Fulham are always welcomed back to the Premier League with open arms, but it is fair to say that neutrals are feeling a little less affectionate this time around after the club’s forgettable 2018/19 campaign. Their transfer splurge that summer was so disastrous that subsequent promoted clubs have been warned against ‘doing a Fulham’, and indeed the Cottagers have heeded that advice this summer.
The approach has been considerably more measured since Scott Parker’s appointment towards the end of their last Premier League campaign. He finished fourth in the Championship and just two points off the automatic promotion spots in his debut campaign as a manager, before beating Brentford in the play-off final in July.
State of play
Parker’s Fulham play a patient possession game that, frankly, could look a little out-dated in the top flight. Only Manchester City completed more passes in the top two divisions than Fulham’s 26,269 last year, but unlike Pep Guardiola’s side Fulham keep the tempo low, wait for opportunities to open, and don’t press particularly hard.
The manager has been accused of tactical naivety at times, and while he deserves plenty of praise for the 2019/20 promotion campaign it looks as though Fulham – unable to strengthen significantly due to the financial ramifications of Covid-19 – are set to go back down.
Their chances this season depend upon how quickly Parker realises possession football isn’t an option for a club of their size: will he move to a defensive system in time, like Aston Villa during Project Restart, or stick to his guns and face the consequences, like Norwich City?
Strengths & Weaknesses
A silky central midfield pairing of Tom Cairney and Harrison Reed, with Josh Onomah coming of age just in front of them, is the foundation of Parker’s vision. Channelling the Swansea City philosophy of the Brendan Rodgers days, Fulham’s biggest strength is their ability to control proceedings and pass their opponent off the pitch.
They averaged the second most possession in the Championship last season – and broke Opta records by hogging 84.5% of the ball in a victory over Millwall in August. However, clearly that approach is of limited use in the Premier League, meaning Parker’s greatest strength could turn out to be the club’s major weakness.
An expansive approach would also expose a weakness in defence, where a back four of Kenny Tete, Michael Hector, Tim Ream, and Joe Bryan is unlikely to be good enough. Fulham will be relying on the goals of Aleksandar Mitrovic, who netted 26 times in the league last term, and will need Anthony Knockaert to finally come good at this level.
Fulham, like West Brom, are unlucky to have been promoted in the year of Covid-19. The funds Parker needs to add quality and experience simply aren’t available, which is why their activity in the window has been fairly muted. The most noteworthy business so far was signing Knockaert and Reed on permanent deals for a combined £20 million, after both played key roles on loan last season.
Parker has also added goalkeeper Alphonse Areola from Paris Saint-Germain, Mario Lemina from Southampton, and right-back Kenny Tete from Lyon, with the latter a particularly astute acquisition at £3 million. Sadly, that could be the end of their major spending, having missed out on Ryan Fraser and been scuppered in their bid to bring Ryan Sessegnon back to Craven Cottage.
What supporters expect
Realistically, Fulham stand little chance of survival. The club promoted via the play-offs generally struggles to adapt to Premier League football, and having been in this position so recently Fulham supporters are well aware of the challenge that lies ahead. They are a solid bet at 10/11 to get relegated, while particularly good value can be found in backing Fulham to finish rock bottom at 16/5.
But Fulham fans will at least want their team to go down fighting, and so, despite the need for more pragmatism, Parker will be encouraged to play an attractive style of football; to play with pride. Supporters can also reasonably demand a better showing than 2018/19, when Fulham conceded 81 goals and collected just 26 points.
Look out for…
Season defined by November: If Fulham are going to survive, they need to take advantage of a kind fixture list for the months of September and October. In their first eight matches Parker’s side face Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, and West Brom at home, along with trips to Leeds and Sheffield United. Fail to hit the ground running and Fulham are surely down.
Mitrovic with a point to prove: The 24-year-old Serbian striker has been superb since his arrival from Newcastle United in 2018, and yet he still needs to prove his doubters wrong at the highest level. Eleven goals in 2018/19 wasn’t bad, and certainly better than those barren years at St James Park, but he will need to improve on that tally if Fulham are to have a fighting chance.