Parker’s Fulham begins to take shape

After six league games and a League Cup experiment, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what Scott Parker wants his Fulham team to be. Ahead of the most recent game in Cardiff, Scott hinted at the idea that there’s no right or wrong way in football but he believes this controlling, possession-based style is not only how he wants to play but is what puts Fulham in the best position for winning games of football. The start of the season has been mixed with the Whites unable to cope with Barnsley’s swarming pressing in the opening game and then producing the most dominant display in Championship history with a 4-0 decimation of Millwall after close-fought victories over Blackburn and Huddersfield. Nottingham Forest managed to overcome the starvation of the ball with Lewis Grabban clinically putting away their two only real chances of the game, whilst on Friday, a red card saw the trip to Cardiff transformed from Fulham pushing for a winner to battling for a good point in the end.

During this period, academy product Steven Sessegnon tied down the right-back position, thus eliminating one of the few question marks in the starting eleven. The older of the Sessegnon twins will admit he could have done better a few goals against this season but has shown a bite and confidence at full-back that hasn’t really been seen since Ryan Fredericks. Steven has already made more interceptions than any other Fulham player so far this season and looks the part as he looks to follow his brother’s path in establishing himself as a starter for a Fulham side that gets promoted back to the Premier League.

The goalkeeping position remains somewhat in flux. We’ve not been comfortable in our starting goalkeeper since Mark Schwarzer, who left Fulham in 2013. Marcus Bettinelli is a fine goalkeeper in the Championship but I’m still unsure on his potential to win us points and matches. In six fixtures, ‘Betts’ has conceded five goals, made five saves and has two clean sheets. I actually think that the defence has done a good job in reducing the volume of quality chances against our goalkeeper overall but where are the saves when we need it most? The moment we get caught on the transition, where is the goalkeeping equivalent of putting away that 1v1? I don’t think we’ve seen it yet and after Marek Rodak’s promising display at Craven Cottage against Southampton, the pressure is back on Bettinelli (and not for the first time in his Fulham career) to keep ahold of that starting goalkeeper position.

Back to the style of play, under Slavisa Jokanovic in the promotion season, four of Fulham’s top five in terms of short passes completed was midfielders Tom Cairney, Stefan Johansen, Kevin McDonald and Oliver Norwood. So far this season under Scott Parker, three of the top five are Tim Ream, Alfie Mawson and Joe Bryan, with Steven Sessegnon on pace to take over Tom Cairney to enter the top five. In every league game this season, Fulham’s most common passing combination has been Mawson either playing to or receiving from his centre back partner (Denis Odoi in the first game, Tim Ream in the subsequent matches). This does appear to show a far more passive and patient approach from Scott Parker’s Fulham as opposed to Slavisa Jokanovic’s midfield heavy approach.

Fulham visually may have somewhat of a creative problem, but only five teams are above the Whites for shots per game with Fulham level with Middlesbrough and only four teams have scored more with Fulham level with Leeds, Luton and West Bromwich Albion so the numbers don’t quite back that up but it’s perhaps arguable that Fulham have somewhat struggled to create clear-cut chances, a beauty from Tom Cairney, a couple of them from Ivan Cavaleiro and a Mitrovic penalty accounts for four of our ten scored whilst Mitrovic’s header at Huddersfield was created by a moment of madness from Juninho Bacuna. It’ll be interesting to see this progress after the international break with Scott Parker seemingly unsettled on the final piece to his midfield trio: Tom Cairney was partnered by Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen on the opening day before Harry Arter came in to tie down the holding role but most recently Harrison Reed came in for Johansen to take the holding role and Bobby Decordova-Reid has most frequently come into the midfield for his league cameos so far this season.

It’s been a mixed start for Scott Parker’s men with a style of play now very clear but the next step must be improving the link between defence and attack – in the five games we’ve conceded in this season, we’ve won just one of them. High possession is simply going to be how we play this season and once relationships continue to build, the teams settle and momentum comes into play, you hope Fulham can build upon a decent points return from the first six and really start to take a stranglehold on a side expected to compete for automatic promotion.

Fulham’s statements of intent

While this summer has moved slower than many Fulham supporters would like, the business done off the pitch has been with only one target in mind: promotion. Tony Khan began his summer business while the season was yet to finish as the future of Tom Cairney was settled with a five-year deal despite relegation confirmed and two games to go until the season was over. Out of the gates before the window had even opened, Khan secured his next bit of business a month later and it was more in-house dealings as striker Aleksandar Mitrovic also committed himself to Fulham Football Club undeterred by relegation and with that, the Championship was aware that they would be facing one of the divisions best playmakers of recent years and a forward who scored 12 goals in 18 starts in his last period at that level.

Tony Khan’s feeling for the next season was clear before a first signing was seemingly close according to reporting. However, six days later after a week of bubbling Fulham announced the signing of electric Wolverhampton Wanderers winger Ivan Cavaleiro who saw his game time at the club drop in the Premier League due to change of shape. A year prior as Fulham were contending in the play-offs, Cavaleiro’s 21 goals and assists (while playing around 900 fewer minutes) was only bettered for goal contribution by Diogo Jota (22) on the other flank for Wolves. A menacing direct winger with a recent Championship title, excellent form in his previous stint in the division and at 25 still has room to grow; Tony Khan in attracting Jorge Mendes client Ivan Cavaleiro to the football club made the perfect statement of intent with this transfer window and Fulham not only got better for the coming season but should promotion come, they will be better in the Premier League.

Fulham’s attack was already looking menacing but eight days later it turned absolutely ruthless. Anthony Knockaert signed, like Ivan Cavaleiro, on a loan with an option to buy next summer and like that, Fulham’s front four now contained a Championship Player of the Year from just two seasons ago. The French winger pipped Chris Wood (then of Leeds) and Dwight Gayle to the award with 15 goals and 8 assists as part of a Brighton team that didn’t leave the top 2 from the end of October and were just a point behind Rafael Benitez’s Newcastle United. An underlying tone is also that Anthony Knockaert helped Brighton maintain their Premier League status and is leaving the coastal club as their most goal productive wide player from last season.

Four bits of business, two headline retentions and two incomings set the tone for Scott Parker’s Fulham this season. Whilst pre-season has shown evidence of a more direct wing play heavy attack inserted into a possession focused football team, Tony Khan has made this football team stronger, deeper and containing two more players you can take into the Premier League and produce. He’s had his critics (and admittedly, I’ve been one of them) but he’s showing signs of learning, growth and depth beyond spending multimillions. While there is business still left to do, namely within the back four and the centre of midfield, Fulham has roared into not only being promotion favourites but favourites for the Championship title. Scott Parker has been supported to an extent where he has everything to lose in his first full season as first team manager – this team is set up for promotion and whilst a title or promotion will look good on Parker’s record, the offseason business has made it so anything less will be a complete and utter failure.

Portugal – a learning experience for Parker’s Fulham

By returning to the 4-3-3 formation popularised in our last successful Championship seasons, Scott Parker’s Fulham already has signs of taking shape. With Bettinelli in goal, a back four of Cyrus Christie, Denis Odoi, Alfie Mawson and Joe Bryan, the return of Kevin McDonald, Stefan Johansen and Tom Cairney as a midfield trio plus Aboubakar Kamara and Neeskens Kebano either side of Aleksander Mitrovic, the shape of the team was familiar to that from Slavisa Jokanovic’s promotion campaign.

Up against Champions’ League quarter finalists Porto last night, Fulham were strikingly more aggressive in their wing play and that was evident from the first couple of minutes. Neeskens Kebano, lively in his cameo against Burnley last week, burst past Argentina international Renzo Saravia and sent in a teasing cross that was just over Aleksandar Mitrovic, but would have fallen beautifully had someone taken a gamble beyond him. Getting the ball out wide is obviously a key Parker mantra, as evidenced by frequent switches of play that were often orchestrated by captain Tom Cairney.

Fulham seemed to be much quicker trying to get the ball to goal than in the Jokanovic era and that ties in with trying to feed the wingers with longer balls and force the opposition defence to shuffle from one side to the next. Porto, as expected, were excellently coached and their starting eleven contained the wily Pepe in central defence and two players in Alex Telles and Danilo Pereira who are of phenomenally high quality. Understandably against opponents of such calibre, Fulham did struggle to create much of note; their best chance of the 90 was Aboubakar Kamara’s eager running nicking the ball from Porto’s left back with only Ivan Marcano attempting to recover and the keeper to beat, Kamara dragged his shot wide of the far post. The vigorous press from the French forward was promising to see as he returns to the Fulham fold but the finish required a little more poise – the creation of that opportunity was all him and he deserves credit for that.

Defensively, there were a few worries. Off the ball we lined up in a 4-1-4-1 but we really saw why Kevin McDonald was seldom used in the Premier League. The midfield was easy to play through and the players in the back four will take criticism for that strangely. I love Kevin McDonald as a guy, and what he has done for the club, but you can not deny his lack of any athletic ability and he just appeared sluggish for the full duration of the game. For the Porto goal, it is him who loses possession for Porto to transition quickly creating a 4-v-4 against the Fulham defence. If I gave you two guesses on which Fulham non-defender was closest to our box by the moment Otavio’s bicycle kick hits the back of the net, I’d be fairly certain that wouldn’t guess correctly in Aboubakar Kamara. There was a Porto attack that finished in a Shoya Nakajima shot from just outside the area where McDonald is late to the tackle and the pass is beyond him before he’s dangled a leg out but Fulham’s two closest players to the defence? Neeskens Kebano and Aboubakar Kamara. You can sit there and talk about how we need to sign defenders but with the midfield defending that pedestrian and easy to play through, it’d be a waste of money either way.

It may sound like I’m going over the top, for a pre-season friendly in the middle of July against Champions League opposition but we need to learn from these games, need to evaluate because this could become evident come game time. Just watch the highlights on the club website and take note of every Porto attack – look where the midfield is, what chance does a back four have when they are so vulnerable so frequently? You defend as a team, but a lot of the time it looked like we were playing a 4-0-6.

All in all, it seemed a valuable trip to Portugal. From getting the players in shape in the sun to the team building activities like ‘quiz night’ and ‘golf night.’ Scott Parker said in his post-Porto interview that they sat the squad down at the start of the trip to talk about their mindset and ambitions for the coming season and Tony Khan has been open in saying he wants automatic promotion this year. We’ve had a good start to the summer with the contract extensions of both Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic plus attracting Ivan Cavaleiro to the club but there’s still work to be done on and off the pitch to make the aim for promotion a reality and this Porto fixture gave us an opportunity to assess where we are, what to expect on the football pitch and what needs to improve.

The Fulham youngsters who can shine in the Championship

With relegation, typically there is some belt-tightening and a shrinking of the budget. Senior players leave as the playing squad gets smaller and the wage budget drops. Teams with well-run academies will look to promote their graduates into their first-team squad. Fulham, having experienced dropping out of the top flight relatively recently, have a good record in this respect. Marcus Bettinelli became a contender for the number one shirt almost straightaway, Moussa Dembele forged a formidable strike partnership alongside Ross McCormack and most notably Ryan Sessegnon, who had won promotion via the play-offs, become Championship Player of the Year, Young Championship Player of the Year, Championship Apprentice of the Year and twice selected in the Championship Team of the Year and was the first player to ever be nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year award from outside of the Premier League. All that before he turned nineteen.

In terms of contributions to the football club, those three are likely the most successful, but that doesn’t understate the impact of gaining £12m from Patrick Roberts, or getting a stellar year out of Lasse Vigen Christensen (which saw him named third in the clubs Player of the Season vote) plus further income as he was sold to Brondby. Emerson Hyndman, Jack Grimmer, Dan Burn and Cauley Woodrow all featured consistently while Tayo Edun, Luca De La Torre, Dennis Adeniran and Stephen Humphrys earned Championship minutes. It shouldn’t need stressing that Fulham’s academy is a vital resource for free talent, developed within your system and familiar to your set up. Philosophically, I believe that when there’s a gap in your squad your eyes should be looking to your academy before the transfer market – a view that is shared by the likes of Huw Jennings at Motspur Park.

A novice manager like Scott Parker might be resistant to throwing in some of the kids early in his tenure, but Parker has been around the club whilst the academy has been churning out a conveyor belt of young talent and already shown his willingness to give some of the brightest prospects an opportunity. It seems a great shame that Harvey Elliott, who Parker gave a couple of Premier League substitutes’ appearances to late in the season, wil be moving on to pastures new. The question is who will Parker be looking to include over the summer with a small senior squad already slimmed down by a number of international call-ups.

Marek Rodak:

Two years on loan at Rotherham with a League One play-off promotion success and a year in the Championship, Rodak comes back to Fulham with a strong reputation. Rotherham was the perfect place for Rotherham to develop as he was by far the most active goalkeeper in the division. He was only bettered by saves in general thanks to Sam Johnstone’s three extra games (two via the playoffs), come to the end of the 46 game season, Rodak led the division in that department. Though goalkeepers are hard to quantify purely by using numbers, on face value they don’t tend to take into account style of the team played in or communication and organisation of a defence and that’s where the eye test comes in. I’ve watched Marek Rodak since he joined the club at 16, and have said for years he’s one of the best I’ve seen at youth level. A modern goalkeeper, Marek is a sensational shot-stopper on a tall and lean frame that like Sergio Rico will elect to punch, Rodak’s distribution is of a strong level also but consistent long balls playing for lowly Rotherham distorts the numbers somewhat. Rodak should be part of the squad this coming season and compete with Marcus Bettinelli for the starting position and I’d back him to take it; the Slovakian is a big reason as to why I don’t think we should sign a keeper this summer.

Matt O’Riley:

It’s criminal that O’Riley has just fewer than 10 appearances despite being around the first team for two years. A classy holding midfield player, O’Riley has been linked to a move to Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and both Manchester clubs in the past for a reason. Possessing every attribute required to be an excellent modern-day deep-lying playmaker, O’Riley’s left foot can cover every blade of grass and not only is his range of passing of quality, but he can also thread passes of precision through opposition midfield and defences. A local born in Hounslow, O’Riley was set to become the ideal type, in theory, to replace Kevin McDonald in the holding role of Slavisa Jokanovic’s 4-3-3 system but with Premier League football came investment that saw O’Riley play just five minutes of senior football. Central midfield remains one of the tougher positions to transition from youth football to the senior stuff but England youth international O’Riley should be seen as one to provide depth, more so than an Ibrahima Cisse in my personal opinion.

Luca De La Torre:

Luca joined Fulham at 15 and has been admired by the academy ever since. An attacking midfielder, De La Torre can play on either wing or in the hole comfortably and possesses a direct dribbling ability as well as being able to pick out a pass. At the Under 20 World Cup in 2017, Luca De La Torre was top assister for the American side that surprised many in reaching the last eight and was man-of-the-match in Fulham’s League Cup win at Millwall last September, but then bizarrely wasn’t selected for the senior side again. With Fulham’s relegation and a cutting of the budget, I truly believe that De La Torre would be a competent option out wide. In our promotion season, the goal contribution from fringe wingers Neeskens Kebano and Sheyi Ojo was six each and, although the analysis of the position is deeper than goals and assists alone, it does highlight that the bar to success is not too high. Why spend money, wages or loan fees on elsewhere to provide depth on the wings when Luca could well do that for you? There’s being ambitious, and then there’s being smart. De La Torre possesses talent that that can shine in the Championship and has the perfect personality to be a complimentary piece in a promotion chasing side.

Steven Sessegnon

With similar potential to his twin brother, Steven’s progress was halted by a nasty knee injury picked up on international duty with the England U16s but prior to then, Steven and Ryan Sessegnon were part of a Fulham under 16 team that won the 2015 Under-16 Premier League International Cup alongside the likes of Matt O’Riley. In this tournament, whilst Ryan took home the award of attacker of the tournament as Steven won the defender award which is a perfect analogy when comparing the two. Whilst Ryan always had the flashier attacking production, Steven was always the superior defender; capable of playing all three defensive positions can produce in the final third as his performances in the 2017 Under 17 World Cup displayed, contributing four assists in five matches from the right-back position displaying a delightful delivery as England won their first World Cup at any level since 1966.

I honestly believe that Cyrus Christie is a fine Championship right back, but the competition will be strong from Steven and fellow academy graduate Marlon Fossey. Steven, unlike his brother, has dedicated his future to the club as he signed a contract to the football club until 2023 at the latest. The previous Championship campaign saw a few talented young full-backs break onto the scene, namely Max Aarons of Norwich and Jayden Bogle of Derby and Fulham will hope that Steven Sessegnon can stake his claim to be the next of that ilk and rejoin his brother in the eyes of the mainstream footballing world as part of England’s future.

Tyrese Francois:

The last of my ones to keep an eye on, I believe Tyrese is criminally looked over when people discuss those that could break into the first team. Suited to a Slavisa Jokanovic style of play, Francois is a diminutive central midfield player who possesses the technical ability to keep the ball ticking over. While his frame doesn’t appear to be top level, he possesses what is almost a bizarre speed in central midfield, like a winger in a way which allows him to press ferociously, recover possession and move into space in a really unique way I don’t recall seeing often in the game. Francois has been with the first team often through the previous year or so and has featured in friendlies but yet to make his first team debut, this season could be the one as Fulham could continue to use the Capital One Cup as an opportunity for these to experience first team football and spaces could open up in the central midfield position.

Fulham get Craven Cottage go-ahead

On Wednesday 22nd May 2019, Fulham Football Club supporters finally got the news they’ve been waiting for since initially obtaining planning permission in 2013; the redevelopment of the Riverside Stand at Craven Cottage will open up over 4000 more seats. While Tony Khan has taken the wheels of the on-pitch business at Fulham FC, his father Shahid and Alistair Mackintosh have been working hard to get this development to go ahead. In his statement, Shahid Khan said of our Mackintosh, “your CEO, Alistair Mackintosh, has my complete respect and appreciation for keeping this challenging yet rewarding project on task, and I ask that you join me in thanking him for being a champion not only for the new Riverside Stand but for all things that represent your club.”

Craven Cottage’s eccentric position on the banks of the Thames makes this a more complicated job than most, and while the Johnny Haynes stand is a Grade II* listed building, you’d like to think that makes that part of the ground absolutely untouchable. The potential of working with the Hammersmith and Putney End’s too come with their own uncertainty with the block of apartments behind the HammyEnd(.com) and the Putney having the grand old Cottage to its side meaning this is a very rare and exciting opportunity for Fulham to redevelop and expand; this did lead to some changes in design as Shahid Khan wanted to ensure that if they’re going to do it, it has to be maximised and done right.

Shahid Khan’s ambition in this £100m redevelopment states his intent at this football club (though I’m sure the tickets will continue to be extortionate – another issue for another post) and that Fulham Football Club’s future is to remain at Craven Cottage for the foreseeable future. Craven Cottage’s increase to over 29,600 seats will take Fulham from the 7th highest capacity to 5th (at least until Crystal Palace’s development starts and finishes) while the Cottage will jump to become the 33rd biggest club football ground in the United Kingdom. We’ve not heard too much officially from the club, but lets not forget either that Shahid Khan’s also financed the purchase of the old BBC Sports grounds to build a state of the art training facility for the first team whilst the current training base at Motspur Park will home the academy and Fulham FC Foundation.

While Fulham’s return to the Premier League wasn’t quite in mind, by the completion of the stand (the club hopes the 2021/22 season) and the development of the training ground, Shahid Khan is ensuring that Fulham’s facilities are of Premier League standard and quality. With £100m spent (or misspent) with promotion, £100m on a new stand and god knows how much on the training ground, you can’t deny Khan’s investment in the football club. As the modern English football league is becoming more and more monopolised, Fulham are making all the right off-the-pitch investments to maintain a place as a high as they can on the footballing food-chain.