The clock ticks closer to the big kick off as Fulham’s first Championship fixture against Middlesbrough at Craven Cottage looms large. Marco Silva has had to work quickly since his appointment as Scott Parker’s successor, navigating a global pandemic and the difficulties of spending his first week in the job in isolation, rather than overseeing training at Motspur Park. He clearly has a different approach to the game than his predecessor and, hungry as he is to prove his point in English football, will want to play on the front foot.
Our first glimpse at what that might look like came in Saturday’s final friendly against Charlton. There should, of course, be a caveat that you can’t read too much into a pre-season fixture and that the opposition were a League One outfit. There were signs of little tactical tweaks, with the centre backs attempting more direct forward passes rather than rolling the ball to one another, and an attempt to support the lone centre forward with bodies from midfield in an enterprising 4-2-3-1. The other eyebrow raisers were some of the inclusions – Tyrese Francois and Fabio Carvalho quickly vindicated their selections, whilst the sight of Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa playing a prominent part teased the prospect of the Cameroonian midfielder playing a part in the Championship campaign. Whether that’s actually probable remains to be seen.
Antonee Robinson, preferred to Joe Bryan at left back, had a challenging afternoon against the tricky Diallang Jaiyesimi, almost gifting Charlton an opening goal in the first half and risking a couple of rash challenges in close proximity to the penalty area after the interval. The American’s rapidity is a real asset – both in terms of recovery speed and going forward – but must be balanced against the regularity which Joe Bryan found Aleksandar Mitrovic last time the Whites were in the Championship. That is probably Silva’s first serious selection dilemma.
In goal, Paula Gazzaniga got to introduce himself to the Fulham faithful without having to do a great deal – although Marek Rodak was understood to be resting a minor knock in the expectation that he will be available for selection this weekend. The Argentine showed his ability when deputising for Hugo Lloris at Tottenham but he has never managed more than 22 first appearances in a decade in English football. Rodak broke through brilliantly at Championship level two seasons ago before being jettisoned in favour of Alphonse Areola and has a strong claim on the number one shirt. What message would it send to the Slovakian to bench him again – and to the young goalkeepers in Fulham’s academy set up currently for that matter?
There’s an interesting set of permutations possible in midfield. Harrison Reed may still be fit to face Boro, in which case he should reprise his water carrying role in front of the back four, but Francois’ fine summer – referenced by Silva in glowing terms after the final whistle – makes him a genuine contender to start on Sunday. There was a rare sighting in a Fulham shirt of the lesser spotted Jean Michael Seri, although you’d suspect he will be plying his trade somewhere else when the transfer window closes at the end of the month. Josh Onomah didn’t get off the bench, but his magnificent form at the tail end of the last promotion-winning campaign shouldn’t be forgotten.
Carvalho is the clear contender to start at number ten in the continuing absence of Tom Cairney, who is still having to manage a return to training with his troublesome knees. The youngster looked more than comfortable in the Premier League last term and took his goal effortlessly – that sort of composure should serve him well when the campaign kicks off in earnest. He showed a commendable ability to withstand any physicality from Charlton’s defenders and will obviously add something different to an attack that had become painfully predictable.
The identity of Fulham’s two wingers remains an open question. Anthony Knockaert did what he does: a few promising dribbles, feint inside and deflected shot wide. He missed a very presentable header in the second half, kicking the Hammersmith End post in frustration, worked hard but also underhit a number of crosses and passes. You’d think Harry Wilson would be line to start against Middlesbrough, although the Welsh winger also missed a glaring chance to crown his first Fulham appearance with a goal from close range. Neeskens Kebano was a willing runner down the left, but I fancy Silva will restore his compatriot Ivan Cavaleiro to the starting line-up after the former Wolves winger was rested for this one.
The biggest plus for Fulham of the close season is that Silva has made clear that Mitrovic will be leading the line. Whilst the Serbian, who returned to pre-season after an extended break following his honeymoon, didn’t look at his sharpest against Charlton, there’s simply no downplaying his importance to the Whites’ promotion push. Playing in an offensively-minded side, set up to feed his considerable strengths, Mitrovic should be looking to exceed the 26 goals he scored last time at this level. Should he do that, the Whites will fancy contending right at the top of the Championship.
Jerome Opoku enjoyed an encouraging debut for Vejle Boldklub yesterday afternoon as his new side drew 2-2 with Brøndby to pick up their first point of the season in the Danish Super League.
The 22 year-old, who joined Vejle on a season-long loan from Fulham on Friday, went straight into the starting line-up alongside Denis Kolinger at the heart of the home side’s defence. The Reds endured a dreadful start, going behind to Mikael Uhre’s third-minute opener, but bounced back impressively to lead through goals from Dimitris Emmanouilidis and eighteen year-old striker Walid Faghir. Brøndby denied Vejle their first win of the season when Christian Cappis capitalised on a goalkeeping error to equalise with nine minutes left, but Opoku had reason to be pleased with a composed display on his first outing in Denmark.
The tall defender, who has enjoyed successful loan spells with Accrington Stanley and Plymouth Argyle in recent seasons, could not be blamed for either goal and was dominant in the air as well as being impressive in his distribution. Opoku will get his next chance to impress when the Jutland-based side travel to Midtjylland on Friday night.
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.
The move that settled Saturday’s sedate showdown with Charlton Athletic might have mesmerised Craven Cottage but the two protagonists have been doing it for years. Playing in Fulham’s youth sides together, Tyrese Francois has been finding Fabio Carvalho with such frequency that their understanding borders on the telepathic. The lithe midfielder has only remained under the radar due to a wretched run of injuries, but the lad who swapped Sydney for south west London at just thirteen to chase his dream is on now on the cusp of claiming a spot in Marco Silva’s starting line-up.
Silva himself isn’t surprised. He’s watched Francois train ferociously in his three weeks at Motspur Park – ‘improving every day’. The 20 year-old has long learned to better people’s first impressions as many a sceptic has suggested his slender build wouldn’t be suited to the rough and tumble of senior football, especially in England. He has always seen Andreas Iniesta, another whose size was supposed to count against him after his academy days, as the player to base his own game on. Gadually, the Campbelltown boy has added steel to his silky skills to prove he can mix it in the engine room and his strong pre-season gives Silva a serious selection dilemma ahead of Sunday’s opening test against Middlesbrough.
Francois has always been highly-rated in the leafy new Malden superb where Fulham’s academy quietly goes about the business of moulding young footballers. He was voted the inaugural winner of the Johnny Haynes player of the year award, named after Fulham’s finest ever player by the Fulham Supporters’ Trust to give the club’s emerging talent deserved recognition, in 2019 and made his senior debut as a substitute against Southampton in the League Cup. A knee problem hampered his immediate hopes of building on his first taste of professional football and, after a hamstring injury prevented him from building on an encouraging cameo against Sheffield Wednesday last season, it would have been easy to be downhearted. But Francois through himself into his recovery on both occasions – showing just how adept he is at dealing with adversity – and returned to bolster the under 23s through a tricky spell before making his Premier League bow against Newcastle on the final day.
His original summer aims centred around the Olympics, but the midfielder was omitted from the Olyroos final squad – the latest in a series of international setbacks that seem particularly puzzling. But that deflating decision has swiftly rebounded to Francois’ advantage, affording him an opportunity to catch the new Fulham head coach’s eye as Silva sized up his midfield options after succeeding Scott Parker. His energetic displays in a succession of training matches played behind closed doors showed that his drive and dynamism made him a plausible replacement for Stefan Johansen in the centre of the park – something he demonstrated conclusively against Charlton at the weekend. His timing is almost as impeccable as one of those middle distance runners bursting away from the pack as they turn into the home straight in Tokyo.
There have been plenty of covetous glances from elsewhere as Francois flourished in the Fulham youth set up. Crystal Palace and Celtic sent scouts to monitor his progress, whilst Valencia made a concerted effort to sneak him off to Spain two years ago. His technical ability has never been in doubt. He’ll dart around of crowded spaces barely breaking sweat and he displayed his tantalising touch when bringing down a high ball against Nigel Adkins’ men with the air of Berbatov. His reading of the game and eye for a pass make him an ideal fit in the sort of Silva system Frankie discussed yesterday, but he can also break the lines himself with strong shuttle running.
The ongoing uncertainty over three more established Fulham midfielders gives Francois a real shot at nailing down a starting berth. Tom Cairney’s knee contains to be a cause for concern and he won’t be able to start the season either as a number ten or in the deeper role he has also occupied in recent years. Harrison Reed, the regular deep-lying midfielder, was rested for the past two friendlies in the hope that he would be back for Middlesbrough and there’s still a question mark over whether Andre Frank Anguissa, who did take on Charlton, will be around after the transfer window. Francois has another week to remind Silva of his qualities at close quarters – and based on how he has thrived since saying so long to the Sydney suburbs, you wouldn’t bet against him taking it.
It is twenty years today since the then French under-21 skipper Steed Malbranque swapped Lyon for Fulham in a £4.5m deal. The move wasn’t anywhere close to being the most high-profile in a summer of serious spending as Jean Tigana readied his charges for life in the top flight, but the diminutive playmaker quickly became one of the most important figures in Fulham’s side and a cult hero at Craven Cottage. He married magnificent technical ability, honed at Clarefontaine under the tutelage of Christian Damiano, with an insatiable work ethic and remains – for my money – one of the most underrated Premier League performers, despite spending almost a decade in the top flight.
Away from the football, Malbranque was quiet and unassuming. He largely kept himself to himself and had to be cajoled into giving interviews, believing that nobody could possibly be interested in what he might have to say. In Malbranque’s mind, he did all his talking on the pitch. He had already announced himself to Fulham fans before he had actually signed with a superb display at Selhurst Park, where he appeared as a trialist running rings around Crystal Palace, and the salute of ‘Steeeeeeeeeeed’ was born. So bashful was the Frenchman that he initially had to be convinced that the Craven Cottage crowd weren’t booing him, but once he was put right he grew to enjoy the chant – gesturing to the Hammersmith End for more after scoring on a frequent basis.
It didn’t take long for his skills to be appreciated in English football. Fulham struggled for goals after a bright start to life amongst the elite, but Malbranque was their most potent threat – scoring ten times in his first season by the river Thames – as he drifted into dangerous positions from the point of a midfield diamond with remarkably regularity. He played his part in the premature end to Jaap Stam’s Manchester United career making Louis Saha’s second goal at Old Trafford in the Whites’ astonishing display against the champions on the opening day and opened his Fulham account with a beautiful finish that briefly brought parity against Arsenal, who had tried to sign him as an eighteen year-old.
A brilliant brace beat Southampton at the end of September before he clinched Fulham’s first win at Upton Park since 1980 by tucking away Saha’s perceptive pass from just inside the box after a trademark late run from midfield having laid on Sylvain Legwinski’s opener from a corner. He grabbed a winner at Elland Road with an improvised finish of real quality after Leeds had failed to clear a set-piece and played a prominent part in Fulham’s run to the FA Cup semi-finals, opening the scoring as the Whites won at York in round four.
Malbranque’s influence only grew the following season, with twelve goals underlining his importance as the side struggled to find the net on a consistent basis. He scored one and set up another as the Whites roared back from 2-0 down to stun early pacesetters Spurs in a breathtaking comeback at Loftus Road and scored Fulham’s first UEFA Cup goal, a measured finish on the counter attack to clinch an impressive win over Hajduk Split in the intimidating atmosphere of Stadion Poljud before tilting the second leg back in Fulham’s favour by keeping his cool from the penalty spot to equalise after the referee had ordered a retake. He scored four times in four games in February, finishing that month with a hat-trick that eliminated Charlton from the FA Cup.
Malbranque’s form didn’t dip after Tigana’s departure as the fleet-footed French flourished from a wide position in Chris Coleman’s 4-3-3 formation, part of a front three that devastated defences alongside Luis Boa Morte and the sublime Saha. He sparked a comeback against Manchester City, before starring in the unforgettable triumph at Old Trafford – scoring once and laying on the clinching third for Junichi Inamoto. There was an equaliser and assist for Brian McBride’s winner on debut against Tottenham and he settled a pulsating FA Cup replay against Everton, before briefly sparking hopes of another win at Manchester United by successfully converting an early penalty.
Malbranque scored twice at St. James’ Park in Fulham’s astonishing smash and grab raid – most memorable for Mark Crossley’s magnificent afternoon in goal – the following season and his brace brilliantly beat Blackburn in the penultimate fixture of the season. He scored twice to remind Stuart Pearce of his quality after Manchester City’s summer-long pursuit of his signature had failed the following year and returned from a prolonged injury lay-off to pinch a precious three points against Newcastle after coming off the bench. Perhaps his most effective display that season was one where he didn’t find the net but instead completely snuffed out Claude Maekele as Coleman’s men beat Chelsea in March. One of his best goals was a sensational curler into the Hammersmith End top corner against Portsmouth, which was soon followed by a late strike that sunk Wigan and it was perhaps fitting that we remember his Fulham career with the final goal – a fabulous late winner at the City of Manchester Stadium that clinched the Cottagers’ first away win in more than a year – rather than the manner of his departure after an acrimonious dispute with Coleman.
Damiano wasn’t exaggerating when he compared the mercurial Malbranque to Zinedine Zidane – and it remains baffling to me that he was ignored by a succession of French national coaches. His eye for a pass, ceaseless running and unerring finishing ability made him an integral part of Fulham’s first five seasons in the top flight. Malbranque was a majestic midfielder, who racked up more than fifty top flight assists altogether in his time in England conclusively answering those who derided a lack of end product. He was consistently class and made it all look effortless. Merci, Steed.
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.