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Back with a whimper

Would the 2018/19 season have gone any differently had Fulham stuck with the squad that got them promoted instead of spending lavishly? It was a question that was endlessly debated for over a year by pundits and fans alike.

Against Arsenal on the opening day yesterday, Fulham supporters got their answer: probably not. The Gunners dominated after a bright start from the home side, winning at a canter and dismantling Scott Parker’s side, which featured precisely none of their summer signings. The same team that had battled through the play-offs was no match for Arsenal’s outrageously gifted attack.

Yes, it was the first match of the season. Yes, we were missing Aleksandar Mitrovic. Yes, Arsenal look to be one of the top frontlines in the division. And yes, we played decent football in some spells.

But no matter the excuses, you can’t look past a 3-0 home defeat where Fulham only mustered two shots on target. 

The individual defensive errors that plagued our last Premier League campaign came back with a vengeance. The display, although plucky, contained no cutting edge. 

And it became clear that for all the cliches of togetherness and maintaining team spirit, the reality of the Premier League’s intense quality outshines all else — and the harsh truth is some Fulham players are just not up to the task.

As I’ve argued before, Fulham’s lack of central defensive options will doom us this year if left unaddressed. I was not surprised by what I saw on Saturday. Tim Ream botched a clearance and gifted Arsenal a goal. Michael Hector inexplicably granted an Arsenal player a free header from five yards at a corner. Such individual errors were the cornerstone of our last top flight campaign. And much like in 2018/19, on Saturday Fulham didn’t play terribly. But when we were under pressure, we wilted.

The club’s soft underbelly is maddening and is a surefire way to go right back down. It is more clear than ever that Fulham need to sign at least two new centre backs. We need competition and choices in the most important position.

Things will likely get better as our summer signings get acclimated and mesh into the team. But for now, it’s clear that Fulham cannot seriously expect to retain their Premier League status with a Championship-quality team.

Where are the centre backs Fulham desperately need?

Fulham released their new kits on Monday, marking the surest sign that the 2020/21 campaign is right around the corner. But the early-season optimism and excitement is dampened by a depressing realisation – Fulham will be facing Premier League attacks with a Championship defence. 

Our current failure to meaningfully strengthen at the back is an inexplicable disaster. With just four days left before the Cottagers face Arsenal, we appear set to start the season with a squad that is simply not up to the task. 

Perhaps most frustrating is that the need to significantly bolster our backline was clear for all to see from the very moment we clinched promotion. The centre-back and right back positions were areas of glaring weakness. Every supporter knew we needed to invest in those areas if Fulham were to avoid a repeat of our disastrous 2018/19 campaign.

Instead, with less than a week before we kick off our return to the Premier League, our options in the heart of defence remain appallingly weak.

Michael Hector is the best of the lot, but while his steady performances at the back steered us to promotion, he has never played a minute in the top flight. The other options are poor. Tim Ream, a true club legend, flailed in the Premier League in 2018/19, even after coming off a player of the season display in 2017/18. Now two years older, Ream will be hopelessly outmatched against the division’s best. 

Denis Odoi was best at the right back position in the Championship last year, but was exposed two seasons ago and little suggests anything will change this time around. Rounding out the list is Maxime Le Marchand, whose cheeky chant cannot outweigh his kamikaze defending and Scott Parker’s assessment that he wasn’t good enough for the Championship. 

And just this week, the centre-back ranks were thinned even further following Alfie Mawson’s season-long loan to Bristol City.

With the exception of Arsenal on the opening day, Fulham have a series of winnable fixtures in the first month and a half of the season. While the club very well may strengthen in the next month before the window shuts on October 5, it may come too late for the Cottagers to settle in the new signings and seize on crucial matches against the likes of Aston Villa, Leeds, West Brom, Crystal Palace, and Sheffield United.

Of course, Tony Khan and the recruitment department were dealt a tough hand this summer. In a season transformed by the pandemic, there was an absurdly short time span between the end of the 2019/20 season and the start of the 2020/21 season. Made even worse was Fulham’s promotion through the play-offs, granting us even less time. 

To give Fulham credit, we have signed Antonee Robinson and are heavily linked with a number of right backs. But there can be no ignoring the dereliction of duty in a lack of centre-half reinforcements.

With a backline like this, Fulham will be heading straight back to the Championship. The Cottagers’ weakness last time out was our inability to stop goals going in, undone by individual errors and defenders who could not handle the Premier League’s elite attacks. 

The sad reality is we are heading back into the lion’s den with an unprepared defence. In 2018/19, we were demolished. Two years later, the defence doesn’t look much better. 

And for all the outrage at pundits predicting our relegation, the current state of our backline is reason enough for those dismal predictions. For now, it remains to be seen if the club can prove the doubters wrong in the coming weeks and address our defensive gaps before it is too late.

Luton away and the joys of the Championship

Luton away and the joys of the Championship

On Boxing Day, Fulham travel to Kenilworth Road to play Luton Town. For many, the match will be a great chance to pick up three points against a side in 21st position. But for me, the trip to Luton will hold a greater significance.

As an American Fulham supporter, it is often difficult to explain your loyalties to other football fans who follow the big clubs. Relegation is an alien concept to them. Few fathom why one would support a team in the Championship.

Following Fulham’s relegation last spring, the derisory comments flooded in. Mixed in with the banter was a familiar refrain — “you’ll be playing Luton away next season.” The dig was simple. Instead of mixing it up with Liverpool or Manchester City in the top flight, little old Fulham would be facing off against Luton Town — a team that hadn’t appeared in the top division since the early 1990s.

Group chats were even named ‘Luton Away’ in recognition of the relegation. But far from an insult, the Boxing Day trip to Kenilworth Road will be one of the highlights of the season. What the American fan can’t understand is that the away days to old-fashioned, atmospheric stadiums like Luton’s are priceless experiences. And in modern football, these grounds are rapidly going extinct.

Ask most Whites supporters and they’d tell you they would prefer the Championship over the Premier League. Why? The sanitised Premier League experience, the drastic gap between the top and bottom clubs, and the exorbitant ticket prices all contribute to the top flight losing its luster.

In the Premier League, you could never get a day out at Luton Town. Where else would you walk to the away end through a row of houses?

When I take my seat in the away end (unreserved of course, another Luton specialty), I’ll be buzzing for the festive match. Luton away isn’t an embarrassment — it’s the best away match of the season.

Tony Khan: Learning from his mistakes

Instead of the usual mid-summer angst fueled by a lack of signings, Fulham fans were recently treated to a delicious and refreshing set of prudent acquisitions.

On July 13, Wolves winger Ivan Cavaleiro penned a season-long loan deal with an option to buy. Eight days later, Brighton winger Anthony Knockaert did the same. 

Two pacy, direct, dangerous players had been signed, adding a predatory element to the Whites’ strikeforce. The double signing revealed that Tony Khan had learned from the mistakes of last summer and returned back to basics. 

One of the main errors from the misguided business of 2018 was the targeting of players whose styles were poorly suited to the Premier League, and in some cases, had never played in the division. 

But with the capture of Cavaleiro and Knockaert, Fulham have the services of two players who not only know the Championship inside and out, but have thrived at that level. While some may be suspicious that their respective clubs were so willing to ship off the attackers, they hold the title of being superb in the second division but not quite good enough to be a consistent starter in a top-flight squad.

The attribute of experience playing in a certain division can be overblown, and yes, it is not a prerequisite to have played in England to succeed in England. In recent years, just look at the successes of Brede Hangeland, Clint Dempsey, Mousa Dembele, Stefan Johansen, and more at Fulham. 

But there is something to be said for being familiar with the league’s physical requirements, its speed of play, its energy, and its level of commitment. Failing to grasp these or arriving inadequately prepared to step up to England’s game is a major obstacle for any footballer.

Take a look at some of the flops from the past campaign. Andre Schurrle, although formerly of Chelsea, returned to England some five years later without the pace or strength of his earlier days. He was languid, weak, slow, and ineffective, terribly suited to the demands of the Premier League.

Jean-Michael Seri, who evidently splits opinion, clearly failed to live up to his potential. Used to the slower, more leisurely pace of Ligue 1, the helter-skelter nature of England passed him by and left him as a frequent bystander in tough matches.

Luciano Vietto, brought in from Atletico Madrid, was ineffectual for large stretches of the season, often out-muscled and out-hustled to the ball. Clearly, the strength required to cut it in England was too much for the winger.

Sergio Rico, another import from the Spanish leagues, impressed with his superb saves but maddened many with his failure to catch the ball and command his penalty area when under pressure from crosses. Look no further than his capitulation during the West Ham away match to see how woefully unprepared Rico was for life in the Premier League.

And it’s no surprise that the only new arrival that came out of the season with largely positive reviews, and who in fact won the Player of the Season award, was Premier League-tested: Calum Chambers. 

Now, none of this is to say that players from foreign leagues are automatically set out to fail in England — that view would be jingoistic and misguided. But what I would argue is that for leagues as demanding as the Championship and the Premier League, it is vital to bring in reinforcements with knowledge of the division and what it takes to either get promoted or stay up. And that’s not even to say that you need a team chock-full of experienced division players — an even mix will do. But when you end up with a situation like Fulham did last season, mistakes happen.

Look at the squad, and the lack of Premier League experience was striking. Tim Ream had 13 appearances at Bolton. Kevin McDonald played 26 games for Burnley in 2009/10. Cairney stepped onto the field 11 times as a teenager for Hull back in 2009/10. Schurrle featured for Chelsea for a season and a half back in 2013 to 2015. 

Only Chambers and Mitrovic, two of Fulham’s best performers, had played regularly in the top flight in recent campaigns.

Yes, Premier League tested players were also poor- Timothy Fosu-Mensah jumps out, but he had been recently shut out at Palace the previous season, a sign that we shouldn’t have signed him in the first place. And Alfie Mawson, although bright in flashes under Ranieri, had endured a poor start with Jokanovic.

But put together, the lack of Premier League nous and know-how was apparent and came back to bite the Whites. That’s why Tony Khan’s early emphasis on tried-and-tested Championship stars is an encouraging sign for Fulham fans eager to return to the top flight. And if we get there, maybe the club will heed 2018/19’s lesson and lean more heavily on Premier League regulars.

The failure of Jean-Michael Seri

A year ago this week, Fulham pulled off the club’s biggest ever signing. Jean-Michael Seri, a player who was once linked with Barcelona and dubbed the next Xavi, signed for the Whites. More than just a brilliant centre-midfield acquisition, it instead signified something more — a broader statement of intent that Fulham would not only survive in the Premier League, but thrive. 

A year later, Seri has moved to Galatasaray on loan. Fulham finished second-bottom. And supporters are left wondering how the Ivorian turned from saviour to the most disappointing signing in recent memory. 

By all accounts, Seri seemed perfect for Fulham. A diminutive, but combative midfielder, he could dish out superb passes at an astoundingly accurate rate, as well as provide some tough tackling. Combined with passmaster Tom Cairney in Slavisa Jokanovic’s free-flowing side, Seri appeared set to flourish in SW6. He didn’t.

At the end of the day, Seri was so beneath everyone’s expectations that fans began turning against him en masse. When he needed to be precise, his passes were errant. When he needed to be assertive, his tackles often ended up in bookings rather than takeaways. When required to track back, he turned his jogs into leisurely strides and abdicated defensive responsibility. 

Seri was terrible, and no amount of apologising could make up for the signing that destroyed Fulham hearts.

It didn’t start this way. His debut against Palace was lively enough and Seri even notably dispossessed the much larger Christian Benteke with aplomb. The best point came in Jokanovic’s only league win, a 4-2 victory over Burnley, started off by a goal-of-the-season contender by Seri. The Ivorian peeled away, arms aloft, a smile of glee. Little did we know that he would never hit such heights again. 

There was a cute, scooped assist for Andre Schurrle away at Brighton, but cracks were quickly beginning to show. An inexplicable pass gifted Manchester City their opening goal at the Etihad.

With Fulham quickly entering freefall, Seri went missing. Central midfielders are meant to boss possession and constantly dictate the tempo in the middle of the park. When goings get tough, you count on your centre-mid to get the ball moving, calm down the team, and facilitate attacks. But watch most of Fulham’s matches last season, and you would be hard pressed to identify Seri’s contributions. Sure, there were notable mistakes and key giveaways, but often, the most damning indictment of Seri’s performance was that you hardly noticed he was on the pitch.

The speed of the Premier League passed him by. The strength needed to assert yourself overwhelmed him. And the worst thing was he didn’t want to be there.

More than representing a failed individual signing, Jean-Michael Seri encapsulated the Premier League mercenary, a player who was good in theory but truly saw themselves as above the level of Fulham Football Club.

A look back at the 2018 transfer saga that brought Seri to SW6 is instructive, as until the last minute, it appeared certain either Arsenal or Chelsea would snap up the Ivorian. For whatever reason, Fulham pounced, but it’s fair to say Seri thought himself a player of a higher quality, worthy of European football and not a relegation dogfight. 

And when results start to slip, true fighters rise to the occasion. And from the off, Seri was never going to fight for Fulham. Towards the end of the season during Scott Parker’s late resurgence, it’s illuminating that Seri barely played.

Fulham played their best football of the season and turned their its most spirited performances with Seri looking on from the bench. There was a reason for that.

Was Seri the only player who was lazy, underperforming, and weak during the 18/19 campaign? Of course not. But what separated him from the rest of the abject bunch was the insanely high hopes the fanbase had for Seri in the summer. His failures were made all the more deflating by his glowing reputation.

Now, the midfielder will link back up with Ryan Babel in Turkey. He’ll be remembered as a disappointment beyond belief at Fulham. A player of great talent who consistently failed at every task in SW6, Jean-Michael Seri won’t be missed. But he certainly will not be forgotten anytime soon, a potent reminder of a season horribly lost to incompetence.