There has been a lot happening down in west London in the Premier League this year. Chelsea have spent over £600 million on their squad but are languishing in mid-table. Brentford have begun to establish themselves as a top-10 side as their wondrous evolution continues. But the biggest surprise in this part of the capital has been Fulham as they chase a shock return to the European stage.
The Cottagers, like the Bees, have been undergoing their own evolution in recent years but in a very different approach. Where Brentford had a clear and organised structure to their progress on and off the pitch, Fulham’s has come from learning from their mistakes.
Fulham have been dubbed a yo-yo club in recent years due to their inter-changing nature between the top-flight and the Championship. When they achieved promotion back to the Premier League for the first time in four years in 2018-19, they acquired 15 players and there was no structure in place with regard to those acquisitions.
They also didn’t have stability in the dugout given that there were two managerial changes as Slavisa Jokanovic, Claudio Ranieri and Scott Parker all had spells in charge over the course of the season.
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The lack of structure led to an instant return to the second tier but, thanks to the safety net of parachute payments, Fulham were able to achieve an immediate promotion back to the top-flight via the play-offs under Parker in 2019-20. However, he was unable to help steady the ship as they once again found themselves bullied and thrown back down to the Championship.
Owner Shahid Khan wanted a more experienced approach after Parker’s reign and he personally flew to Portugal to tempt Marco Silva to have another crack in English football, albeit his first experience in the second tier. The Portuguese coach has been turning heads due to the impact he has had at Craven Cottage after guiding Fulham to the Championship title last year in stunning fashion. He helped unlock a new version of Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, who scored a record-breaking 43 goals in 44 appearances to fire the Whites back to the promised land.
The feisty forward has since been able to carry that form from 2021-22 into the current campaign as he finally looks more at home in the Premier League. The 28-year-old has already equalled his highest tally in the division with 11, and there are still 15 games left to play with Fulham in the frame to qualify for Europe despite having initially been viewed as relegation favourites.
No team has been more surprising this year than them, as they play an attractive style of football and have been able to get results against some of the big boys, including Liverpool and Chelsea.
You can see that the club have improved their recruitment strategy from that of 2018-19 as it is clear that there has been a more structured approach to their recent acquisitions. Portuguese star Joao Palhinha has been an excellent addition from Sporting CP and he has been one of the most impressive defensive midfielders in the league. Silva has also rejuvenated the careers of Brazilian duo Andreas Pereira and Willian. Former Manchester United midfielder Pereira couldn’t break through at Old Trafford but he has found a new lease of life down in the capital.
As for Willian, it looked like the winger's best days were long behind him after an underwhelming year with Arsenal two years ago. He has been looking like the player from his Chelsea days at times this season and he has brought some much-needed experience to a side which is looking to make its mark in the Premier League. Another former Gunner who has rediscovered his confidence with Fulham is goalkeeper Bernd Leno, who has been one of the best-performing shot-stoppers in the league under Silva.
Fulham also signed defender Issa Diop from West Ham United, where he struggled to cement a place in the Hammers’ side. He has made an impression in west London, playing his part in this incredible season. He has been largely helped by playing alongside veteran centre-back Tim Ream who has been incredible for Silva this term. The American has played every single league game and the effect he has on the team cannot be overstated. Ream brings organisation and discipline to the back line which has seen them keep seven clean sheets in 23 games. He has unquestionably been one of the best performers in the division.
Fulham appear to have blended the perfect cocktail from their coach Silva, who has added a bit of guidance to a squad mixed with youth, experience and flair. The supporters can dare to dream of a European tour now that they have a team to be proud of, and opportunities to pounce on the top six, with the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool struggling, don't come around that often.