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Up next: Middlesbrough (h)

As Marco Silva has already mentioned this week, being at Craven Cottage for his first game in charge of Fulham is exactly what he would have chosen had he been allowed to operate the fixture computer himself. Middlesbrough, managed by the wily Neil Warnock, represent an immediate test of Fulham’s Championship credentials and will be eager to spring a surprise on the opening weekend. Silva clearly respects Warnock, who has a hell of a promotion record from this division, even if his Everton side beat the Cardiff team that the now-Boro boss was in charge, twice in the 2018/2019 campaign.

New surroundings for Silva add to the intrigue. While we have a good idea of what style of football he will favour there are still plenty of question left to be answered about the personnel. We got a glimpse of what the Silva era might delivery in last weekend’s friendly victory over Charlton. I felt there were some tangible tactical tweaks from the ponderous Parker period with snappier and swifter forward passing leading to vertical attacking designed to put the opposition on the back foot. Fabio Carvalho came to the fore again – and after an outstanding start to his Fulham career, you could easily see him flourishing under Silva. The emergence of Carvalho and Tyrese Francois makes me question if the Whites really do need another midfielder at this point.

Tim Ream wore the captain’s armband and defended diligently against Charlton’s – he was my man of the match on that basis. The American appears to be part of Silva’s preferred central defensive partnership, although there’s clearly still a question mark over who lines up in goal. Marek Rodak is expected to be fit for the visit of Middlesbrough, but that doesn’t mean that Paulo Gazzaniga won’t grab hold of the first team’s goalkeeping jersey. The Argentine acquitted himself excellently when he stepped in for Hugo Lloris at Spurs and I doubt he has come to the Cottage to just sit on the bench. The only serious injury doubts surround Harrison Reed, with club captain Tom Cairney and Terence Kongolo out for a few weeks yet.

Middlesbrough will be a tough nut to crack. They have had an excellent pre-season, winning four out of fives games, and Warnock has switched systems over the summer. Boro previously lined up in a 4-2-3-1 but have adopted a back three in recent times and it is expected that this is the approach Warnock will favour on Sunday lunchtime. His sides are often physical and combative and are designed to pinch possession and get on the front foot.

Warnock can call upon some excellent crosses of a ball to feed his forwards and those deliveries come in handy at set pieces, should Fulham foolishly concede fouls in dangerous area. The Whites should watch one for the intelligent movement of Ducan Watmore, who could be a focal point – especially if the visitors decide to operate on the counter attack. If Boro are determined and diligent, it could be a very long day.

Middlesbrough will be determined and persistent, with Warnock’s high-octane blend of passion and tactical acumen, and will have a carefully constructed game plan designed to quell some of Silva’s attacking intent. It won’t be easy but I’m backing the Whites get off to a solid start – with a two-goal victory.

MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Gazzaniga; Tete, Robinson, Ream, Adarabioyo; Anugissa, Seri; Wilson, Kebano, Carvalho; Mitrovic.

Captain America: Tim Ream – Fulham’s Mr. Reliable

Tim Ream’s record at the heart of a Fulham Championship defence speaks volumes. The journey of self-discovery he took to force his way back into Slavisa Jokanovic’s plans, having been considered surplus to requirements ahead of the Serbian coach’s first full season in charge at Craven Cottage, speaks volumes for both his character and ability to hit high performance levels. His outstanding form at the end of that magnificent promotion-winning campaign vindicated Jokanovic’s volte-face and rightly places him alongside names like Schwarzer, Dempsey, McDonald and Mitrovic as modern greats in south west six.

Ream’s reliability in a back four wasn’t always a sure thing. He endured a rocky period after securing a move from Bolton, but in defence Fulham’s reshaped defence was a mess right up until Jokanovic was able to underpin the foundations in the summer of 2016. The American international worked his way back into the picture, despite the summer arrivals of Tomas Kalas, Denis Odoi and Ragnar Sigurdsson, through sheer hard work and a determination to ensure his own credentials fitted the head coach’s desire to play possession-based football from the back.

Ream’s distribution from centre half, his reading of the game and a reluctance to go to ground in the challenge were all characteristics that served Fulham well in a second half of the season where they roared up the table to almost pinch the second automatic promotion place from Cardiff. The fortitude the squad showed to swiftly bounce back from the disappointment of the final day at Birmingham and book a place in the Premier League via the play-offs was impressive and Ream’s quiet combination of relief and exuberance as he sat on the Wembley turf taking in the enormity of the achievement with the delirious Fulham fans will live with me for a long time.

Ream assumed the captain’s armband for Saturday’s friendly victory over Charlton in the absence of Tom Cairney was fitting recognition of his own quiet leadership qualities – respected around Motspur Park for many years. The experienced centre half has been someone who leads in actions both on and off the field, embarking on charity work both in his native home and his adopted one – his input to footballers4change and EduKitters, where he has been involved with a number of fellow Fulham team-mates this summer, speaking volumes about a strong commitment to social justice. He had to robustly defend himself against invented and spurious allegations from a Twitter troll last week, but defused the situation as adroitly as he has dispossessed many an attacker over the years.

Ream’s longevity – he has made 213 appearances across six seasons with the Whites – and experience in at this level will prove a priceless asset as Fulham prepare to enter a new era under Marco Silva. He may be getting on in age but was never blessed with outstanding pace to begin with and has always relied on his reading of the game to see problems emerging on the pitch. The 33 year-old has two promotions to his name from this division and spoke excitedly last month about the prospect of adding a third under Silva after adding the CONCACAF Nations League to an impressive honours haul earlier this summer.

His return to the side at the very end of last season could have been interpreted as a valedictory gesture for one of the club’s most committed servants, but both his performance at Old Trafford and the news that he had extended his contract earlier in the season suggests we’ll be seeing much more of the likeable centre half at Craven Cottage. The elongated cries of his surname when he’s on the ball will continue just like Ream’s steadying influence at the centre of the Fulham backline. One hopes he can flourish under the new regime because he’s a leader that all Fulham fans can be very proud of.

Where should Fulham strengthen further

Fulham’s summer transfer window roared into life on Saturday night with the club announcing the capture of Harry Wilson and Paulo Gazzaniga. Marco Silva made clear in his interview with the official website on Sunday that was eager for the club to press ahead with further signings to strengthen the squad before the start of the new season and I’ve spent some time pondering whether the first team squad could do with improving before the big kick off.

You might be surprised that my first choice is another winger – given Wilson’s recent arrival. I’ve opted for the Arsenal youngster Reiss Nelson. It might seem strange in the first instance as Silva as a surfeit of wide options to pick from at present but another devastating deliverer from the flanks would help Fulham play to the strengths of Aleksandar Mitrovic, which we singularly failed to do last season. Both Nelson, a talented prospect likely to available on loan this summer, and Wilson are excellent crosses of a ball and could provide the sort of service that our Serbian talisman will thrive upon. The pair are also strong set piece takers, possess serious pace and plenty of skills. You can just imagine Matt Grimes, another rumoured impending arrival, spreading the play for Nelson and the England under-21 international feeding Wilson. If Nelson isn’t available, the club could consider looking into the likes of Marcus Edwards or Max Meyer.

There still may well be a gap in Silva’s squad for another creative midfielder and the Midtjylland man Evander may fit the bill. His technical quality, ability to influence game and a versatility that sees him able to fill a number of different midfield roles makes him a very attractive acquisition. The Brazilian has a work ethic that will see him track back effectively, cover team-mates and embark on recovery runs during transitions. His desire to win the ball back could be particularly handy in the Championship. Another skilled set piece threat, Evander is also just 23 – with plenty of time to improve under Silva’s guidance. Another midfield option would be useful and I’m sure that is under consideration currently. Other options might include Jean-Paul Boëtius, a personal favourite and longstanding Fulham target, the Euro 2020 Joe Morrell, Dutch craftsman Dani de Wit, Manchester City’s Ivan Ilic and the versatile Daniel Armartey, who could also cover centre back and right back.

Striking reinforcements are essential. Fulham certainly don’t want to heading into another season without senior back-up for Mitrovic, even if the Serbian is certain to Silva’s first choice up front. The identify of my number one choice might provoke howls of derision but I’d look into luring Wesley to London. His big-money move to Aston Villa might not have worked out, but Fulham have a good track record into reviving careers. At 24, he has time on his side and will be hungry to prove a point in England. He has excellent technical ability, can be an asset if a more direct approach is called for and is also an adept dribbler. Alternatives could include Ajax’s Danilo, Sirki Dembele – who has long been a favourite of Tony Khan – and the Hertha Berlin forward Davie Selke.

My selections are clearly quite controversial, but designed to spark a bit of debate as we look forward to the new season. Which positions would you prioritise in the coming weeks and who would you like Fulham to bring in?

How does Fulham’s squad shape up in the Championship?

Marco Silva might be relatively new in the Craven Cottage hotseat, but he’s quickly evaluated the squad at his disposal. While we don’t know what decisions the Fulham boss has taken in his first couple of weeks in charge, he can’t have been disappointed with some of the quality he has inherited. There’s no doubt that Fulham’s squad shapes up favourably with all of our competitors in the Championship. Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic have proven their quality at this level and Harrison Reed’s emergence as a tigerish midfielder over the past eighteen months was one of the few undoubted pluses of the Scott Parker regime.

Marek Rodak might have had a frustrating campaign – largely benched after the loan signing of Alphonse Areola – but the Slovakian goalkeeper is a proven performer at this level. He seized the first team shirt decisively from Marcus Bettinelli, having already displayed his Championship aptitude at Rotherham. He was one of the standout performers in the 2019/20 campaign, keeping fifteen clean sheets, and earning international recognition. Rodak now has the opportunity to stake his claim as Fulham’s long-term number one – and I hope we will see him push on and claim the golden glove of the Championship.

His current understudy remains one of Fulham’s forgotten men. Fabri, brought in during the £100m spending spree that followed our first promotion to the top flight under the Khans, is probably justified in thinking that he was never really given a fair crack of the whip at Craven Cottage. Can you judge a goalkeeper on two games? He might have dashed off his line a little recklessly against Wilfred Zaha but he kept goal well at Wembley against Tottenham – and we ended up recognising just how far short that back four was at the top level. You wouldn’t be surprised to see him farmed out on loan again in the coming weeks and the abiding emotion has to be one of sympathy with a player who hardly got an opportunity prove himself.

The defence is probably the area of Silva’s starting eleven that would deliver the most discussion. Centre back combinations have been a serious problem for Fulham in recent years. Injuries to the likes of Alfie Mawson and Terence Kongolo, the age of trusty stalwarts Tim Ream and Denis Odoi and problems with the defensive unit as a whole, have robbed a succession of managers of a steady base at the back on which to build. It took the arrival of Tosin Adarabioyo and Joachim Andersen to add a sense of security at the heart of the defence – and that promising partnership is no more after the Dane’s highly impressive loan came to an end.

Silva has eight centre halves to select from in his first team squad at Motspur Park at the moment – Mawson, Kongolo, Tosin, Michael Hector, Maxime Le Marchand, Ream, Odoi and Jerome Opoku, recently returned from a creditable loan spell at Plymouth Argyle. That’s far too many – and some will have to leave the club, if only for their own benefit, before the closure of the summer transfer window. Mawson appeared a good signing when Fulham were plotting a Premier League return, but the injury that wrecked his England chances perhaps should have been a warning when the club’s hierarchy were parting with big money to bring him in from Swansea. The ball-playing centre back’s dreadful luck – just think of how he injured himself putting on his boots against Huddersfield – was epitomised by another season-ending injury that cruelly cut down an impressive start to his loan spell at Bristol City.

Like Kongolo, you sense that if Mawson was able to remain fit for any length of time he would be able to demonstrate his capabilities at centre back. He has a chance to restart his Fulham career under a new manager – and the departure of Scott Parker could come at the perfect time for Mawson. It remains very difficult to pick out a preferred partnership because for all the little glimpses of Kongolo’s quality, he too hasn’t been able to put together a run of games since coming to the club. There’s also Hector, who is currently on international duty with Jamaica, to consider. He might have been found wanting in the top flight but if he can recapture the imperious form that followed his introduction into the side last January then the former Reading defender should be able to force his way into Silva’s plans.

Silva has a penchant for attacking full backs and that should be music to the ears of the Fulham contingent. Picking a first choice left back will be difficult: Joe Bryan has been there and done it in the Championship – both literally at Wembley with his brilliant brace against Brentford and in terms of supplying threatening service to Mitrovic from advanced positions. Antonee Robinson enjoyed an encouraging first season at the Cottage despite relegation and his pace could be an even bigger weapon at Championship level. I’d plump for Bryan, although it’s a tough choice.

The new boss has five possible options at right back. It would be difficult to look past Kenny Tete in the first instance. The Dutch defender might not have showcased all of his qualities in a tough first season, but we saw fleetingly how he can deliver a dangerous cross. He’s aggressive in the tackle and eager to get forward – and if Fulham can hang onto him – could prove a real asset in the Championship. The statistical analysis of Cyrus Christie’s loan spell at Nottingham Forest suggests he was one of the division’s strongest right backs last year and he will be a capable understudy, which means that the likes of Steven Sessegnon and Marlon Fossey might need more loan spells to get regular game time.

My favourite part of this squad is in midfield, where the side should come to life. There might be concerns about Cairney’s fitness after a couple of injury-plagued campaigns, but he remains Fulham’s most creative operator. On his day, we know he is one of the classiest midfielders in the Championship. Reed will offer industry, energy and bite at the base of the midfield and the talent of Fabio Carvalho is tantalising. There are question marks over whether Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa and Jean Michael Seri will feature in the Championship – the smart money must be on no – and, with Stefan Johansen set to complete a permanent switch to Queens Park Rangers, the rumour mill suggests the Whites are preparing to add central midfielders, with Swansea’s Matt Grimes and the Norwich man Tom Trybull reportedly on their shortlist.

It was clear from watching the Whites last season that Parker’s team was far too predictable and there was very little cover for Cairney in his preferred attacking midfield role. Josh Onomah shone towards the end of the promotion campaign and, after another stop-start season, you wonder whether he could reprise that role this term. Could Carvalho continue from where he left off with those eye-catching cameos in May? Or perhaps the imminent arrival, Liverpool’s Harry Wilson, could take a central role behind a lone striker. He has flourished in that sort of position before, mostly notably for Derby when they reached the play-off final, and has the versatility to make it work.

Who Silva selects on the wings will be intriguing. All of his favoured systems have seen wingers servicing a tall front man and, even when Mitrovic was on the field last season, Fulham didn’t play to his strengths. Most of Fulham’s wide options appear underwhelming. Neither Anthony Knockaert nor Ivan Cavaleiro have hit the heights expected after their big money moves – although we can hope that the new manager can get something extra out of them. Neeskens Kebano hinted at his potential when he returned from the wilderness to spark Fulham’s play-off run and I think we are yet to nail down Bobby Decordova-Reid’s most effective position.

Mitrovic remains the division’s most devastating striker. Keeping the Serbian has to be at the top of Silva’s to-do list. He might have considered leaving Craven Cottage after the disappointment of relegation and being sidelined by Parker, but the simple fact is that Fulham won’t be able to replace a forward of his quality. Adam Armstrong has had a couple of sensational seasons with Blackburn, but he has a legion of suitors – most of whom are now in the top flight. What’s worrying is that there is very little back up for Mitrovic in the current squad. You can’t call the use of Cavaleiro as a makeshift striker a success, whilst Aboubakar Kamara is still very hit and miss and Jay Stansfield, for all of his undoubted potential, remains very raw.

You can see why Silva is keen to recruit another forward because missing Mitrovic for any length of time would presently deal a hammer blow to Fulham’s promotion hopes. I like the excitement of the rumoured move for Rodrigo Muniz, a bright, young and agile forward from Flamengo, who is apparently interested in working with Silva in London. The new boss is able to point to success he enjoyed in nurturing the talent of Richarlison – which probably makes him very attractive to young Brazilian talent.

At this point, we probably have more questions than answers when we consider what Silva’s first team selection will look like against Middlesbrough on August 8th. You can put together any number of permutations for Fulham’s first starting line up, given the sheer number of players in the club’s current first team squad. My selection would look like this – Rodak; Tete, Tosin, Mawson, Bryan; Reed, Cairney, Wilson, Knockaert, Cavaleiro; Mitrovic – but I’d be interested in seeing what others think.

Are Fulham heading in the right direction?

There have been plenty of ups and downs since Shahid Khan took over Fulham Football Club in 2013. The relegations from the Premier League are the most obvious element of that, but there is also the ongoing debate about the club’s recruitment of players.

Fulham have become known for pretty passing game and a desire to try and dominate opponents in the quaint and historical surroundings of their unique home, Craven Cottage. Ahead of a new campaign, it is appropriate to ask whether the club is heading in the right direction.

No Fulham fan needs reminding of the glorious 2009/10 season when Roy Hodgson’s men surprised almost everyone apart from themselves by winning nineteen games in the revamped Europa League to reach the club’s first major final since 1975. The Whites might have ultimately lost in the final, heartbreakingly to Atletico Madrid, but it was unquestionably one of the finest moments in Fulham’s history. Hodgson’s shrewd recruitment, typified by the quiet acquisitions of Damien Duff and Stephen Kelly, helped a well-drilled side punch above their weight only a couple of years after pulling off a miraculous escape from relegation.

That wasn’t the only biggest loss suffered, for the fans, as Roy Hodgson left Fulham to join Liverpool after the final. It felt like a backward step when we appointed Mark Hughes who left after one season. We finally got our main target Martin Jol. It wasn’t all sweetness and light under the Dutchman, with key players like Moussa Dembele, Clint Dempsey and Bobby Zamora moving on and there was a worrying end to the 2012/2013 season where Fulham flirted with the relegation zone after appearing comfortable at the mid-point of the campaign.

That summer saw Shahid Khan purchase the club from longstanding owner Mohamed Al-Fayed for a rumoured £200m. Could this be seen as a step in the right direction? In theory, it seemed so – but in practice the first season under the new ownership was shambolic. Fulham went through three managers, with an ageing squad, and slipped out of the top flight. Mistakes by experienced managers and some missteps by the new regime saw the Whites end their thirteen-year stay in the Premier League with a bit of a whimper. The decision to appoint Magath sticks out as a mistake in retrospect, as does the splashing of cash on Kostas Mitroglou, in a desperate bid to secure the goals that might lift Fulham to safety.

Magath’s reign lurched to further disaster in the Championship, with the Whites picking up a single point from eight games seeing the German finally depart. Kit Symons steadied the ship but couldn’t translate his promotion of young talent into a serious promotion push, although even Slavisa Jokanovic was sucked into a relegation battle after he took over the reigns at the Cottage. The Serbian’s arrival was the catalyst for a change in Fulham’s fortunes as he implemented an attractive and adventurous playing style and transformed the first team’s fortunes.

Jokanovic’s side forced their way into the play-offs and were arguably unfortunate to be eliminated in two tight semi-finals with Reading. That campaign was one of the most magical years as Fulham’s style suddenly changed and Jokanovic constructed a midfield triumvirate to envy any in the division. Little did we know that the following season would be even more remarkable. Jokanovic’s charges became the Barcelona of the Championship in a wonderful 23-match unbeaten run to end the season, overcoming the disappointment of missing out on automatic promotion to triumph in the play-offs – with a wonderful win over Aston Villa at Wembley. One of the huge keys to promotion was the arrival of Aleksandar Mitrovic, whose relationship with Jokanovic proved crucial to moving to Craven Cottage, and the Serbian striker’s impact on Fulham’s fortunes can’t be overstated.

The summer that followed now looks like a missed opportunity. We can talk about how much of statement Fulham were making with the signings, there is no kidding ourselves with the signings. We thought it would work, we thought finally some real investment. We kept spending and spending until we reached just over £100 million, imagine the shock on my face when we were announcing players for £30 million. This was a step back, some fans aimed their anger towards the owners, some believed Jokanovic was to blame.

Jokanovic’s departure still remains a sticking point and the appointment of Claudio Ranieri unquestionably didn’t work. Scott Parker did remarkably well to rebuild a sense of unity around the football club and, although the football was dull and never really recaptured the heights of a marvellous early home win over Millwall, winning promotion in his first full season as a senior manager was some achievement.

The following campaign was always going to be complicated with the impact of coronavirus meaning the shrinking of the close season and a short timeframe in which to strengthen the squad before both the beginning of the Premier League campaign and the closure of the transfer window. The initial faith in the stalwarts who had secured promotion seemed misplaced and, although the likes of Alphonse Areola and Joachim Andersen were undoubted successes alongside permanent acquisition Harrison Reed, Fulham ultimately went down limply having given themselves a shot at salvation with two wins on Merseyside.

A third relegation clearly hinted at a sense of complacency amongst the club’s hierarchy with the same mistakes recurring once again and the lack of a long-term strategy. Are Fulham heading in the right direction? You’d have to say no on the balance of recent seasons. The new Riverside Stand could eventually prove to be a real boon, but the club are still wrestling with the financial impact of that disastrous 2018 summer splurge.

I firmly believe something needs to change. The Khans business interests are firmly established but they leave the key players too stretched – looking after the Jacksonville Jaquars, All Elite Wrestling and our beloved club. If Fulham remains a business investment, it should be subject to the same scrutiny as any other – and blaming successive managers seems to miss the point. Marco Silva might prove to be a fantastic appointment, but he can’t be asked to work with one hand behind his back.