Fulham are on something of a roll and it promises to make an already tight Championship very interesting indeed. Since the lamentable loss to Reading on New Year’s Day, the Whites have claimed thirteen points from a possible fifteen, keeping four clean sheets in the process. The arrival of Michael Hector and the outstanding form of Martin Rodak are certainly the driving force behind Fulham’s new found stubbornness at the back, something that will need to continue if Scott Parker’s side have genuine ambitions of making it into the top two.
Back in August, I was concerned about the defence and the fact Fulham had not strengthened in the summer. The club acted on that in January and, you could argue that last month might go down as one of our strongest windows in recent history, after securing Bobby Decordova-Reid and Ivan Cavaleiro permanently and bringing in Hector as well as Terence Kongolo. We look more organised from back to front, tougher to play through and there seems to be a real togetherness in this squad.
The fact that the Whites are now level on points with Leeds and just four points behind West Brom is remarkable considering the gap between us a few short weeks ago. This, though, is no time for complacency. We can’t afford to consider the job done and expect the likes of Leeds to fade away. Fulham still have trips to Elland Road, the Hawthorns and the City Ground to come in probably the toughest run-in of any of the top sides and I fully expect that the top four or five teams could alternate in the leading positions before the final sprint to the line in May.
The advantage of Fulham’s recent upturn in form is that the situation is now firmly in our own hands. Character and seizing the opportunity is what it will come down to now. The squad has the chance to prove their promotion credentials at the Den on Wednesday night, with Millwall eager to make up for their disappointing display against the Baggies at the weekend and revive their own play-off push. It won’t be easy, but Parker and the team could lay down a marker in south east London with a big performance.
This squad might well be stronger than both the one that reached the Premier League under Jokanovic and, certainly, the side that struggled in the top flight last season. We can hope to learn from the mistakes made as we prepared for our return to the Premier League, but it is vital not to get carried away at this point. We all know the Championship is an unforgiving division and, with a third of the season still ahead of us, there is a lot of football left yet. The key will be consistency – and it is likely that we will have to marry the grit Fulham have shown of late with some of the silkier football that has become our trademark in order to be celebrating at the end of the season.
Fulham’s miserable defeat at Barnsley this afternoon wasn’t the way anyone would have wanted to start the new campaign – but the manner of the opening day reverse should sharpen minds amongst the club’s hierarchy as we head into the final hours of the summer transfer window. It’s clear that Scott Parker’s squad needs more bodies if we are to mount a credible promotion challenge – and I would be identifying at least three more additions as vital.
Fulham have the same defence that conceded 81 goals last season – the highest both in the Premier League and across all of Europe’s top flights. I question the confidence they have in each other and there is a dire need for more depth to challenge the players Parker already has at his disposal. As we have seen since Alfie Mawson has arrived, he’s partial to an injury and we will be very fortunate if he can play through a gruelling 46-game schedule. If he stays fit, Mawson will be an integral part to our success but I feel it is important to have a new face playing beside him.
I am not a fan of Denis Odoi playing right back as he has put in his best performances playing in the centre alongside Tim Ream. That leaves us with Cyrus Christie or Steven Sessegnon as our right back and if I had to pick between the two, I would edge towards young Sessegnon to start. I do feel there are some quality right backs we could try and sign to give further options in that position. The likes of Jayden Bogle from Derby or Darnell Fisher from Preston come to mind – they might not be cheap, but they would bring proven quality in a position where we’ve struggled to replace Ryan Fredericks.
Kevin McDonald was pivotal to our success two seasons ago under Slavisa Jokanovic in the 2017/2018 promotion season. He captained the side in the absence of Tom Cairney at times and was arguably the real leader on the pitch in any case. He has never been blessed with pace but relied on his excellent reading of the games. There are signs already that he may struggle to replicate those heady days these season. I would like to see a new holding midfielder brought in with less mileage on the clock to supplement the passion and hunger McDonald provides. You can’t honestly consider Ibrahima Cisse capable back up in this position – and a quality deputy to McDonald is a must before the window closes.
Time is running out for Fulham to strengthen our squad in order to put together a serious challenge for the top six this season. The first-team set up looks light on numbers already and a couple of injuries could cause us real problems. With only two additions over the summer, Scott Parker is right to consider us light in both defence and in the midfield. I really hope Parker doesn’t suffer the same fate as Jokanovic by being shown the door too early as I still believe we are suffering a hangover from his dismissal.
The last time Fulham were relegated from the Premier League, the club embarked on a summer firesale and were fortunate not to drop down another division. To date, the mass exodus that many might have feared following last season’s underwhelming tilt at the top flight hasn’t happened yet. Indeed, Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic have committed their future to Fulham – despite the drop.
The long-rumoured departure of Ryan Sessegnon hasn’t happened yet, but you can bet your bottom dollar that Daniel Levy is craftily plotting a miserly late raid to secure the teenage winger with minutes left in the transfer window. Today’s suggestion that Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa is close to making the switch to Spain may have raised a few eyebrows, especially as it leaves Fulham woefully understocked in a crucial position. Anguissa might have been a big disappointment last term, but the prospect of seeing him in the Championship was tantatilising – and possibly too good to be true.
We all know just how good Kevin McDonald can be at the base of a midfield. The Scotsman, arguably the true leader of the side that Slavisa Jokanovic guided to such unforgettable success at Wembley last May, has all the attributes to reprise his all-conquering role as a holding midfielder: reading of the game, an uncanny ability to intercept the ball and excellent passing from deep positions, but there is the nagging doubt that Father Time might just have caught up with McDonald. In terms of the senior squad, the only alternative to the former Wolves midfielder would be Ibrahima Cisse, who has scarcely featured for the first team in the past two years.
Parker’s pre-season preparation suggests that he is keen on adopting the 4-3-3 that brought Jokanovic so much success. In that system, the holding midfielder is crucial – both in terms of sitting in front of a fragile back four and giving the likes of Tom Cairney and, even the industrious Stefan Johansen, the license to roam dangerously in the opposition’s final third. With Fulham’s fragile defence, that screening role becomes all the more vital.
A goal differential of minus 47 leaves nobody in any doubt as to why Fulham were relegated. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising that, just over a week away from the big kick off in Barnsley, we are still awaiting defensive additions. Parker has plenty of possibles to pick from in central defence but nobody has made a compelling case to partner Alfie Mawson. Like McDonald, we will have to wait and see whether Tim Ream can reprise his outstanding 2017/2018 form. Even if he managed it, there would be a distinct lack of pace in Fulham’s back four.
The other position that desperately needs strengthening is right back. Fulham struggled to adequately replace Ryan Fredericks when he left for West Ham last summer. Fredericks’ pace was an asset in both boxes and neither Cyrus Christie or Timothy Fosu-Mensah pulled up any trees last season. Christie could be competent back in the Championship, but I feel it is time to bring in a fresh face to provide the proven quality we are currently lacking. Both Steven Sessegnon and Marlon Fossey are fine prospects, but it is asking an awful lot for them to come in and power a promotion push. If Anthony Knockaert is going to line up on the right flank, then right back becomes an even more critical position – as the Frenchman is probably not going to provide all that much protections.
As Frankie wrote earlier, the additions of Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro have sent a serious message to the rest of division. The prospect of a fluid front line of Knockaert, Cavaleiro and Mitrovic is truly mouthwatering – and all three of them have Championship pedigree. Plenty of Championship defenders will be worrying about facing one of the best front threes in the league. Reuniting the three musketeers in Cairney, McDonald and Johansen offers plenty of creativity and grit, which means the defence is the only area left to fortify.
There’s no doubt that Fulham will be entertaining over the course of this season, but a couple of late acquisitions can give Scott Parker the sort of squad depth that should be able to cope with a gruelling 46-match schedule. If a new right back and a centre half sign in the run up to the Barnsley game, then a promotion push is most definitely on the cards.
One of the most popular summer pastimes is picking your side’s starting line-up come August. This is tricky when you can’t take account of the potential new signings, areas of the squad that need to be strengthened, or who might be leaving. In Fulham’s case, the uncertainty is heightened by the impact of a traumatic relegation from the top flight.
But there’s no doubting what Scott Parker needs to improve ahead of that trip to Barnsley in August. For much of last season, Fulham were a shambles at the back. It was always going to be ambitious to try and play the adventurous football that got the Whites promoted from the Championship, but it quickly became suicidal. Even Slavisa Jokanovic chopped and changed his back four, whilst Claudio Ranieri tinkered with the tactics entirely – opting for three centre halves – trying his own chaotic tenure at Craven Cottage.
There have been rumours that Fulham might add further depth to their defensive resources this summer, with Levante’s Chema apparently interested in making the move to England. But, within the squad we currently have, Parker probably has the makings of a pretty useful Championship defence. Injuries permitting, and Marcus Bettinelli and Alfie Mawson have a history of starting seasons in the treatment room, Fulham’s defence at Barnsley might have something of a familiar look about it.
GOALKEEPER: MARCUS BETTINELLI
Whilst Fabri remains in the squad at the moment, it seems unlikely that he will be willing to spend another year on the bench – especially at a lower level. There’s a suggestion that he could be heading back to Besiktas or somewhere else in Turkey. He might not have been given a fair crack of the whip at Fulham, but it is probable that Parker will go back to a tried and tested goalkeeper at this level. Should he be able to shake off a troublesome knee problem, I’d have no qualms about putting Bettinelli back between the sticks. He has proven his quality at this level – becoming a consistent performer in two strong Championship campaigns – and should be rewarded for his patience over the past year. It is worth remembering that he was in Gareth Southgate’s England squad at the start of last season, too.
RIGHT BACK: STEVEN SESSEGNON
Fulham aren’t short of right backs. Cyrus Christie and Denis Odoi ended up playing a lot more first-team football than either of them might have expected last season, although I prefer Odoi in the middle of the back four, especially in the Championship. It would be a bold call, but I would like Parker to give Sessegnon an opportunity to make this position his own. He has impressed on his few first-team outings so far and a full pre-season under Parker could put him in good stead for the new campaign. Parker placed a strong emphasis on youth during his caretaker stewardship and this would be a chance to further Sessegnon’s development. He might not be as attack-minded as a Ryan Fredericks, for example, but he is defensively solid – and that’s no bad thing as we look to build a foundation in a tough league.
LEFT BACK: JOE BRYAN
This is probably the most straightforward choice of the lot. Whilst there were rumours that Newcastle were interested in taking Bryan north, those have probably died out with the imminent departure of Rafa Benitez from St. James’ Park. Bryan improved as a tough Premier League season went on – and he had already firmly established himself as one of the Championship’s most consistent performers during his time with Bristol City. He needs little invitation to get forward and is good on the ball, so should be a permanent fixture in Parker’s side.
CENTRE BACKS: ALFIE MAWSON AND MAXIME LE MARCHAND
Parker has four centre backs to chose from even before the club elects to acquire anymore. I would lean towards pairing Alfie Mawson and Maxime Le Marchand together due to their experience. Mawson has played Premier League football and, as long as he can remain fit, should have little trouble adjusting to life in the Championship. His physicality should help him deal with a more robust challenge in the second tier, whilst a lack of pace shouldn’t be too much of a hindrance. Le Marchand has a wealth of Ligue 1 experience to fall back on and often looked Fulham’s most dependable defender in a horrible season. There is the balance of a left footed and right footed combination and both should comfortably be able to play out from the back if Parker follows the Jokanovic blueprint.
The key to success in this league will be forming a solid foundation at the back. Leadership will be important. Bettinelli is a vocal goalkeeper, not shy of giving his defenders advice and organising his back four, whilst Mawson’s leadership credentials should come into play nicely. Bryan has had plenty of experience of the Championship and, whilst Sessegnon hasn’t seen too much first-team action, there is no doubting his potential.
Lost in all the euphoria of last night’s epic comeback against Brighton and Hove Albion was the fact that Tom Cairney’s introduction as an early substitute marked his 150th appearance for Fulham.
Cairney’s class on a football field has never been in doubt. He flickered brightly with Hull City as a teenager and his capture from Blackburn Rovers for little more than £3m in 2015 seems a steal in hindsight. With such a smart football brain and crisp passing ability, it was no surprise that he flourished under Slavisa Jokanovic’s tutelage and, when he was switched into a playmaking central midfield role, the classy midfielder became the fulcrum around which an unassailable team was built. Cairney’s partnership with Stefan Johansen and Kevin McDonald comprised the most complete midfield in the Championship, with Fulham’s domination of possession appearing almost absolute at times.
The Scottish international, who has also matured markedly as he assumed the captaincy following the retirement of Scott Parker, has also had to show serious resilience as he has battled back from two troubling injuries over the past couple of seasons. It was noticeable that Fulham’s indifferent start to the last campaign ended with Cairney’s return to the side and, despite another injury-troubled season this term, there is no doubt that he makes such a difference to the side. Last night’s turnaround only served to underline the point, with Fulham able to impose themselves on Brighton only once Cairney had come off the bench to replace Tim Ream on 26 minutes.
The difference in Fulham’s patterns of play and assertiveness with Cairney able to protect possession and set the Whites moving forward alongside the outstanding Jean-Michael Seri was massive. Although Claudio Ranieri has so far sought to play only one of the pair having opted for a back five, I’m hoping that he can tweak the system to fit Fulham’s two best passers of a ball into the same side. The momentum garnered from last night’s revival is massive – and, with a number of away wins needed to secure survival, it would make sense for Ranieri to become a little more adventurous.
Without Cairney, Fulham suddenly seem primitive and predictable in possession. His composure on the ball in tight spots is a real asset for a defence that has suffered so regularly this season and his eye for a pass provides a greater threat going forward. Ranieri might have correctly identified that Cairney doesn’t score enough goals for a player of his calibre, but you could hardly quibble with his effectiveness last night. He was incredibly unfortunate not to mark his landmark with a goal, curling two sumptuous efforts against the crossbar, even if one did rebound kindly for Luciano Vietto.
Cairney has already served up so many special moments in his time at the club. His tears at Reading following the play-off defeat were followed by his desire to lead the team back to the promised land and he delivered in such fine style on that magnificent day at Wembley. That outstanding injury-team equaliser at Leeds that propelled the Whites’ late charge into the play-offs will live long in the memory as well his wondrous strike at Wolves. He’s already etched his name into Fulham folklore – and you wouldn’t bet against Cairney carving out a few more memories between and now and the end of this campaign.