With the 2020/21 Premier League season about to kick off, The Hard Tackle assesses the prospects of Fulham, who are back in the top flight.
Fulham Football Club and Craven Cottage are no strangers to English football or even the Premier League. They are London’s oldest football club, dating back to 1879, after being founded as St. Andrews Cricket and Football Club.
Courtesy of an over-performing campaign in the Championship courtesy of Scott Parker, Fulham have returned to the Premier League, to play their 28th season in the top flight.
To be honest, Fulham were embarrassed during the last time they were promoted to the Premier League, finishing 19th and conceding an enormous amount of goals despite having the 2017/18 Championship Player of the Season – Ryan Sessegnon – among their ranks.
They return to the biggest stage in England with a bit more promise, and The Hard Tackle takes the responsibility of bringing you their season preview – a guide for all you need to know about Fulham Football Club.
Prelude – The Backdrop
2018/19 was havoc for Fulham after they were promoted to the top flight. Most of this chaos came in the form of incoming players; the London outfit spent £100 million+ on new players, but these arrivals were not given enough time to gel in and naturally lacked chemistry.
They sacked two managers: Slavisa Jokanovic, the man who spent three years at the club, helping them gain promotion, and then former Premier League-winning manager Claudio Ranieri. This paved the way for Fulham legend Scott Parker to take over as interim and then permanent manager within two years of his retirement at the same club.
There were not too many people expecting Fulham to challenge for promotion this past season, having been , especially under a rookie manager and a half-decent squad on paper.
The Championship is arguably the most entertaining league for a neutral to watch – it goes by like a roller-coaster, and such was the case for Fulham. Life started slowly under the English manager, who lost his first game in charge in the Championship, but quickly picked up the pace, winning the next three games.
After a rocky start in the second division, which saw seven wins, five draws, and four defeats in the first 16 matchdays, the Cottagers stood 7th but found a more consistent plane after that. They maintained their spot in the top 6 for 29 straight gameweeks, till the last day of the season.
During this streak, they defeated several favourites like Derby County, Leeds United, Swansea City, Cardiff City, and Nottingham Forest. Despite their brilliant run, they were only able to come in touching distance to the automatic promotion spots (top two), but fell short eventually, securing fourth place – enough for a playoff spot, though.
Securing a chance in the playoff was not enough, sadly, as they had to overcome two stages of fixtures – two against Cardiff and then the finals against the winner of Brentford vs Swansea. As they prepared for their toughest test of the season, Parker & co. received a massive dagger to their heart, losing their best player and top scorer – Aleksandar Mitrovic – to injury just before the playoffs.
This was the time for the rest of the squad to come up clutch, and Neeskens Kebano rose to the occasion. He had made no more than five starts throughout the season, scoring three goals, all three coming in the last two games of the season. The Congolese scored a goal each in the two fixtures against Swansea, pushing Fulham to the finals, with a 3-2 aggregate win.
In the finals, Fulham locked horns against arguably the best team in the regular season – Brentford. Mitrovic returned to the bench for this game, even though he was not fit enough to play. He had to be brought on in the 90th minute after the match ended 0-0 in regulation time.
But it was left-back Joe Bryan who won the game for Fulham scoring a goal in each half of extra time. Henrik Dalsgaard’s consolation was not enough as Fulham secured their place in the top flight once again.
Fulham do not particularly boast of a top-notch squad, not good enough to compete at the highest level of England, at least. They have a top-heavy team and were lucky Brentford did not take their chances in the final. The team is structure looks quite similar to Norwich City’s, who came to the Premier League last season but finished last, conceding a humongous 75 goals.
They have made some changes to their team so far, and could further add some players to push them to safety next season. The most vital addition to Fulham this season has been securing the services of Anthony Knockaert on a permanent transfer from Brighton and Hove Albion.
The Frenchman spent a season on loan at the London club, a spell for which the Cottagers paid £4 million. The permanent deal cost them £12 million, but is probably worth it, given his excellent first season.
In 42 appearances in the Championship last season, Knockaert scored three goals and set up an additional four for his teammates. He also created 12 big chances (joint 7th-highest), playing 1.4 key passes per game.
Another deal made permanent is of Harrison Reed from Southampton. The 25-year-old, who faced a couple of calf injury issues over the course of the season, was primarily deployed as a defensive midfielder, clocking in 25 games, out of which 21 were starts.
Scott Parker has also purchased Antonee Robinson from Wigan Athletic for €2.1 million. The American will likely be played as the deputy left-back, giving competition to Joe Bryan, who himself had a magnificent season. This could spell trouble for Maxime Le Marchand, though, who was the backup in the same position.
Finally, Mario Lemina has been brought in on loan from Southampton for a fee of £2 million. The Gabonese international is an extremely versatile midfielder and can play anywhere in the centre of the park. With a tough season ahead, we can expect Lemina to fight for the DM spot against Reed and Kevin McDonald.
Two notable players who have returned from loan are Jean Michael Seri and Andre Zambo Anguissa. The former spent one season with Fulham in the Premier League in 2018/19, playing 32 games, but was not among the best in white, failing to live up to the hype.
The latter was on loan to Villareal and was a significant part of an excellent season by the Yellow Submarines. He was majorly stationed as a central midfielder. Still, Villarreal chose not to exercise his £27 million voluntary purchase option. He remains on their radar, but if he fails to leave, he could be an excellent part of the team for Fulham.
There have been no sales from Fulham, but they have managed to get rid of less-notable players from their roster. Luca de la Torre departed to Eredivisie side Heracles Almelo on a free transfer. He clocked in just 16 minutes last season, playing a grand total of 6 passes. Under-23 goalkeeper Magnus Norman departed on a free transfer to fourth-tier team Carlise United.
Terence Kongolo returned to parent club Huddersfield United after playing 12 games for Fulham on loan in the left-back role. He has been replaced by Robinson. Harry Arter, too, returned to AFC Bournemouth despite capping off a solid season for Fulham, scoring two goals, and assisting once in 28 games.
For a team returning to the top flight, any and all fixtures are crucial to fulfilling the minimum requirement – to guarantee safety. However, some fixtures stand out every season: the derbies, the matches against fellow relegation warriors, the streaks, among others.
Fulham’s journey back in the Premier League starts off with a bang, hosting FA Cup, and Community Shield winners, Arsenal. To add to their pressure, this game is a London derby, and a loss could be a massive blow to their morale.
In gameweek 3, they play Aston Villa at home, and this game could turn out to extremely important in the race for safety. The next of the same opponent comes on Gameweek 30, 3rd April, next year.
The fixtures will come to come hard and fast all season, and Fulham will face four challenging fixtures in the space of four weeks (gameweek 9-12): Everton home, Leicester City away, Manchester City away, and Liverpool home. Winning even one of these games could turn to be a real turning point in their season.
They also face Manchester United and Chelsea in the space on three days in January – gameweek 18 & 19.
Another tough run of games will then welcome them in April when they face three derby opponents – Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, and Chelsea in two weeks.
Both fixtures against West Bromwich Albion could turn out to be vital as well if we consider that they might just be in the relegation battle as well. The first of the two games will be at home in gameweek 7, on 31st October, and then away in gameweek 21, on 30th January.
Like their season opener, Fulham will end the season at the Craven Cottage, playing against Newcastle United after visiting the Old Trafford in the previous gameweek.
Arguably their most important player, Aleksandar Mitrovic returns to haunt the Premier League once again. Mitrovic had scored 11 goals for Fulham during the 2018/19 season in the PL, missing just one game, that too due to suspension.
He finished the 2019/20 campaign in the Championship as the highest scorer in the league with 26 goals, one clear of Ollie Watkins. His dominant nature and imposing physique suit the Premier League, and he could be even more critical for Fulham this year.
Another forward, Ivan Cavaleiro is Fulham’s star man on the flanks. He joined the team in July 2018 on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers but was bought after just six months owing to his brilliant start to life in London.
— Tom Kundert (@PortuGoal1) August 19, 2020
The Portuguese winger took part in 43 games for the Cottagers in the last season, scoring six goals and assisting seven times. He created 14 big chances – fifth-highest in the league while playing 1.5 key passes per game.
Fulham have a squad that runs thin in terms of both quality and quantity when it comes to defenders, especially centre-halves. This season, especially, is going to run hard and fast, with fixtures every week till May end, and there is just not enough depth and quality in the Fulham squad right now to sustain for an entire season while juggling two additional competitions.
Despite boasting a rather exciting attack, and quality midfield, Fulham will most likely be run into the ground, finishing 20th. There is hardly any case that can be made for the Cottagers this season. A long time before the transfer window ends, though.
THT Prediction: 20th (Relegated)
Author Prediction: 20th