of vital offensive weapons.
It is now fashionable to applaud Aleksandar Mitrovic as a penalty box predator who can play a bit. Perhaps we should just forget about everyone who told us the Serbian goalscoring sensation would be utterly useless at English football’s top table and ascribe their ignorance of his previous exploits at this level and an enduring international excellence as caused by the stifling summer heat? As the man himself freely admitted following his match-winning header against Brentford, he wisely pays no attention to whatever’s written about him. Arguably Silva’s most significant achievement is establishing Mitrovic as Fulham’s number nine again after Parker’s perplexing preference for Ivan Cavaleiro. The Smederevo-born striker has won more aerial duels than anyone else in the top flight, registered more shots on target than Bournemouth’s entire squad and sits joint top of the division’s scoring charts. As Sky Germany’s Uli Hebel exclaimed in exceptional commentary after the Serb had settled last Saturday’s derby:
“Scott Parker couldn’t find a way to play him. Marco Silva finds ways to find him”.
Second to Mitrovic’s magnificence is the way Fulham’s rearguard has coped with almost everything thrown at them to date. The defence – until last week – was completely unchanged from the one that started last season in the Championship. Three members of that back four (Tim Ream, thought far too ancient to play again in the top flight, 17, Antonee Robinson 14 and Kenny Tete 13) have made more interceptions than anyone else so far in the league. The other, Tosin Adarabioyo, has successfully completed the most headed clearances of anybody in August. Marek Rodak’s harsh demotion in favour of summer acquisition from Arsenal, Bernd Leno, probably had more to do with the German’s superior sweeper-keeper ability than any failings in the Slovakian’s showings. The bottom line is that this improvement has everything to do with hard graft on the training ground rather than buying in new players – and if the performances of Shane Duffy and Issa Diop in Sussex on Tuesday are anything to go, they may be waiting a while for a first league start.
Integral to Fulham’s fabulous disruption of opposition midfielders has been the tenacity and energy of Harrison Reed alongside Joao Palhinha in the engine room. That visibly vexed Liverpool in the early stages of a contest that contextualised the soft centre in Jurgen Klopp’s side others have also exploited, but it kept the Whites competitive at Molineux despite the scorching temperatures and contributed to the electric start that overwhelmed the Bees. Reed was an underrated Premier League performer in his first campaign at the Cottage as a permanent addition following his successful loan from Southampton, but he has added shuttling runs from deep to his repertoire under Silva, with his most telling contribution by seizing the loose ball on the edge of the box that preceded Kevin Mbabu’s telling cross in the last minute last weekend. Palhinha could well be the signing of the summer – being both high quality destroyer and set piece pest simultaneously – who adds oodles of quality to this team through his mere presence.
Andreas Periera was not a signing that united Fulham’s fanbase in glee, but the Brazilian has proved pivotal in two respects. He leads the press at a pace that rivalled the eagerness of the departed Fabio Carvalho, which is absolutely vital at this level, but he possesses both an ability to dribble directly through defences with the ball at his feet and a delivish delivery from set pieces. Silva’s shifting of him into the right wing role late on against Brentford was a tactical tweak – together with the introduction of Mbabu – that broke the Bees as it allowed the class of Tom Cairney to take care of the ball in those frenetic final stages when the visitors, emboldened by Ivan Toney’s equaliser, believed they might snatch all three points. How wrong they were.
Much of Fulham’s approach play and defensive display stems from the work ethic of their wingers, something encapsulated by the revitalisation of Neeskens Kebano since Silva and Luis Boa Morte took over last summer. It is no coincidence that the Congolese wide man has delivered the most consistent football of his six years in SW6 after being afforded regular football. That the Cottagers coped so comfortably in his absence during the derby was down to how teenager Jay Stansfield stepped up so impressively, with Bobby Decordova-Reid – another unsung hero who has been unfailing in his excellence at this level – profiting from the youngster’s presence of mind in the penalty area within the first minute. The loss of Harry Wilson and then Manor Solomon could have been devastating, but instead it has offered others a platform from which to prove their worth.
Arguably Fulham’s sternest test comes on Saturday night at Arsenal, where the Whites have never won. Our best memories at either Highbury or the Emirates have been too very differing draws: the first almost exclusively down to Edwin van der Sar’s excellence and, the second inspired by the likes of Alex Kacaniklic, Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov, before Mark Schwarzer’s superb stoppage-time penalty save from the current Gunners’ boss Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard’s side feel frightening in the forward areas, possess the Premier League’s only 100% record after winning their first three league games for the first time in nearly two decades, and appear irresistible. But Fulham will travel to north London full of confidence and with a game plan. It may not work this weekend, but the Whites are already making plenty of people eat their words.