Marco Silva is pleased and frustrated in equal measure. The Portuguese coach, already revered on the banks of the Thames, for securing promotion from the Championship with such free-flowing football has seen his Fulham side take to life back in the Premier League flawlessly. Many supposed experts scoffed at the idea that Silva, harshly judged as a failure on the basis of his three previous English jobs at Hull, Watford and Everton, could be the man to end the Cottagers’ cycle of yo-yoing between English football’s top table and the second tier but that possibility doesn’t appear quite so fanciful after the Whites opened the campaign with a pair of draws against Liverpool and Wolves and a dramatic derby win over Brentford. That Silva’s achieved that after keeping faith with several club stalwarts makes the Whites’ August even more applaudable.
Such success is also the source of Silva’s exasperation. He has previously implored the club’s hierarchy to bring in the players necessary to give Fulham a fighting chance of staying up – and returned to theme during yesterday’s press conference. Every manager thinks they have an eye for a player, but Silva (who insisted on approving proposed signings after taking note of how recruitment became a bone of contention at Craven Cottage for Slavisa Jokanovic, Claudio Ranieri and Scott Parker) could reasonably claim to be in credit after a Championship title and the additions of Joao Palhinha and Andreas Pereira to bolster Fulham’s midfield. His refusal to accept that the club’s tight Financial Fair Play position made the transfer window tricky to navigate was another clear hint that more bodies are required before Thursday’s deadline.
Both the supporters and Silva’s players will be firmly on the side of a coach, who has shown before that he has no qualms about moving on should things not be to his taste. Fulham’s fearlessness has been so refreshing after the ponderous Parker years and the way the Whites have adapted their adventurous approach to cope with not dominating possession as they did in the Championship has been truly impressive. They will face their sternest test this evening at the Emirates in front of the Sky cameras, with Arsenal leading the league with the division’s sole remaining 100% record after last weekend’s breeze at Bournemouth. It marks the first time that the Gunners have won their first three fixtures since 2004/05, when their run of victories – carried over from that incredible invincible season, only ended in controversy at Old Trafford, with a debatable penalty and pizza thrown in the dressing rooms.
The turnaround since last term, when Mikel Arteta’s men were bottom of the pile after losing their first three fixtures, has been remarkable. Arsenal fans believe again – largely because the Spaniard seems to have a well-drilled side that plays attractive football with a whole host of threats in the final third. He was at pains to point out that his side were still far from perfect after blowing away Bournemouth but the way Gabriel Jesus, who has scored two and assisted three in his first three Arsenal matches, and Oleksandr Zinchenko have taken to life in the red half of north London has been impressive. Add the fact that William Saliba has both forged a fantastic partnership with Gabriel at the heart of the back four and scored a stunning volley at Dean Court and things look very promising indeed.
Fulham’s defensive discipline will be severely tested by a fluid Arsenal forward line, supplied by the likes of new skipper Martin Ødegaard, whose early brace broke the Cherries with Gabriel Martinelli, Emile Smith-Rowe and Bukayo Saka’s movement making a multident of threats. The Gunners, who are unbeaten at home in thirty meetings with Fulham and haven’t lost in some 33 Premier League home games against newly-promoted opponents since Andy Carroll headed Newcastle to victory in November 2010, will be hot favourites to continue their commanding start this evening: and justifiably so.
But the Whites will travel in good heart as Bernd Leno – preparing for a return to his old employers – emphasised, having set aside Tuesday’s torpor at Crawley by a scratch side selected by Silva with the demands of the battle against Brentford and another looming London derby in mind. Fulham are revelling in being written off by the talking heads, with Aleksandar Mitrovic appearing to be on a personal mission to ram the words of every ill-informed pundit who opined on the Serbian’s shortcomings in the top flight back down their throats. He will relish the battle with Saliba and Gabriel, having turned Virgil van Dijk into the sort of centre half you’d encounter nursing a hungover on Hackney Marshes, whilst plenty of other members of Silva’s starting eleven (see Tim Ream, Tosin Adarabioyo, Antonee Robinson, Bobby Decordova-Reid, Neeskens Kebano – who faces a late fitness test and Harrison Reed) also have points to prove at the highest level.
Palhinha and Reed have hassled and harried opposition midfields with flabbergasting ferocity in the opening weeks of the season and Fulham began both the draw with Liverpool and a dramatic win over the Bees last week at a pace that perturbed their opposition. That energy in the engine room and pacey press, led by Pereira, will be vital again at a side that move the ball as magnificently as the Gunners. Silva understandably seeks reinforcements given that he currently lacks experienced finishers to fill out Fulham’s matchday squad, but the work he’s done already means the Whites – unusually for a Premier League campaign – are not playing catch up immediately. That should be a source of pride, even if this evening could show the limits to his genius.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Leno; Tete, A. Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Palhinha; Stansfield, Decordova-Reid, Pereira; Mitrovic. Subs: Rodak, Mbabu, Diop, Duffy, Chalobah, Francois, Cairney, Harris, Ablade.