It’s fair to say that plenty of Fulham fans had written off Jean Michael Seri in the run-up to this season. The ‘African Xavi’ got pulses racing when the Whites beat a whole host of European sides to his signature in the summer of 2018. It felt like a statement signing as Slavisa Jokanovic’s stylish side prepared to attack the top flight, especially as Barcelona had engaged in a long pursuit of the Ivorian midfielder. He came with pedigree as his partnership with Wylien Cyprien in the outstanding Nice midfield was the envy of many top European clubs.
Sadly, we only saw glimpses of Seri’s talent at Craven Cottage. He started well under Slavisa Jokanovic scoring the pick of the goals in Fulham’s first win – an entertaining victory over Burnley, but that arguably proved the high point of a frustrating year. There were flashes of brilliance, such as the lovely flicked ball over the Brighton defence to release Andre Schurrle at the AMEX but even that glorious moment was overshadowed by Fulham’s failure to hold onto a two-goal lead on the south coast. Jokanovic’s tenure probably never recovered from that severe setback.
Seri was unsettled by it as well. His fortunes mirrored Fulham’s as he struggled to make an impression, seemingly stymied by the both the pace and the physicality of the Premier League. Plenty of observers felt the similarities between Seri and captain Tom Cairney meant they cancelled each other out in the same midfield. It didn’t help that his laidback nature saw plenty of Craven Cottage critics label him lazy. We haven’t seen anything of our big-money signing since, bar a couple of underwhelming League Cup displays, and his loan spells in Turkey and France proved pretty underwhelming. He didn’t feature in Scott Parker’s Premier League plans, but is now benefiting from a second chance under Marco Silva, who has admired Seri since he starred in the Paços de Ferreira midfield – guiding the Beavers to eighth in the 2014/2015 Primeira Liga.
Seri was heavily linked to a return to Galatasaray, where he had enjoyed working under Fatih Terim during a season-long loan spell, but he now has a shot at redemption after impressing Silva during the summer. His undoubted ability on the ball – as evidenced by his thirty caps for his country – can be a real asset in the right system and the early signs suggest that Seri could shine in the slower paced Championship. In a deep-lying midfield role that he has stepped into with the likes of Harrison Reed and Cairney unavailable, Seri has quietly orchestrated two of Fulham’s finest performances in recent years – their electric dismantling of Huddersfield and the high-tempo overrunning of Millwall last night.
He seemed to have oceans of time to dictate play at the New Den, starting a number of one-touch moves with his precise passing and perceptive switches of play. Seri has delivered a higher than 90 per cent pass completion rate in his two starts to date – the best statistics in the entire side – and showed against the Lions that he was willing to fight for possession, sticking his foot in to win the ball back on more than one occasion. The travelling fans certainly warmed to his presence and he might become something of an unlikely cult hero with a consistent run of form.
Silva’s emphatic suggestion after the final whistle that Seri is committed to Fulham and has shown no inclination to seek a move away chimes with reports that he and his family are settled in London. The head coach’s assertion that there is more to come from Fulham’s forgotten man as he gains further fitness is a pretty mouthwatering prospect. A starring role in Fulham’s promotion push might have seemed unlikely a month ago, but Seri has arguably already played himself into Silva’s strongest side. Talk about a quick turnaround – this could be his redemption season.
So, it was a draw to start the season at a sodden Craven Cottage. Much like Fulham’s display, the day began bright and sunny, but turned grey and dank by the time the full time whistle sounded. Before we get into analysing the different aspects of what was ultimately a frustrating afternoon, I’d like to take a moment to applaud all of you who made it to the Cottage. The roar when the teams came out and when Harry Wilson’s strike hit the net, was what we’d all missed. The sound of the Hammersmith End in full flow was wonderful.
The only way of summing up this encounter is to say, ‘welcome back to the Championship!’ For all the summer optimism, this game was a stark reminder of what this division is all about. It is going to be a long, gruelling season – full of ups and downs – and Neil Warnock is an expert at grinding out results at this level. Fulham dominated for seventy minutes and should have been out of sight by the time our only lapse in concentration let in Marc Bola to equalise.
The home side began a bit shakily – perhaps taking some time to adjust to the frenetic pace of the Championship, you simply don’t get time to play a nice ball and admire it in thee second tier. I’m not sure that explains what Antonee Robinson was thinking when he played a suicidal back pass to Paulo Gazzaniga early on, but fortunately the Argentine reacted quickly to avert the danger. Marco Silva’s side eventually settled and began to dominate the ball.
I felt that both Tosin Adarabioyo and skipper Tim Ream had solid games at the heart of the defence and both took advantage of being allowed to carry the ball into midfield. The latter is worthy of a significant mention as he was solid all afternoon – forcing Warnock to switch his system early in the second half – and continues to defy the naysayers who suggest that his time is past. He looks a leader at the back and his confidence to bring the ball out of the back is obviously encouraging for the way Silva wants to play.
Fulham were in complete control by the time Harry Wilson skipped past a couple of defenders and slotted into the bottom corner. The winger had already been the beneficiary of some nice touches by Josh Onomah, who might have been a surprise Silva selection this afternoon. Wilson’s running and endeavour showed just why Fulham were so keen to bring him to Craven Cottage and he’ll pose plenty of problems for Championship defences this season, particularly when he roams infield from the right.
Fulham’s two youth products did not look overawed by the occasion at all. Carvalho was bright in the number ten role with a few dangerous runs and clever touches – he might have scored at the start of the second half with a bit more composure. Tyrese Francois moved the ball intelligently. It’s clear why Silva has elevated them into the first team squad. They have bright futures and will see plenty of game time this season. But with Bobby Decordova-Reid only just back from the Gold Cup and Harrison Reed, Tom Cairney – and maybe even Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa – to come back into midfield, you could see this experimental side getting stronger. Fulham sorely missed both Reed, for his protection of the back four, and Cairney – with his mastery of keeping possession – this afternoon.
The negatives from this afternoon are all to easy to pinpoint. Bola had too much time to arrow his shot into the bottom corner and Warnock was probably right to suggest that he side could have claimed all three points had there been another five or ten minutes. Fulham ended the game in a frantic fashion, frustrated after dominating the first seventy minutes. You would hope that with more fitness and experience of the division that better game management will come – but taking your chances is a must in this league.
On that point, Aleksandar Mitrovic’s peripheral performance was a bit of worry. The Serbian’s most notable contribution, aside from a second half diving header that whistled wide, was smashing into Jonny Howson in the first minute. We shouldn’t sweat this too much, however. Mitrovic has a quite unbelievable Championship goal record. I firmly believe he’ll come good this season – he spent longer away over the summer after his honeymoon and didn’t get a great deal of game time last term. He just needs a goal to get him going.
The other pertinent point is that this is the first fixture and the Championship remains a marathon and not a sprint. Some of the adventurous football that Silva’s side put together was mouthwatering and made a refreshing change from the turgid fare that we served up last season. There’s definitely more to come from the Whites – and, as the players get used to the new head coach’s methods, I think we’ll see performances pick up.
As we move closer to the big kick-off against Middlesbrough on Sunday, there are still some outstanding questions over who Marco Silva will select in his starting line-up. Many numbers pick themselves, but perhaps the most intriguing dilemma surrounds who will start at left back. Fulham are blessed two high-quality Championship options in this position with the American international Antonee Robinson and Wembley hero Joe Bryan battling it out for the start.
Robinson has plenty of Championship experience after making a £2m from Wigan Athletic last summer. It didn’t take him long to oust Bryan from Scott Parker’s preferred starting line-up and he didn’t look out of the place in the Premier League. His biggest asset is his rapidity, with his pace posing real problems for opposition defences as well as offering recovery speed to help him get back to defend against tricky wingers. He has also become a regular feature in the American international squad – with twelve senior caps – and made 94 appearances at this level for the Latics. While Robinson does have pace to burn, the one frustration has been a failure to add assists or goals to his game. His crossing was often found wanting last season, and in modern football, full backs are supposed to be attacking outlets as well.
That’s where Bryan holds a significant advantage. Not only did he seal Fulham’s place in the Premier League this time last year with a brilliant brace against Brentford this time last year, but he was a regular source of supply for Aleskandar Mitrovic. His reward for three goals and eight assists in 49 games was a contract extension and a place on the sidelines for much of the season – as he had to settle for just nineteen appearances in the whole campaign. He did score the equaliser at Old Trafford -heading home his old mate Bobby Decordova-Reid’s cross to earn a point at Manchester United – but it felt like a frustrating campaign for the former Bristol City full back. Bryan’s major drawback is his defensive positioning, which sees him regularly caught out of position.
Both men will start the season at Craven Cottage, despite a host of fevered speculation linking Robinson with a move away. Manchester City and Wolves were rumoured to be prepared £10m offers by the tabloids and Bordeaux fancied taking him on loan. No bids have materialised for the ex-Everton trainee, who you still feel has plenty of possible improvement in him. Silva likes adventurous full-backs to get forward and provide an extra attacking outlet. He’d have the perfect player if he could blend Bryan’s crossing ability with Robinson’s blistering pace, but it will be very interesting to see who Fulham’s new head coach starts the season with.
However tough a time he had last season, Aleksandar Mitrovic remains Fulham’s best route back to the Premier League. The Serbian striker is a proven goalscorer in the Championship – as he proven across a couple of stellar seasons at Craven Cottage – and will give any central defensive pairing a serious run for their money. It remains baffling that Mitrovic made only thirteen league starts under Scott Parker last year and you could hardly blame our talisman for considering pastures new had the now Bournemouth manager still been in place this summer.
Perhaps the biggest boost from Marco Silva’s first press conference at Motspur Park was just how warmly he spoke about Mitrovic’s qualities and importance to the side. It isn’t rocket science after his 26-goal return in Fulham’s last promotion, but a different type of man management is needed when dealing with a character like our number nine. Mitrovic needs a head coach who believes in him, puts an arm around his shoulder and makes him the focal point of the attack. He thrived under compatriot Slavisa Jokanovic at Craven Cottage because his belief was rebuilt after being frozen out at St. James’ Park – and the hope is that Silva can coax that sort of unplayable form from him again.
I wonder if the return of supporters to grounds this season will actually provide the biggest boost for Mitrovic, who relishes the battle on the field, and clearly gets a lift from the roar of the crowd. He wants to be loved – and you could see from the way he abandoned a television interview to run to the Fulham faithful when ‘Mitro’s on fire’ started playing after the play-off final at Wembley that he enjoys a special relationship with the fanbase. He thrives from the backing of the crowd – and even an extra ten per cent could be crucial as we contemplate the chaos of another Championship season.
It isn’t difficult to imagine how Silva will seek to deploy Mitrovic after the Portuguese head coach used Troy Deeney and Cenk Tosun as target men in his time at Watford and Everton respectively. The Serbian striker, so strong in the air and a force to be reckoned with in the box, never got the sort of service that he thrives upon during the Parker era – which makes his goal return in the promotion season all the more remarkable. His most regular source of a dangerous cross was from Joe Bryan in 2020 and that partnership might prove productive again this term.
Mitrovic might not be blessed with the sort of pace that allows the modern striker to beat a backline that has pushed high up the field, but his hold-up play is second to none. He might not have been at his dominant best against Charlton in Fulham’s final pre-season friendly yesterday, but that is no surprise given he has only had two weeks of training at Motspur Park. There were still a couple of deft touches to set up chances for others and it is interesting to see him absolutely breaking his neck to try and join Fabio Carvalho in the box as the goalscorer latched onto Tyrese Francois’ brilliant through ball. The hunger is definitely there.
There’s no doubt that utilising Mitrovic as the focal point of the Fulham attack is the best way to guarantee goals. Mitrovic might well benefit from early cross from the likes of Harry Wilson, Bryan, Ivan Cavaleiro or Knockaert but he is also a hulking presence that needs to be monitored by opposition defences. He can suck several defenders towards him, creating space for others around and inside the box, and his reading of the game is often unremarked upon.
Mitrovic will benefit more than most from the fresh start at the Cottage. It was clear that there was disconnect between our talisman and Fulham’s previous manager last term, but Silva has left nobody in any doubt as to just how highly he rates the former Newcastle forward. He won’t need reminding that Serbia have profited from Mitrovic being at the heart of almost every attack and, once he has blown off the cobwebs following his summer honeymoon, the Championship will be terrified. I’m certain we’ll be hearing Gala hit over and over again this season.
On the eve of the new season, Marco Silva is carefully evaluating the squad he has been bequeathed down at Motspur Park. He has spoken this afternoon of his desire to strengthen his squad further still in advance of the opening fixture against Middlesbrough on Sunday, but there still plenty of imponderables as we try to second guess the Portuguese head coach’s preferred starting eleven. With so much of pre-season held behind closed doors, the fans are still in the dark as to Silva’s top pairings throughout the side – especially at centre back.
Every successful side has a strong spine and that usually starts from the heart of the defence. Fulham are currently blessed with a surfeit of centre backs and almost all of them have significant Championship experience. American Tim Ream now probably fits snugly into the stalwart category, having made 213 appearances for Fulham, and although the veteran didn’t have the best of times in the top flight, he shone in Slavisa Jokanovic’s promotion season and has never let the Whites down in the second tier. Ream has racked up 260 Championship appearances and knows what he takes to thrive in one of the most competitive divisions around.
Given how impressively he began life at Craven Cottage, the fact that Tosin Adarabioyo remains at Craven Cottage – with no Premier League side seeing fit to trigger his £10m release clause this summer – seems like a real bonus. Adarabioyo honed his raw talent in the Championship, making 63 appearances in strong loan spells with West Bromwich Albion and Blackburn Rovers, which fuelled his desire for first-team football. A physically strong defender with an eye for a pass, Adarabioyo’s level might have dipped in the final weeks of the season – with a couple of costly mistakes creeping in – but you would expect the Fulham back four to be built around his immense talent.
Michael Hector had an almost as encouraging opening to his Fulham career after making the short move from Stamford Bridge last summer – and enduring a lengthy wait to pull on the white shirt. He stepped into a shaky back line as if he’d been playing there for years, immediately providing solidity and a physical presence that Scott Parker’s side had been sorely missing. But the mystifying collapse that came after the Whites went up left the man cheekily dubbed ‘Virgil van Mike’ looking completely clueless. His shakiness in a possession mirrored that of a schoolboy rather than the confident defender that had bossed games at the lower level and he was twice caught alarmingly out of position at Leeds before that shocking display at Brentford. There is a clearly good player there – as evidenced by that remarkable saving tackle at Cardiff in the play-off semi-final – and if Hector, who has 173 Championship appearances to his name and is fresh from helping Jamaica reach the quarter finals of the Gold Cup, can recapture the form of his early weeks at Fulham then he might be able to force his way into Silva’s plans.
We’ve still not really seen enough of Terence Kongolo to make an accurate assessment of his ability. The Dutch defender made one magnificent tackle during an otherwise unforgettable FA Cup defeat at Manchester City and promptly injured himself as the Whites were clinging to a narrow lead at Blackburn. Bringing him back on a permanent basis was clearly predicated on his strong displays at Huddersfield, but keeping him fit will be Marco Silva’s biggest challenge. Kongolo has now resumed full training and, if he can show the pedigree that saw him shine for AK Almaar and become part of the Dutch squad that finished third in the 2014 World Cup, then you wouldn’t bet against him muscling his way back in.
The other injury prone centre back on the staff at Fulham is Alfie Mawson, whose £20m capture in the summer of 2018 looked like good business after his eye-catching displays with Swansea had lifted him to the cusp of an England call-up. We all know that Mawson never really got a run in the side and has endured horrendous luck with injuries, which only continued when he badly injured his knee shortly after being handed the captaincy during a strong start to his loan spell at Bristol City last season. Mawson’s ability has never been in doubt and the ball-playing centre half seems to have shed some timber in a bid to impress Silva but it will all rest upon whether he can remain consistently available for selection.
Beyond those four, Silva still has options should he need them. The versatile Denis Odoi will always have his own place in Fulham folklore for any number of reasons – that ridiculous backflick against Newcastle on debut, his majestic header against Derby and the dancing on the crossbar at Wembley after promotion had been secured against Aston Villa – but it is difficult to see the Belgian getting a great deal of game time, given that Fulham also have three right backs competing against him in his other favoured position. Maxime Le Marchand has also been linked with a move away this summer, with the Frenchman’s catchy song certainly exceeding his footballing ability. Jerome Opoku, who will turn 23 by the end of the season, is poised to move to Denmark on loan – which suggests he is unlikely to figure in Silva’s long-term plans.
The new boss could conceivably want to introduce his own centre half into the club, but it probably wouldn’t be the most effective use of scant FFP headroom at this point. Plenty of Championship managers would kill for the sort of depth Fulham currently possess at centre back – the key will now be moulding a partnership to withstand the rigours of England’s second tier. Silva has been characterised as an offensive manager, but he spoke this afternoon of how much he likes a clean sheet. Solid defences win championships – and Fulham appear well stocked in that department.