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.

One for Calum Chambers:

When Calum Chambers arrived at Craven Cottage in August of 2018, he seemed ideal stylistically for Slavisa Jokanovic’s football. As a leaner centre half, comfortable with the ball at his feet, Chambers seemed primed to be an asset in our possession based football. Chambers also came with a partnership with Alfie Mawson as the Swansea City centre half (who signed in the days prior) and the Arsenal loanee were the preferred centre back duo for Aidy Boothroyd. With Chambers and Mawson in the middle of the defence, England conceded just once in the three group games before being knocked out by the eventual winners Germany (shock incoming) on penalties. I recall this tournament well, and whilst England’s attacking ability was lacking, it was the performances of the two centre halves that had me ‘desperate’ for Swansea to sign Chambers that summer; completely unaware that I would see it at Fulham a year after. Fast forward another 12 months, Fulham only used the two as a centre back duo in two fixtures, Exeter at home in the League Cup before Alfie Mawson was substituted after 75 minutes and Watford at home before Alfie Mawson was substituted at half time.

While Alfie Mawson was out injured, Chambers found time at centre half harder to come by with Fulham’s return to Premier League football being littered with defensive frailty and Slavisa Jokanovic tinkered with Denis Odoi, Tim Ream and Maxime Le Marchand all potential partnerships. With Slavisa Jokanovic’s last game at Anfield came Calum Chambers’ first match in the midfield, In a post-season interview with the club website, Chambers said about the Jokanovic experiment, “He wanted me to get myself about, try and break up play, try and protect and stop the ball going into the strikers. It was a very defensive role I was playing.” Chambers also admitted to the impact Scott Parker had on his transition, even before the former Fulham captain was made head coach, “we do stuff after sessions, quick feet stuff, working on my body position and making sure I’m aware of what’s around me. I’ll ask him where I should be with and without the ball. If there are little things I’m unsure of, I’ll go and speak to him and get his advice.”

Chambers fairly seamless transition into midfield was surprising for what initially appeared to be a short term solution became a fixture of the side under the regimes of both Claudio Ranieri and Scott Parker. After continuing as a ‘water carrier’ for Ranieri, once Scott Parker was placed in charge, an attempt came to add another string to Chambers’ bow, “with Scotty it’s been more of a box-to-box role if you like, getting myself about and trying to help out with the forwards.” While Calum himself appears to still see himself as a central defender, his year at Fulham was beneficial, “now when I play centre-back I’ll appreciate more what the midfielders have to go through and it will help me realise what pass they want or where they want me to give them the ball, so it’s definitely been a great experience and added to my game.”

Whether Calum Chambers, at 24, can break through at Arsenal is another question. Newspaper reports suggest he may be used as bait for the Gunners to clinch a deal for Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha on top of him being the only of Arsenal’s six central defenders to go out on loan, whilst Rob Holding and Konstantinos Mavropanos remained in Unai Emery’s set up. Chambers’ performances as a makeshift central midfielder could attract Emery to trial him as a rotational player given Arsenal will look to compete on four fronts again. I do think Calum’s future (like most Englishmen of his age) is better playing consistent football and if the opportunity to work with a Roy Hodgson at Crystal Palace comes up, why not?

Whatever happens, Chambers is one of the front runners for Fulham’s Player of the Season voting and I’ll be personally surprised if he isn’t one of the top two. His consistency, work ethic and personal qualities have been a pleasure at Fulham and he seemed to have more ‘want’ than some players signed here permanently. I think I speak for a lot of Fulham supporters that wish Calum Chambers the best of luck in his future.

For Fulham, they’ll have to find a replacement for that anchor role in midfield. Kevin McDonald coming off of a season where he experienced the ruthlessness of football may be charged with returning to his former self in the Championship, or does Tony Khan dip into the transfer and find Scott Parker that style of player?

Tom Cairney – Fulham’s perfect building block

One of my favourite kind of pieces to write are those with a story, where you have a clear start, middle and end. In football, these are particularly satisfying especially when telling the tale of new signings or a player on excellent form playing at his peak ability. In April of 2017, I did one of these on Fulham captain Tom Cairney and it’s crazy to think of how the story has progressed in just a little over two years later. While the playoff attempt for Slavisa’s side that season was unsuccessful, Tom Cairney was made full-time captain for the ultimate success, becoming the first Fulham player to score at Wembley and lead the club back to the Premier League.

The return to the big time wasn’t quite what any of us had hoped. Tom Cairney, in particular, saw Slavisa Jokanovic, a coach he described as “giving me my best years” was sacked after a horrific start and was replaced by Claudio Ranieri, a coach who had no interests in utilising the strengths of the Fulham captain as Cairney spent a spell in and out of the side. Now under Scott Parker, a former team mate, Cairney has returned to the line up as more of a traditional no.10 in a 4231 and contributed his first goal of the season at home to Everton.

The improved mood around Craven Cottage was boosted further after the influential captain was announced to have signed an extension to his stay at Fulham. Whilst the realist will understand this new deal likely negates any relegation pay cuts and probably will make him one of the highest paid players in the Championship next season, the statement from both the club and player was much needed heading into a summer of uncertainty over the future of so many.

Fulham has become a home for the Scotland international, a club where he has played his best football, a club where he made his international debut, a club that gave him his first real taste at Premier League and a club where he became a father. And for Fulham, Tom Cairney became the identity of a footballing style, he may not be athletically blessed but Cairney is technically wonderful with the ability to thread through a perfect pass, dictate an entire game or bend in a beauty from outside the box. The feeling is very much mutual.

For Scott Parker, or whoever is in charge come July for pre-season, they will know that they will have one of the Championships best in midfield. Sure he’s likely being paid handsomely for Championship standards, but the cost to replace the impact of a Cairney would not be cheap and we should welcome the fact that he wants to stay through thick and thin.

This coming season, Cairney will likely become the first Fulham player to play on over 200 appearances since 2014 and could overtake the likes of Chris Coleman, Simon Davies, Damien Duff and Sean Davis en route what will hopefully be a quick return to the Premier League. Cairney stated he hopes to finish his career with Fulham at Craven Cottage and his current contract would take him up to the traditional 10-year testimonial game of which he’ll be 34 years old. While football is a business and things change from week-to-week let alone yearly, it’s a huge statement for Fulham FC and keeping players and people of this mould at the football club is something we should yearn for.