In a four-part series analysing Fulham’s options going forward, George Rossiter assesses our squad as we look to build on a brilliant first season back in the Premier League. In part three, we look at the midfield.
Who do we have?
Fulham look good numbers wise in the engine room. In terms of senior players, we currently have Harrison Reed, Joao Palhinha, Sasa Lukic, Andreas Pereira, Tom Cairney and the lesser-spotted Tyrese Francois. The consistent midfield trio of Palhinha, Reed and Pereira were superb throughout the 2022/23 season. Cairney played a huge role coming off the bench almost every week before filling in for Pereira in the run-in. Lukic has started to show his quality and will surely play a larger role next time out. Francois might be at a stage in his career now where he has to look elsewhere for first team football.
What do we need?
Despite having decent depth already, last year only proved that we do need more. Palhinha’s occasional absences left us looking for solutions that just didn’t fit. Be it Nathaniel Chalobah or even to a degree, Sasa Lukic, nothing quite worked. A quality number six, perhaps a young one to develop for the future, is important to nullify the loss of Palhinha when the odd suspension occurs. We do also have to consider the possibility of Joao leaving in the next 12 months with half of Europe seemingly wanting his signature on a contract.
The other position to consider is the number 10 role. Pereira had a brilliant first season, but sustained a serious leg injury against Manchester City and is unlikely to be ready for the start of next season. While Cairney filled in admirably, it does appear that Silva sees him as more of a number eight now, so depth in this position is entirely necessary and will surely be a position that the club look to invest in this summer.
Who’s coming back from loan?
In terms of players that could be in first team contention, there’s not much to say here. Tyrese Francois played 10 times for Croatian side HNK Gorica before returning to Motspur Park; it seems unlikely that he’d get many first team opportunities going forward. Adrion Pajaziti went out on loan to Norweigan side Haugesund in February, and it looks likely that move will be made permanent with an option to buy included in the deal. Sonny Hilton played seven times in a brief loan spell at Carlisle and has since been released by the club. Jonathan Page has also been released since returning from Farnborough. Ollie O’Neill will also be returning after playing 19 times for Derry City in the 2022/23 season in his home country Ireland.
Luke Harris remains the standout here. While his chances in the first team were limited this season just gone, the hope will be that he plays a bigger part going forward after agreeing a new deal with the club. Harris had another fantastic season at youth level and the sky seems to be the limit for the Welshman who continues to earn callups for Rob Page’s National side.
Other players highly rated within the youth setup are Ollie O’Neill and Matt Dibley-Dias. Versatile Irishman O’Neill joined Derry on a six-moth deal in February, and has now returned to his parent club with Derry sat in second place after 21 games in the Irish Premier Division. O’Neill’s current deal with the club runs through to 2025 and he was an unused substitute in the league cup defeat to Leeds in 2021, more occasional cup chances may follow. Dibley-Dias is another advanced midfielder, who seems to be very highly rated by Silva, who has included the Brazilian in first team training on a number of occasions. Like O’Neill, any favourable cup tie may provide opportunities for him to make a matchday squad.
Assuming no big departures, Fulham go into pre-season with a healthy midfield department. But there is no room for complacency; Fulham have to be clever with future-proofing. There is no guarantee that Palhinha stays. There is no guarantee that Lukic’s transition into the squad gets any easier. There is no guarantee that Pereira has zero injury complications when he does return. Signings have to be made and they have to make sense.
Fulham are definitely in the market for another advanced midfielder. Fabio Carvalho has already been linked with a return, most probably on loan. Whether that materialises or not, it’s a sign of intent from the club to make sure they have another player in that position. Ambitious targets could include Tiago Almada, arguably the MLS’s best player at the moment (until a certain Lionel Messi turns up in Miami), or maybe even the return of Carvalho on a permanent deal.
As mentioned, another number six is needed, whether Palhinha stays or goes. Fred of Manchester United has been linked and would be a statement signing for the club. Whether he is the out-and-out defensive midfielder Fulham need or not is another question. I personally like James Garner of Everton, a player who found his minutes limited due to injury and the presence of Amadou Onana. His profile of player, a young combative number six with huge room to grow, is the exact sort of player Fulham should be looking for this summer.