Fulham In The Premier League: Will It Be Different This Time?

The Cottagers' place in the top-flight next season can be mathematically confirmed this weekend
12:31, 09 Apr 2022

Fulham spent 13 consecutive seasons in the Premier League, but recent times have handed them no such continuity.

The Whites are set to change division for a fifth summer in succession once they secure an instant return to the top flight, which could be mathematically confirmed this weekend.

If Nottingham Forest lose to Birmingham, then Marco Silva’s side can mathematically rubber-stamp their passage back to English football’s top table by beating Coventry on Sunday. 

Even if Forest draw, there is the opportunity to effectively complete the job based on the disparity of goal difference.

It is a matter of when, not if, the Cottagers get to pop open the champagne bottle however, and it has been known for some time where their campaign has been heading.

The big question, though, is whether Fulham have the minerals to thrive in the Premier League, after relegations in 2018-19 and 2020-21.

Here are nine things they need to do to secure safety. 

Maximize Mitro

Aleksandar Mitrovic has scored an extraordinary 38 Championship goals this season – and still with seven games to play!

The Serb has every chance of matching Guy Whittingham’s record of 42 goals in the second tier for Portsmouth, back in 1992-93. 

It seems easy to look at ‘Mitro’ as almost a cheat code for this level based on his ability to dominate the opposition box, his aggression and ruthless finishing, but so much of his form has to do with Marco Silva. 

Although the former Newcastle striker top scored with a paltry 26 goals in 2019-20 under Scott Parker, that was more a case of him coming up trumps at individual moments. 

Mitrovic bailed Fulham out that year with clinical finishing, but he looked languid for large portions of the games and it could be argued that the team’s better-rounded attacking performances actually came without their star striker: Bobby Reid as a false nine in the 2-1 win over Middlesbrough, for example.

What we are seeing under Parker is complete performances from Mitrovic, who has got better at dropping in and linking play than he was under the previous boss. 

If Fulham are to stay up comfortably in the Premier League, Silva must continue to get everything out of his stellar centre-forward.

Replace Carvalho

One of the reasons why Mitrovic has enjoyed such a prolific campaign has been the support of Fabio Carvalho.

The attacking midfielder has brought a unique range of qualities to the Cottage this term, but in particular, his ability to wriggle away from numerous opponents from the left channel before cutting the ball back has been a huge asset to the Whites in the final third. 

Carvalho has reportedly agreed a move to Liverpool this summer, for a settlement of £5 million plus £2.7 million add-ons, with the 20-year-old out of contract.

The Portuguese star will be extremely difficult to replace, but whoever comes in will need to bring lots of energy, plenty of aggression in the press and outstanding ball-carrying ability. 

One of the reasons why Fulham have done well with Mitrovic in the Championship but not so well in the Premier League is because in the second-tier, they can tailor their game plan towards getting the very best out of their centre-forward. 

In the top flight, far fewer games are played on Fulham’s terms and when the defence and midfield units are forced back, ‘Mitro’ becomes isolated and he does not have the pace to sustain attacks individually. 

If Silva can find similar qualities to Carvalho in the withdrawn forward recruited this summer, though, that will make a big difference towards keeping their main man in the picture.

Keep pace in the attack

Fulham must always keep at least one counter-attacking outlet on the field next season, whether that player comes in the form of a second striker or a wide forward.

Neeskens Kebano brings searing pace and while he likes to beat an opponent on the flank before crossing, he can also finish himself, having bagged nine goals in the Championship this term.

Fulham also have interest in Caio Vidal, reportedly tabling a £5.8 million bid for the Internacional wide man.

Although Vidal is a right-footer who typically plays on the right, he is more of an inside forward than a winger and likes to bore down on goal, especially in transition.

The 21-year-old also has an aptitude for acrobatics, as he showed with this stunning bicycle kick in the Copa Libertadores. 

It is almost impossible for a newly-promoted club to successfully play precise, possession football for 90 minutes in a Premier League game, as Parker found to his cost, so having players who can be aggressive against the ball and carry a threat in behind will make a huge difference.

Replace Ream

There have been times this season when Tim Ream has received the ball on the edge of the defensive third, and he has been so composed in possession that it almost looks like he has frozen in time – as though appearing on an episode of Bernard’s Watch.

Ream’s ice cool mentality has been helpful in some ways to Silva, in terms of starting attacks from deep, but there have been times when it has cost Fulham.

Against quicker, fitter, stronger, more ruthless opponents jam-packed with quality, that kind of swagger would end up doing more harm than good: and that is backed up by the fact Ream has been part of the previous two relegations from the top flight.

That is not to say that Fulham should not recruit a defender who is comfortable on the ball for the Premier League, but the player in question should know the right times to play out as well as, crucially, being stronger in the recovery.

Understandably at 34, Ream will struggle with the intensity of the top flight.  

Be ruthless with key figures

Fulham should not rely on Tom Cairney in the top flight either, perhaps for similar reasons to Ream.

Cairney is the club captain and he is an extremely influential figure, somebody who has a great relationship with the board, the management team, the players and the fans: he brings the club together.

The Whites stalwart is a delightful footballer, too, no less, and has made significant contributions to the expected title win this term.

Despite that, he does not have the physical capabilities to deal with the demands of Premier League football and if Fulham were to keep faith in him as a regular starter, they would get overrun in midfield. 

Get the midfield blend right 

Following on from the above, Fulham must get the midfield equilibrium pitch perfect in the top flight.

They must have the wherewithal to control certain periods of their games, in which case they need Jean-Michel Seri and his capacity to dictate the tempo.

Seri, though, needs legs around him, which is where Harrison Reed comes in as well as the acquisition of an attacking midfielder with destructive qualities.

Although Fulham are on paper a 4-2-3-1, the number 10 may veer towards the left channel and it could be down to that player and the right central midfielder, likely Reed, to apply pressure on the ball.

From there, the Whites hope to either force non-progressive passes from the opposition, push for turnovers and break quickly with their wide forwards, or make teams misplace passes and allow Seri to sweep up.

Wide triangles

The shape will at times look like a 4-1-4-1 with an emphasis on wide triangle exchanges between the full-back, the corresponding wide man and either the right central midfielder or the number 10, depending on the side of the field.

The full-back, ideally Neco Williams or Antonee Robinson, are asked to supporting play from behind rather than attack the flank directly, so that they are able to make recovery runs if the move breaks down.

Tete and Robinson tend to provide the stability in these passages of play, enabling more fluid rotations between the other two components of the triangle. 

On the right, Harrison Reed starts in a midfield position but he loves to make overlapping runs into the channel, especially when sharing the vicinity with Harry Wilson, who is very much about cutting inside onto his stellar left foot and curling a delivery into the box. 

If Vidal signs, we can expect him to veer inward at a later stage of the attacking moves than Wilson does, which means Reed might be less likely to overload the flank and there may be less movement generally. 

It is unclear what Vidal’s arrival would mean for Wilson, but the possibility of him being converted into a floating #10 should not be written off. 

The Welshman may not be effective drifting into the right from a central position, because it would mean him then having to change his direction on receipt of possession in order to utilize his left foot in a meaningful way.

He may, though, take on the role of drifting over to the left, which would mean that more of his crosses are whipped rather than floated. 

In Wilson’s current role, his deliveries take a long time to reach the intended target and it is possible that good Premier League centre-backs would find it easier to deal with them. 

If the 24-year-old is dovetailing with Kebano, however, it means he can put in a first time cross to the near-post for Mitrovic, which would be more difficult to defend against.

Equally, this pattern of movement could worry Premier League rear-guards, especially in transition. 

On the one hand, Kebano is always a threat when running at defences, but then if numbers are committed towards halting his path into central positions, it would open up a perfect lane for the reverse pass to Wilson.

From that position, the former Liverpool academy graduate could either play a cutback to the near-post, or chip one to the back-stick, the latter of which being the kind of opening that Mitro dreams of.

Carvalho’s exit may force Silva to be creative with his Fulham squad, especially if finding a like-for-like replacement proves difficult, but the options are there to keep opponents guessing.

Streamline the squad

Goalkeeper Marek Rodak, centre-back Tosin Adarabioyo and Kebano have done more than enough this season to earn themselves the right to be considered part of go-to first teamers with which to enter the Premier League. 

In that group, Rodak and Adarabioyo join the usual suspects of Mitrovic and Wilson, plus Williams if he rejoins from Liverpool, Reed, Seri and Robinson, with first team additions required most pressingly in central defence and at number 10.

Fulham may look to condense their squad, though and may not need 30 players to feature for them in all competitions like they have this year.

Strength in depth has been a huge plus for the Whites in the Championship, but with far fewer midweek games in the Premier League, it’s a case of quality over quantity.

That means offloading players like Dennis Odoi, Alfie Mawson and Anthony Knockaert, who are not in a place where they can be part of the club’s plan to grow in the top flight under Silva.

Critically speaking, Domingos Quina, Josh Onomah and Ivan Cavaleiro might be in a similar category, despite being younger than the aforementioned trio.

By reducing the numbers, Fulham can not only save money in the budget for better players, but they can then also have clearer progression plans for their top Under-23s talent.

Carvalho has proved that the club can produce some fantastic players and there is no reason why Marlon Fossey, Tyrese Francois and Jay Stansfield cannot go on to have great careers at the Cottage.

Learn from the past

Fulham’s well-documented splurge after promotion in 2018 was a mistake and, while The Sportsman’s suggestion of two new players to come straight into the first XI seems a tad conservative, it should not be more than four.

Two to four quality additions, combined with some pragmatic tweaks without disrupting the synergy and cohesion of their possession play that has got them this far, should see the Whites home and dry in the top flight.

Owner Shahid Khan’s son, Tony, had previously played a dominant role in the recruitment process without the relevant qualifications, which was part of previous mistakes.

Tony has since taken a step back, however, with Silva and footballing people with greater credentials having more of a say, which should mean the money is better spent. 

Plus, Fulham go into the Premier League with a clearer identity than Bournemouth, their likely fellow automatic promotees, and more individual quality than whoever comes up via the Play-Offs.

Plus, either crisis club Everton will still be in the Premier League next season or Burnley, who have scored just 25 goals this term and, without fresh investment, may continue to circle the drainpipe despite the heroics of Sean Dyche.

Throw in the possibility of Brentford losing Ivan Toney, Leeds losing Raphinha or even Crystal Palace struggling to replicate this season’s impressive showing without Conor Gallagher and it seems reasonable for Fulham to expect to find three teams to outperform.

Provided they act smartly, an end to the yo-yoing is within sight.

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