Dan Cooke revisits his article from March 2023 and assesses whether Fulham have capitalised on last season’s top-half finish.
Towards the back end of last season, I wrote an article that outlined four actions I thought we should take to use our exceptional return to the top flight as a springboard for prolonged Premier League success (aka mid-table mediocrity). With the transfer window slamming shut (apparently it can never be closed gently), now felt like a good time to review our business, compared to what I wanted to see from our recruitment team.
One caveat to bear in mind: I am just a fan; I don’t have any experience of working in the recruitment team of a professional football club (I did temporarily work as a recruitment analyst for an Albanian basketball team, but it’s not quite the same thing). These are just my beliefs as to how we could grow, using other clubs as blueprints for success.
1. Flesh out the squad
We all knew that we lacked squad depth last year. The size of the squad fluctuated during the season with players leaving and joining after our first game, as well as in the January window, however, we had a squad of roughly 24 players. Despite this, when you consider this included the likes of Mbabu, Kurzawa, Duffy, and Chalobah, there was a lack of quality outside of our 14 regular starters. Marco struggled to change games by utilising his bench options, with Manor Solomon being our only real impact substitute. We didn’t have reliable back-ups for either full-back, Palhinha, Harrison Reed, and arguably Mitro (although Carlos Vinicius scored some important goals when utilised correctly). This is perhaps to be expected in a team’s first season after promotion, as you gradually transition into a Premier League team, you first improve the starting XI, then build a squad. Have we done that this summer?
The addition of Timothy Castagne and Calvin Bassey has certainly improved our defensive ranks, although I’m unsure of the apparently panicked addition of Ballo-Touré. Regardless, we have certainly added quality and depth.
In the middle of the park, Alex Iwobi threatens to bring competition to Andreas Pereira’s position, and based on how he’s started the season, Saša Lukić has integrated himself into this squad and is starting to show why we signed him back in January. However, not signing another defensively-minded midfielder, to either provide cover for Palhinha or play alongside him in “backs to the wall” moments, has surprised me. We’ve played six league games without João since he joined, and lost five of them. We’re always going to be a bit worse without him on the pitch, but a reasonable replacement would help minimise the negative impact of his inevitable absence at times this season.
We had six wingers last season. Three have left in the shape of Dan James, Manor Solomon, and everyone’s favourite, Neeskens Kebano. Six wingers may have seemed a bit overkill, although all but Neeskens made more than 20 appearances in all competitions, and he made 17. Adama Traoré is an exciting signing, and we’ve already seen glimpses of what he’ll bring to the table. Alex Iwobi is also capable of playing out wide, but his evolution into a ball carrying central-midfielder ignited his revival and resulted in him becoming Everton’s player’s player of the season. It definitely feels like we could have done with another option on the left, considering currently it’s a 35-year-old Willian, and the industrious Swiss Army Knife, Bobby De Cordova-Reid.
Finally, our number nine, the most concerning of the lot. Raúl is an experienced striker, who has shown flashes of his ability, but we certainly haven’t seen the best of him yet. He also hasn’t scored a league goal since March 2022, and has only had one shot on target this season. Carlos Vinicius managed five goals last season, respectable given his lack of minutes, but he has only surpassed double figures in one season in his career. He has also been seemingly cast aside by Silva, considering he hasn’t got on the pitch yet this campaign, and reports of a move to Turkey are growing stronger. Finally, we have Rodrigo Muniz, who has 11 career league goals, and was dropped early on during his loan spell at Middlesbrough, making only one substitute appearance in the last six months of his tenure there.
Mitro got 14 league goals last season, it doesn’t look like we’ve replaced those – that’s a big concern.
Ultimately, other than in defence, we don’t seem to have grown as a collective, and that’s really disappointing.
2. Trust/invest in youth
We had the oldest squad in the Premier League last season. The experience of the elder statesmen of the squad, Messrs Willian, Leno, and Ream, was a probably a large reason for our success. However, you have to start thinking long-term. An ageing squad was what ended our previous extended period in the Premier League, and it feels like the correct way to replace the older players in a team, is to have younger assets already in the squad who are ready to step into the role.
The average of our signings this summer was 26.5, with Calvin Bassey (23) and Steven Benda (24) being the youngest of the incomings. Both of those do suggest some element of future planning, with their best years still comfortably to come. Other than that, the rest of he signings appear to be in their prime, or in Raúl’s case, potentially past his prime.
Luke Harris currently has a role in the squad, however, his appearance against Manchester City would’ve been unlikely had it not been for the injuries to Lukić and Cairney, the absence of Palhinha, and Iwobi not being registered in time. The availability of all of these players will unfortunately limit Harris’s game time. Jay Stansfield has gone out on loan and has immediately ingratiated himself to the St. Andrews faithful, scoring in both of his first two games for Birmingham City.
Therefore, it seems as though Fulham are going with experience once again this year. Right now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, however I do worry that Fulham are not well prepared for the potential drop in performances from older players.
3. Make some tough decisions
This point was focused on not allowing sentimentality to cloud judgment when it comes to individual players. I felt we needed to be realistic about how much longer we can expect Tim Ream to be a superstar, and the signing of Bassey I think is smart, as it gives us a natural passing of the torch.
I also felt, that as much as I adore Neeskens Kebano, given his age and injury issues, it might sadly have been time to say goodbye, which we also did. Saying this, looking at our squad now, we probably could have done with our Congolese creator.
4. Don’t sell João Palhinha
Ha. Not quite too sure to say about this…
Everyone, including myself, has an opinion about what happened on Deadline Day, but we’ll ignore that in this article. Ultimately the most important thing is that we’ve retained one of the best players we’ve ever had and that’s huge.
As addressed earlier, we simply aren’t the same team without our Portuguese enforcer. I personally believe his value to us is far more than anyone is currently willing to pay. Despite this, West Ham have been a good example of how to handle your best player leaving, and seem to have reinvested well, improving their overall quality. We will sell him (ideally at the end of the season and not in January), but if we can get another stellar season out of him, and plan ahead with regards to what we do with the money, then I think we’ve got the best result possible.
Funnily enough, this section also said that we shouldn’t sell Mitro, which at the time I didn’t actually think was a possibility. As painful as it was to see him go, the fee received was very good, and unfortunately he made his stance clear.
5. Sign Manor SolomonEmbed from Getty Images
The last sentence of the article also snuck in one last action, which was to permanently sign Solomon. Clearly we failed at that, and his performance against Burnley at the weekend was tough to watch, proving to an extent that we’ve missed out on a quality player.
It’s hard to apportion blame here, as we were always going to struggle to win a battle against Spurs. However, given the controversial way in which we signed Manor in the first place, I fear we may have missed out on a bargain 12 months ago.
It must also be said that Marco Silva never seemed to be a big fan of Manor, and so he is probably a big reason why Manor is playing in a different London postcode.
It’s hard to pick out many positives here. We’ve not had a disaster window like Wolves, and barring injuries, we are better than enough teams in this league, that we probably needn’t worry about relegation. However, it really does feel like a missed opportunity. Finishing 10th in the Premier League is no mean feat, and with the right signings, I think we could have made a real fist of doing it again.
Unfortunately, with the way things currently look, I fear we may see some regression this season. But maybe that’s ok? Maybe the aim is just to ensure safety every season. It just would have been nice to see some real ambition.