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Building for Premier League stability, part 2: defenders

Written by George Rossiter on 16th June 2023

In a four-part series analysing Fulham’s options going forward, George Rossiter assesses our squad as well look to build on a brilliant first season back in the Premier League. In part two, we look at the defence.

Who do we have?

Fulham look to be going into preseason thin on defensive numbers. This is nothing to worry about; the same was said last year before the arrivals of Diop, Duffy, Kurzawa and Mbabu. As it stands, Cedric Soares and Layvin Kurzawa will both be heading back to parent clubs Arsenal and Paris Saint Germain, respectively. Shane Duffy has also moved on, signing for Norwich.

Marco Silva will be happy to have the five defensive options that all performed brilliantly during the 2023/24 season still on the books. Tosin, Issa Diop, Antonee Robinson, Kenny Tete and Tim Ream have all proved their quality at Premier League level. Though the elephant in the room is the report this week that Tosin is set to leave the Whites this summer, with contract talks ending in a stalemate.

Silva will hope that Ream returns as soon as possible from his broken arm and continues to play at the standard he has set over the past two years since Silva arrived. On top of this, of course, Fulham have a few out-f-avour names returning from loan.

What do we need?

It’s already likely that Fulham will once again be looking to add quality in depth to the defence this summer – and the Tosin news means we’ll be looking to get a first-team centre-back in. While individually, nobody had a bad season, Fulham’s defensive record was far from perfect and therefore adding options that provide more competition than the departing players did for a spot in the starting XI is important. Based on what we have, one would imagine we will be looking for a new left-back, right-back and left-sided centre-back.

Who’s coming back from loan?

Terence Kongolo will return from Le Havre this summer having played 14 times in Ligue 2 this season. That may not seem much, but it’s the most league appearances Kongolo has made in a season since the 32 he made for Huddersfield in the 2018/19 season. He has one year left on his contract, but it seems massively unlikely that the injury-prone Dutchman will be re-introduced into the squad in the coming year, even if he does fit the bill of the left-footed, ball-playing defender Marco might be looking for.

Steven Sessegnon and Joe Bryan have spent the last season out on loan at Charlton Athletic and OGC Nice respectively – but both are departing at the end of their contracts. Sess played a big part in Charlton finishing in the top half of League One, including scoring a goal of the season contender against Accrington Stanley at the Valley. Bryan went out to France with the chance to play European football, including three appearances and two goal contributions in the Europa Conference League. He did, however, play just six times in Ligue 1.

Kevin Mbabu played 16 times, registering three assists in the second half of the season playing for Swiss side Servette. Mbabu fell out of favour with Marco Silva very quickly after a handful of disappointing cameos and always looked like being given a loan in January. Whether he has a part to play going forward is yet to be seen. Youngster Idris Odutayo will return from Maidenhead United, while Ziyad Larkeche will leave the club following the expiration of his contract, having spent last term on loan at Barnsley.

Academy prospects

Arguably, Fulham’s most highly-rated prospect in this area of the pitch is Charlie Robinson. The young centre-back appeared in his first Premier League matchday squad this season and has impressed massively in the academy system. Robinson has captained the club at almost every junior level from U9s upwards, showing his incredible leadership qualities, which will only endear him more to the club staff. If injuries or suspensions surface this season at centre-back, he is almost certainly first in line to fill in.

Elsewhere, the likes of Connor McAvoy, Luciano D’Auria-Henry and Stefan Parkes also all featured in matchday squads this season, but the latter two are leaving this summer. Whether McAvoy gets a chance to do the same in 2023/24 is yet to be seen.

Final assessment

Typically, as a team that plays with a back four, Marco Silva will want two solid options in each of the four positions in his defence. As it stands, if Tosin leaves, it feels like he has just four: Ream, Diop, Tete and Robinson. Let’s consider who is going to go. Bryan, Duffy, and Sessegnon are gone. Mbabu and Kongolo are under contract but both out of favour, it feels unlikely that either will stake their claim to stay this summer. Cedric and Kurzawa don’t appear to be having their loans made permanent.

While the likes of Charlie Robinson Connor McAvoy have obvious quality and potential, it doesn’t seem possible that they will be in that eight-man defensive pool next season; their time will come. The key position seems to be left centre-back. Ream has been brilliant but age is not on his side, and Diop has shown his shakiness on his unpreferred side in the run in. It is likely that Fulham will want a younger player to integrate into the squad and eventually take Ream’s place for the future. I’ve banged this drum before, but Armel Bella-Kotchap is the sort of player that fits that bill and could be available on the cheap after Southampton’s relegation.

The departures of Kurzawa and Cedric leave Fulham needing both a right-back and a left-back. Both loanees provided very little competition to Robinson and Tete, who were both sensational all season. Adding greater quality in depth will only push the levels of our players forward, so recruitment of so called ‘back-ups’ has to be taken seriously.

While investment in this position is necessary, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of huge fees, and Fulham have done a lot of clever business in recent windows. Ola Aina is available on a free after completing his contract with Torino. Aina knows the club and provides great versatility. Speaking of free transfers, Fulham could do worse than the likes of Aaron Martin of Mainz, and Hamari Traore of Rennes, who we have previously shown interest in.

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