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Early deals help Fulham hit the ground running

It is no secret that since the Khans took over at Craven Cottage, Fulham’s recruitment has been somewhat hit and miss. There have been gems – like the arrival of Aleksandar Mitrovic and the purchase of Stefan Johansen – but plenty of poor ones – where is Adil Chihi these days, for example? Perhaps the most alarming part of the approach was the way the Whites had to play catch up with a lot of deals being left until the last minute. A succession of managers have had to wait until the closure of the transfer window to figure out what their best side is and that could be the difference between staying up and going down.

The scattergun transfer policy has spread disquiet amongst the fanbase and director of football Tony Khan has copped plenty of flak for it. Marco Silva’s arrival as Scott Parker’s replacement seems to have shaken things up somewhat. The Portuguese head coach got his first two acquisitions in over the weekend and rather before obscure signings from continental divisions, they were two players with significant experience of English football. Paulo Gazzaniga has played in both the EFL and the Premier League, whilst Harry Wilson has real Championship pedigree.

The rumoured impending arrival of Matt Grimes, who is due to have a medical with Fulham next week, suggests that the Whites are targeting players who know what it takes to perform in the Championship. The Swansea skipper has been one of the division’s most consistent midfielders in the last few years and a key part of the side that reached two play-offs under Steve Cooper. Should all go to plan, the arrival of these three players would end even more nous to a squad packed with Championship experience, including the likes of Tim Ream, Tom Cairney, Denis Odoi and Harrison Reed.

Whether this approach signifies a change in strategy or is a reaction to the tight financial fair play envelop that Fulham have to operate in at the moment, remains to be seen but there is no question that this campaign will be do or die for the club. Failing to secure an immediate return to the Premier League would undoubtedly be a financial disaster, almost certainly sparking a fire sale of the biggest names and probably making it difficult to compete in an unforgiving Championship. The stakes are certainly high – something Silva has acknowledged even as he demanded further signings in his Sunday interview.

There is no doubt that Fulham have the quality to be in the automatic promotion shake-up, as evidenced by the early bookmakers odds. They have squad that seems to have plausible alternatives in almost every position. The one area where the Whites still look a little light is up front having struggled to score goals last season. The hope is that a fit and firing Mitrovic will reproduce his outstanding Championship form having been mishandled by Scott Parker, but there is still a need for a capable back up. Jay Stansfield has had plenty of minutes in pre-season but the talented teenager remains raw at senor level. That’s presumably why Silva has made such a play for young Flamengo forward, Rodrigo Muniz, as he seeks to repeat his success in bringing Brazilian talent to English football having nurtured Richarlison so superbly.

Ultimately, we’ll only know how successful Fulham’s summer recruitment has been when the serious stuff gets underway in August. The fixture computer appears to have given the Whites a winnable set of early games so Silva has the chance to build some early momentum for a change.

The battle to be Fulham’s number one

When the news broke that Paulo Gazzaniga was having a medical ahead of joining Fulham this weekend, a lot of fans’ first thoughts will have centred around Marek Rodak. The Slovakian international, who had an outstanding breakthrough season at Craven Cottage as the Whites were promoted from the Championship under Scott Parker, watched most of our doomed Premier League campaign from the bench after Alphonse Areola arrived on loan and the acquisition of another goalkeeper places his hold on the number one jersey under question again.

Rodak’s displays in the Championship shouldn’t have come as a surprise given his string of consistent performances with Rotherham on loan – and he definitely deserves another chance to establish himself in the Fulham goal. Rodak was arguably the division’s most consistent custodian in 2019/2020 – with only Nottingham Forest’s Brice Samba posting statistics to match. Gazzaniga has a fine pedigree as a back-up goalkeeper, having amassed significant top flight experience at Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur, but would he have signed on the dotted line just to be a number two?

Rodak’s resilience has been tested before. He had a nightmare start to his Fulham career, being sent off at Middlesbrough after being elevated to the first team following some error-strewn performances from Marcus Bettinelli, but bounced back strongly – never looking like relinquishing the shirt. He secured some vital wins in the promotion season, with a succession of fine saves grabbing a win in a tight contest at Swansea, and he bailed Fulham out at Pride Park with some excellent stop against a dominant Derby County. Rodak’s rise was rightly rewarded with international honours and it is intriguing to think about how he might progress under the tutelage of new goalkeeping coach Hugo Oliveira, who played a key part in the emergence of Jan Oblak.

Although frustrated at his lack of first-team football last year, Rodak admitted that he picked up a few useful tips from French World Cup winner Areola. It would be good to see another of Fulham’s academy prospects progress with Rodak’s rise from the FA Youth Cup final side in 2014 to one of the Championship’s strongest performers a source of considerable pride for Huw Jennings and the rest of the Motspur Park coaching staff. He may well learn more from Gazzaniga in training, but he’ll desperately want to be Marco Silva’s first choice.

The theory will be that an experienced Gazzaniga can help push Rodak to new heights. The big shot stopper should be well known to English audiences from his stints with Southampton and Spurs, but he actually shot to prominence during an eye-catching spell with Gillingham after a recommendation from Gary Penrice, who had recognised his potential when watching Valencia’s youth team. Gazzaniga didn’t stay at the Priestfield for long with some superb League Two displays – including a miraculous clean sheet against Oxford that is memorably recounted in Michael Calvin’s The Nowhere Men – seeing compatriot Mauricio Pochettino take him to Southampton in a move that the goalkeeper described as ‘a dream’.

He spent four years at St. Mary’s – largely used as back up to the likes of Kelvin Davis, Artur Boruc and Fraser Forster – but performed well on his rare Premier League outings and was reunited with Pochettino when the Argentine made the move to Tottenham after a successful loan spell with Rayo Vallecano, where he had made 32 appearances. Gazzaniga found it nigh on impossible to dislodge Hugo Floris but when the French captain sustained a serious injury, he seized his opportunity. Having starred against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions’ League a year earlier, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Gazzaniga commanded his goal impressively in both domestic and continental competition and plenty of Spurs fans felt he was unlucky to lose his place when Lloris returned from a lengthy injury lay-off.

Gazzaniga, who got a taste of first team football whilst helping Elche successfully battle against relegation from La Liga in the second half of last season, has already spoken about relishing the challenge with Fulham. That could be taken two ways – he will be up for trying to oust Rodak from the side as well as helping the Cottagers secure an immediate return to the top flight. As a tall, commanding and confident shot stopper, who is good on crosses, he certainly has the credentials to be a success in the Championship – and there is an element of doubt about whether Silva has brought him in to replace Fabri or with a view to installing him as the new number one. Whatever the manager’s intentions, it is clear that Fulham have two quality goalkeepers ahead of the start of the new Championship campaign and that can’t be sniffed at.

End of an era

Stefan Johansen’s departure this afternoon made it official. We’ll never see the three midfield musketeers who transformed our fortunes under Slavisa Jokanovic – the Norwegian, Kevin McDonald and Tom Cairney – together in a Fulham shirt again. The word legend gets thrown around too easily by modern football followers, but it is impossible to understate the significance of Johansen’s contribution at Craven Cottage over the past five years. He played every game in that magnificent 23 match unbeaten run under Jokanovic that nearly delivered automatic promotion and the telepathic understanding between that triumvirate in the engine room was a key reason why the Championship couldn’t cope with Fulham’s dynamic football.

It might be stretching it to describe Slavisa’s stylish bunch as the Barcelona of the Championship but the way the Whites held onto the ball was mesmerising at times. With Johansen completing a permanent switch to Shepherd’s Bush and the wonderful news that McDonald is recovering nicely following his kidney transplant, today seems an appropriate moment at which to reflect on their immense impact down by the banks of the Thames. McDonald made a massive difference at the base of the midfield, whilst Johansen shrugged off a disastrous debut to quickly become undroppable alongside Cairney.

You might be feeling emotional this afternoon but, in the words of that old phrase, it isn’t time to be upset but to be grateful that we were all able to enjoy this special time in Fulham’s history. Jokanovic, himself a pretty hard-nosed midfielder, must have seen much to marvel at in the play of both Johansen and McDonald. The Scot himself has admitted that his time at Craven Cottage coincided with the best football of his career, even if he was deployed in a much deeper role than he had ever played before. He played that deep-lying number six role to perfect, reading the game expertly, whilst Johansen married his eager eye for a pass with an embrace of the sort of cynical tackles that Fulham players of old just wouldn’t make.

The way in which those two dovetailed so effectively allowed Cairney the freedom to roam into forward positions in a manner that stuck fear into the Championship. But it is easy to forget that Johansen came up with crucial as well. The former Celtic man scored in four successive games as Fulham were going through a sticky patch in the winter of 2016, grabbed a vital opener at Burton to breath new life into the Whites’ promotion push and played a starring role in the defeats of Ipswich and Norwich City. His brace in the devastating dismantling of promotion rivals Huddersfield in one of Fulham’s most complete away displays will live long in the memory.

That season ended in bitter disappointment at Reading, but Johansen played a pivotal part as the Whites bounced back from that setback to go one better the following year. The energetic midfielder again scored massive goals, grabbing winners against Hull City and Queens Park Rangers as well as curling home a brilliant free-kick at Nottingham Forest. He came into a great run of form towards the end of the season, breaking the deadlock at Carrow Road and memorably winding up James Maddison in the dying embers of a crucial contest. His role in the famous win over Aston Villa at Wembley shouldn’t be discounted, even if some of his team-mates have cruelly described his searching ball that fell at the feet of Ryan Sessegnon in the build up to the goal as a mishit.

The togetherness that these characters fostered clearly played a huge part in Fulham’s success. You only have to glimpse at the famous photo of McDonald addressing the victorious troops in the Wembley dressing room after the play-off final to get a sense of the unity within that squad. Those wonderful scenes will live long in the memory – and Johansen, who seems to have been treated rather shabbily by the club’s hierarchy in recent years, probably deserved better than being excluded entirely from Scott Parker’s Premier League plans after his unstinting service to the cause.

It will be very difficult to recreate the understanding that midfield trio shared – as McDonald touched upon in his recent interview with the club’s official website. Fulham have some serious talent in their academy, but the brutal nature of the English game (especially in the Championship) reminds us regularly of the fact that there’s simply no substitute for hard work. One of Johansen’s most endearing qualities was that he always appeared full of running and never shirked a challenge – even if there appeared little chance of him getting the ball.

It might be time for a new era under Marco Silva, but we should as Fulham fans pay tribute to the talisman who shaped our past. Tom Cairney’s curler against Leeds that sparked the Yorkshire side’s collapse and our own rise to the top six will be a moment stored in Fulham folklore for years to come. McDonald’s magical strike at Millwall was just as astonishing – if only for the identity of the scorer. Johansen has produced many moments of magic I’ve already detailed, but perhaps his most telling contribution might have been crudely bringing down Cameron Jerome as the Derby striker seemed set to burst over the halfway through with that play-off semi-final locked at 1-1 on aggregate.

All three men have given us such magnificent memories and they deserve to be hailed as the Fulham heroes that they are.

What would Grimes and Wilson offer Fulham?

Being just a few weeks from the start of a new campaign, we are in what this website has historically called ‘the silly season’ of transfer rumours. Fulham are starting to be linked with a number of players as Marco Silva evaluates the squad he has inherited ahead of the Championship campaign, but two of the more creditable reports claim that the Whites are weighing up moves for the Swansea skipper Matt Grimes and Liverpool winger Harry Wilson.

Grimes seems certain to leave the Liberty Stadium at some point this summer as he has a year left on his current deal and Swansea are seeking to maximise what they can get for his services. The 25 year-old has plenty of Championship experience and has been a consistent performer in recent years. He might be the perfect replacement for Stefan Johansen, should the likeable Norwegian opt to turn last season’s loan at QPR into a permanent deal or head for pastures new. Grimes would clearly be a leader in the middle of the park – something we will miss in light of Kevin McDonald’s departure – and certainly knows how to pick a pass.

There are clear question marks over the Fulham futures of Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa and Jean Michael Seri. Even if the expensive duo were to stay and play a part in the Championship campaign, the Whites still might be short of alternatives in the engine room. Were they to leave, Grimes might well fit nicely alongside Harrison Reed in a deep lying midfield position – allowing skipper Tom Cairney to shine in the creative number ten role where he has previously excelled in the Championship. Cairney might have been used as a number eight alongside Reed at times by Scott Parker, but playing further forward allows Fulham to make the most of his undoubted technical ability and creativity, two things that were sorely lacking during the last two seasons.

Josh Onomah has shown glimpses of what he is capable of – there were definite flashes of quality during the tail-end of Fulham’s play-off run two years ago – but he has failed to convert that into a series of consistent performances. There is also a debate about where best to utilise the former Tottenham midfielder, who we didn’t see much of due to injuries and a lack of form last season. Tyrese Francois, a talented academy graduate, is deservedly on the fringes of the first team picture but Steve Wigley has already hinted that a loan away from Craven Cottage might be in the offing for the young Australian.

Harry Wilson appears to have admitted himself that he needs to make a permanent move away from Anfield for the good of his development. There are obvious issues to iron out ahead of a transfer – Liverpool’s £15m valuation may well prove a sticking point – but could the Welshman reignite his career at Fulham? Wilson has had several successful loan spells in the Championship and he possesses the precious ability to unlock defences as well as definite dead ball prowess. Nobody needs reminding that Wilson is also capable of spectacular long-range strikes.

The winger would arrive hungry and desperate to start every game to prove he can deliver on his undoubted potential. It would be unfair to pigeon hole him into one position as he can operate anywhere behind the striker – and that sort of versatility could come in handy during an arduous Championship campaign. He would provide competition for the likes of Cavaleiro and Knockaert – who I discussed yesterday – as well as Cairney (which might prove valuable as there must now be a question about how many games our talisman can manage), but arguably Wilson’s best position sees him cut in from the right to strike at goal with his left foot.

Recruitment will need to be spot on in the next few weeks, with both a lack of spending due to the coronavirus pandemic and Fulham’s own financial fair play position, influencing the market. Acquiring a couple of proven Championship talents would represent a solid start into giving Silva the resources he needs to be successful.

How Silva can get the best from Knockaert and Cavaleiro

As Marco Silva works through the various permutations to settle on his first-choice Fulham eleven, there’s a lot of discussion about the composition of his best side. It is clear that a successful Fulham side will need more consistent contributions from their wingers. Is the new man in charge going to be able to rejuvenate the careers of Ivan Cavaleiro and Anthony Knockaert or will there be new faces on the flanks come the end of the transfer window?

Both players have endured their ups and downs at Craven Cottage, but I feel there is much more to come from both of them. Silva’s penchant for pacey, counter-attacking football could work in favour of both Knockaert and Cavaleiro, who seemed shackled for much of the Scott Parker era, as well as Aleksandar Mitrovic. Silva has always liked a big target man to lead the line at his previous clubs, such as Troy Deeney with Watford, Cenk Tosun at Everton and Oumar Niasse during his time in charge of Hull City.

Fulham’s wingers seemed badly underused by both Parker’s system and their instructions over the past couple of years. You always felt playing them as inverted wingers neutered their effectiveness. Cavaleiro, is a pacey and explosive player, who needs space to run with the ball and quick build up play. Parker’s approach seemed ponderous and laboured – allowing defenders to be able to nullify the Portuguese winger. Knockaert loves to run with the ball, turn into space and try to spark something – those off-the-cuff characteristics never flourished in the previous manager’s very structured gameplan. Luis Boa Morte’s return to the club and the fact that Silva and Cavaleiro are also compatriots could build valuable trust and understanding.

Silva would also have other options at his disposal. Fulham can currently call upon Neeskens Kebano, Aboubakar Kamara and Bobby Decordova-Reid in the wide positions – and I am excited about the possible addition of Harry Wilson, especially as the Whites have been missing a deadly set-piece taker for some time. I’d consider Cavaleiro and Knockaert as the stand outs in their positions, with Reid – who topped the scoring charts last season – and possibly Kamara more as forwards in the Silva system. That only leaves Kebano and young Fabio Carvalho, with Sylvester Jasper currently on trial at Sheffield Wednesday, and I’d urge caution about the latter despite his stunning cameos at the tail end of our Premier League season. He’s clearly a bright young talent, but it may be asking too much for him to immediately become a mainstay in the Championship. Kebano could count himself unlucky not to have broken through into the first team, but we have seen from his performances towards the end of the 2019/20 season that he can definitely add another dimension to the Fulham attack.

There is also another looming question, especially in light of Fulham’s recent history, which is whether any of these players would be able to step up to the top flight should Silva succeed in taking the club back up? Knockaert has been a Premier League regular in the past and, in the right system, he might be able to rekindle that sort of form. The jury is probably still out on Cavaleiro. We only have a season of evidence in a Fulham shirt to go on – and most of that was with him being played out of position. The way Silva sets up against Middlesbrough on the opening day will give us an insight into what he wants to do and how he wants to play. Both Knockaert and Cavaleiro are hard workers who never stop running – and those are essential commodities if you are trying to build a successful Championship side.

Silva has been clear that he wants to make a fresh start and is currently in the process of evaluating the squad he has inherited. With a new man at the helm and a bona fide Fulham legend as his right hand man, there should be a fresh opportunity for everyone to impress. A new season with a new manager and a new, attractive and attacking style of play for the returning fans to enjoy at Craven Cottage. What’s not to like?