Here at Fulhamish, we like to look at both sides of the equation. Few things this summer have divided Fulham’s fanbase as much as the transfer of Sone Aluko, and so we thought, now that the dust has settled, that we’d take a look at whether the decision to sell our former wing wizard was the correct one.
Alex Bowmer and Jack J Collins take on the cases for the prosecution and defence, to try and settle the argument once and for all.
Alex Bowmer, Case for the Defence
In the immediate aftermath of Sone Aluko’s transfer, many fans were triumphantly proclaiming that this was a great bit of business. The Nigerian is 28 and was getting increasingly criticised by some supporters for some scattergun finishing, while the club made a £7.5m profit following his departure.
It had been apparent for a while that shooting is not Aluko’s forte. However, his strengths lie elsewhere. His speed and trickery often terrified opposition left-backs last season and he was happy to switch wings when required, making him difficult to mark.
His ability to elude defenders was demonstrated gloriously against Huddersfield both home and away, with a perfect marriage of speed and composure on display as he teed up Lucas Piazon in the 5-0 drubbing.
In the return game, he played a key part in the third goal, spinning away from Jonathan Hogg and Michael Hefele despite the German’s best efforts and then having the presence of mind to check inside Philip Billing and lay it off to Tom Cairney.
These are just two examples of the skill and explosiveness that Sone brought to the table. Last season, he was better at that than anyone in the side. Along with our captain fantastic, he notched up ten assists during the league campaign, the joint-highest figure at the club.
Aluko was not our most consistent performer, but he was integral to our success. Composure comes in many forms and when it comes to teeing up team-mates, there are few better in this division.
His goals tally is also not as woeful as people make out. I, like many people, was left exasperated when yet another of Aluko’s close-range attempts was blazed high and wide (a particularly presentable opportunity from a Fredericks cut-back at Reading in January springs to mind).
However, according to stats compiled by Squawka, his shooting accuracy was on a par with Nahki Wells and Yann Kermorgant. Neither of these players could be described as liabilities last season, yet that seemed to be how Sone was perceived by sections of the Fulham faithful.
The fact that we remember so many of his misses is testament to how good he was at finding space and getting into good positions after bamboozling defenders. While he should clearly have notched up double figures, let’s not get sucked into hyperbole. His finishing was poor, but not dreadful.
Indeed, only four Fulham players managed to get over 50% of their shots on target and only one of those was a regular in the side (you guessed it, Cairney). Even Stefan Johansen and Floyd Ayite were more likely to miss the target than not.
The Super Eagle’s understanding with Ryan Fredericks was also an important component of our play last season, while the former was always an option that the midfield three would eagerly look out for.
Opposition sides often found it impossible to work out whether Aluko was going to stand the defender up and dash past him or whether he was waiting for the marauding overlaps of the former Tottenham man. That link-up did not quite hit the same heights during the very early stages of this campaign, but no player before the Ipswich game really showed what they were capable of.
The fee is also a curious cause for celebration. A £7.5m profit is a very handy bit of business by the club, but there is a risk of putting profit before progress. We are now left with two right-wing options, both of whom are very promising talents but lack experience.
Neither of them have shown what they can do over the course of an entire season, with Jordan Graham’s highest number of appearances in a league season being 11 at Wolves. That season saw him create 27 chances, with five of those leading to goals. Had 2015/16 not been curtailed by a knee ligament injury that kept him sidelined for 15 months, he would surely have fashioned many more openings.
If Graham can replicate that chance creation rate over a 46-game regular campaign, then Aluko will quickly be forgotten. The major caveat though is that he has not done anything close to that before and it would have been useful to have an experienced head to compete with for a spot in the starting XI, both to drive up standards and to ensure, if Graham be given the nod, that there was a proven Championship performer waiting in the wings should the Villa academy product suffer an injury.
Sheyi Ojo possesses Premier League experience, but his best season also came at the West Midlands outfit two years ago in the Championship, where he created 16 chances in 17 league games, with three assists and two goals during that spell.
The game at Portman Road showed that he’s not afraid to take players on and try his luck from distance, but he still looks very raw and there were times when his decision-making let him down.
It would have been wise to have a more experienced head in the same position who can be relied on to produce consistent performances in the second tier, and who has lost none of the pace and agility that made him so deadly in 2016/17. Following the pre-season friendly defeat to Wolfsburg, Jokanovic described the prospect of selling Aluko as a “big mistake”. I believe that his worries could be well-founded.
Jack J Collins, Case for the Prosecution
It’s apparent to anyone that watches Fulham that our issue at the moment is not creating chances, but putting them away. For all his qualities, Sone Aluko is not the goalscorer that Fulham need at the moment, and whilst his style and ability down the right hand flank were eyecatching and produced heartstoppingly brilliant moments at times last season, the whole deal makes complete business sense from Fulham’s perspective.
When you look at Aluko’s statistics from last season, one thing leaps out, and that is the profligacy of his shots to goals ratio. Aluko in front of goal can be summed up in a word – wasteful.
Whilst Alex is correct in suggesting that composure comes in many forms, it would be madness to argue that on the showing of the first few games of the season, Fulham look to not be teeing up opportunities. In the Burton game alone, presentable chances within the eighteen-yard box for Johansen, Ojo and Norwood were all spurned. Fulham are still a creative force, with or without Aluko.
Whilst those moments of awe-inspiring brilliance did get fans out of their seats applauding last year, it’s not as if we’ve suddenly been denied them. Aluko’s absence should result in a starting berth most weeks for the effervescent Neeskens Kebano, who not only is just as capable of terrorising defenders with magic feet, but is also far more useful in front of goal.
This is not to say that I will not miss Sone Aluko. In fact, I loved watching Aluko play – his ability to ghost past players was sensational, and his trickery is something we have not seen at the Cottage in a regular starter for a long time. On top of that, he was clearly a popular figure around the camp, and felt an affinity for the club, something reaffirmed by his visit to Craven Cottage to watch the Hull game last Tuesday night.
Yet we live in a time where football is a business game, and getting £7.5 million for a player going into the final year of his contract and who we signed on a free, is good business whichever way you look at it. Even if it takes three players to fill the void that Aluko has left, there are more than capable deputies in the shape of Sheyi Ojo, Jordan Graham and Yohan Mollo, all of whom come with a degree of hype associated with them.
Graham in particular, has yet to be given a chance to shine, but the reaction of the Wolves faithful on loaning him out should be a good sign. There is undoubted talent there, and if the former Villa youngster can tap into Slavisa’s philosophy fully then I expect him to get gametime soon. Ojo is slightly more hit and miss, but as he grows into the side he can improve on some inconsistent performances where he has shown glimpses of his clear potential.
Yohan Mollo, I feel, is perhaps the most likely candidate to fill Aluko’s boots, though. The Frenchman is a showboat, just like the Nigerian, and has a natural ability to go past a player which has already been demonstrated in his games this season. Unlocking his dynamism could be the key to getting the Whites firing on all cylinders once again.
Having studied his time in France and Russia, looking at his statistics graphs (you can see them here) and talking to Russian journalists about his potential, I think that Fulham might well have a gem on our hands here, and I’m extremely excited for Mollo to get his fitness up to scratch, and to force his way into Slavisa’s first XI.
With Fonte and Kamara suggesting that the False 9 system might soon be relegated to a moment in time, there is plenty of wingers to fill just two spaces, and when Rafa Soares gets to full fitness, that cohort of Ayite, Kebano, Graham, Ojo and Mollo will probably be supplemented by the wunderkind Ryan Sessegnon, leaving Slavisa with plenty of choice and plenty of competition, which will be used to drive players on further to better their game.
Only time will truly tell how much we will miss the winger, but on the showing of the first few games, there can be no doubt that profligacy is Fulham’s greatest enemy, and there can be no doubt that Aluko was a harbinger of that wastefulness. If we start to look like we lack a creative spark, then the argument may have to be reopened.