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.
Fulham welcome Chris Hughton’s Brighton and Hove Albion to Craven Cottage tomorrow night in what is now unmistakably a must-win game.
Despite the desolation of the last-gasp defeat to Tottenham, there would have been plenty of positives for Claudio Ranieri to take from a battling performance. The Whites created a number of good chances in the first half and certainly should have been in front by more than a single goal at the break. Eyebrows were raised when Fulham brought in Ryan Babel, a 32 year-old winger with shocking red hair, during the transfer window but, on the basis of his powerful display against Spurs, it was clear that the former Liverpool winger offers something different. Babel showed determination, fight, an ability to link up with Aleksandar Mitrovic, and all that was missing was a deserved debut goal.
Results certainly haven’t gone for Ranieri since the new year. Now’s the time for Fulham to be brave, play with some spirit and treat our remaining games like Cup finals. Draws at home won’t be good enough any more – especially when you look at the fixtures that our relegation rivals have in the weeks ahead. Brighton are brilliantly drilled by Hughton and their continued survival in the top flight is a story in itself. Albion will be tough to breakdown but pose a real threat on the break as well as set pieces, with their tall centre halves Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy likely to cause problems. There is also the ex-Fulham contingent with David Button, who has been deputising for Matty Ryan in recent weeks, recently joined by Dan Burn.
Ranieri’s team selections have been baffling for a while. I hope that he can reintroduce Ryan Sessegnon, who seems to have been treated a little shabbily in the past few weeks, especially with some of the criticism that has come the teenager’s way. Sessegnon is a prodigious talent who is still learning his way at the highest level, but his quality has been evident in the way he scored a vital goal against Wolves and then set up that last-gasp winner for Mitrovic against Huddersfield. I feel he offers far more than Andre Schurrle at the moment – and the pace of him and Ryan Babel could make Fulham’s front three a bit more formidable.
If Ranieri was being bold, he could also sacrifice a centre back to play both Jean-Michael Seri and Tom Cairney in front of Calum Chambers. The five at the back might have helped stabilise things defensively for a while, but it seems as though teams have been able to figure out the gameplan. Fulham need to score goals and take the game to the opposition, particularly at home. We have only scored more than goal under Ranieri once – and that was against Southampton, back in his first game in charge. The combination of Seri and Cairney have the guile to unlock even the tightest of defences and, if Sessegnon and Babel are raiding down the flanks, then Seri will have the runners that his passing game thrives upon.
The margin for error is now very slender: if we don’t pick up three points against Brighton tomorrow night, I fear the fat lady might be clearing her throat.
My match prediction: Fulham 2-1 Brighton!
Fulham’s home form for the remainder of the season will no doubt decide whether the Whites are able to stay up this season. Tonight’s match against Leicester will provide a good test for the squad who have shown signs of improvement and competitiveness in both of the matches under new manager Claudio Ranieri.
The Italian has just a single injury concern after second half substitute Floyd Ayite picked up an injury in the SW6 derby on Sunday. Tonight’s game will be the first time Ranieri has been able to pick from a virtually fully fit first-team squad since he took over and it will be interesting to see who starts in midfield. The drafting in of Stefan Johansen to midfield after Andre Schurrle pulled out on the eve of the Chelsea game didn’t really work and you would expect the German World Cup winner to regain his place in the starting line-up. Who fills one of the deep-lying holding midfield slot is a fascinating question. Kevin McDonald hasn’t had much of a look in or late, whilst Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa marked his return to training with a long-range screamer.
The revelation in recent weeks has been the form of Calum Chambers. So abject just a few weeks ago at right back in the devastating defeat to Cardiff, the Arsenal loanee has returned as an all-conquering defensive midfielder. Slavisa Jokanovic played him there at Anfield where Chambers added a bit of much-needed bite to a previously rather feeble Fulham midfield and he has gone on since then. His performance at Stamford Bridge was by far his best in a Fulham shirt – it was just unfortunate that the clearest chances fell his way on a day when the Whites were in the derby for long periods but couldn’t find a goal.
Tonight’s visitors Leicester have a few injury concerns of their own. England World Cup hero Harry Maguire and Rachid Ghezzal will reportedly not be travelling down to London for the game, whilst star striker Jamie Vardy could be facing a late fitness test. The Foxes will be looking for their second victory in the space of four days at the expense of Ranieri, who guided them to that shock league title win in the 2015-16 season. With Leicester proving hard to beat as of late and us trying to adapt to Ranieri’s way of football, I full expect a tough game tonight. I do however expect to see goals and I am hoping Aleksander Mitrovic can be the difference between the two sides.
Prediction: Fulham 2-1 Leicester City
We entertain Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth tomorrow at Craven Cottage and the Cherries pose a serious threat to Slavisa Jokanovic’s plans to turn Fulham’s faltering season around. Bournemouth now find themselves in sixth after enduring their own sticky start to the campaign and will head to the capital full of confidence. They have one of the game’s finest young managers in Eddie Howe, whose achievements since taking over at Dean Court have been nothing short of sensational. It is no surprise that he has been considered as a potential future successor to Gareth Southgate in the England job. Howe likes to set his teams up to be tough to beat, but not without sacrificing an easy-on-the eye style.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for tomorrow’s game. Fulham are in the bottom three following that lamentable display at Cardiff last weekend and badly need the points to gain some momentum. Club captain Tom Cairney has returned to training this week and is in line for a return to the starting line-up. If the Scottish international does start tomorrow, I would like to see Jean-Michael Seri and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa alongside him as I think that is our strongest midfield three and we need to get some consistency in a crucial area of the pitch.
I do expect changes after the nightmare in south Wales, especially given how poor we have been defensively. Despite signing a new contract this week, it could be time for Marcus Bettinelli to be replaced in goal. He was slow getting down to Cardiff’s crucial third goal on Saturday and in Sergio Rico, we have one of the most consistent goalkeepers in Spain and a two-time Europa League winner on the bench. Tomorrow, could be Rico’s opportunity to show what he can do in the Premier League.
We have conceded 25 goals this season – and you simply won’t stay afloat in the top flight whilst being that vulnerable at the back. Ryan O’Donovan’s analysis earlier in the week suggested that 80% of those goals were down to individual errors, which is just unsustainable. Jokanovic has had to juggle his resources due to injuries and suspensions and I think now is the time to put a back four together for the next three or four games – regardless of the outcome tomorrow. You’d expect Timothy Fosu-Mensah to come back into the defence. I’ve been very impressed with his start at right back and we’ve missed his pace at both ends of the field since that untimely shoulder injury at Everton.
I am in complete agreement with the majority that the substitutions have been questionable over the past couple of games and only Slavisa can answer why certain changes were made. I am a big Slav fan and I would hate to see him sacked so early on in the season. Our previous stay in the Premier League ended with three different managers in the space of six months and I hope we don’t get the same turnover of managers this time around. Stuart Gray’s departure has clearly affected things – and now is the time for some consistency and a bit of faith.
In his programme notes ahead of tomorrow’s game, chairman Shahid Khan has stated he firmly believes Slav is the right man for the job and expects things to change given Jokanovic’s record. It is a stance I share. Fulham’s past couple of seasons started disappointingly, but gradually the performances and results began to improve. It is based on that history that I am confident we will start winning again before long under Jokanovic. The fans frustration over the past few weeks is totally understandable, but Jokanovic has been operating without our playmaker and has been trying to integrate twelve summer signings at a level most of them haven’t experienced before.
Let’s hope our second win of the season is against Bournemouth and gets us out of the bottom three, thus bringing some optimism back to the Cottage. There’s no question that tomorrow is our biggest game of the season and it won’t be easy. When the fixtures were released, Fulham would have been targeting this as a fixture they could get three points from, although it is a measure of how low confidence is right now that I’d take a draw were it offered to me. Let’s hope that Jokanovic can get our football flowing again and have us back to winning ways.