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Analysing Fulham’s most important Jenga blocks

23rd January 2024

Palhinha in the rain
© Adam Farquharson 2024

In his debut article, Daniel PreFontaine explores our squad through the lens of Jenga Theory.

The ‘Jenga Theory’ within sports is something normally talked about within the NFL, but it’s something that has become clearly ever-present within Fulham Football Club’s current structure, success and shortcomings. This theory tends to reveal the struggles that cohesive and successful units experience when removing an intrinsic functional factor within the core of a team – think removing a crucial Jenga piece from the tower of blocks.

The values we see within the backbone of an NFL team can be easily compared to that in the strategy of Fulham’s ownership and operations. The Khans have taken this structure and utilised it through Fulham’s regularly consistent starting XIs; the signing of experienced Premier League talent and an impressionable backbone that has turned The Whites from that classic yo-yo team, back into its current and much deserved status as an established Premier League club.

This season, it’s become increasingly easy to tell where the backbone of Marco Silva’s squad starts and ends.

So, where to start?

The Importance of a stable number nine

Now, it is easy to understand the brutal hangover Fulham have experienced from losing Mitrovic. However, this unfortunate series of events has opened an opportunity to revitalise the career of a certain tenacious Mexican.

Raul, who has shown snippets of brilliance through rabonas, overhead kicks to backheels, has been an ever-growing presence in the success of the team. On paper, Jimenez slides perfectly into Fulham’s natural attacking style. His impressive first touch, at times, has allowed Fulham to generate a free-flowing attack on the counter while, his strong presence in the opposition’s box, generates more forward progression and a clear target for our full-backs who tend to bomb forward.

His effectiveness with his back to goal has allowed the midfielders to express themselves, an important factor when matched up with technicians such as Iwobi and Cairney. Ultimately, enabling the retention of the style that allowed Mitrovic to thrive will in turn provide Fulham with the opportunity to bring back the free scoring, ruthless style we have seen previously.

Raul’s suspension through the festive period exposed Fulham’s lack of depth in this position once again and showed the Mexican’s importance to this tightly-constructed starting XI. With Raul in the team, Vinicius and Muniz have proved themselves to be that much-needed energy coming off the bench, not only motivating the team but the crowd as well, which unfortunately is potentially the heights of our back-up strikers.

Here’s hoping that Raul can regain the glimpse of form we saw before he clattered into Sean Longstaff, and intern flourish as Fulham’s main goal scorer.

Portuguese brilliance

The potential loss of Joao Paulinha last January threatened to tear down the success of Fulham entirely throughout 2023/24. A pillar of brilliance, his importance to Fulham compares to the likes of Mo Salah or Kevin De Bruyne to their respective clubs.

Without Palhinha, Fulham are half the team they have the potential to be. The Portuguese brings a dominance within Fulham’s midfield not seen for almost a decade, since the likes of Mousa Dembele, Dickson Etuhu, and Luis Boa Morte roamed Motspur Park. He’s destined to be poached by a bigger club, but for now he’s Fulham’s glue, and is arguably our most influential player.

Palhinha’s aggressive ball-winning and physical characteristics have allowed Fulham to compete within an increasingly physical and modern Premier League. He has transformed the play we see and is the much-needed protection for the back four, that at times has been the frailest part of the squad. With his defensive heroics at the forefront of his game, his attacking impact can sometimes go amiss, Palhinha is consistently able to provide dangerous crosses with his excellent long-range ability allowing him to score some impressive goals. An important, if not the most important factor in this Jenga tower.

Defensive decisions

At the bottom of our tower we have our temperamental defence. Throughout this season the injuries at the root of the squad have continued to impact the consistency week-to-week. At the centre of defence, Tosin and Ream have both been out for lengthy amounts of time (albeit not at the same time), while Bassey and Diop have tended to find their inconsistencies on the pitch. Our full-backs have beenbeen more consistently available, with only Tete lacking in match fitness. 

However, with the introduction of Tosin and Bassey as a dedicated right and left-sided central defensive partnership, Fulham have been able to find a new approach. Shown in the two consecutive 5-0 wins at Craven Cottage, we saw Tosin able to deploy his long-range passing ability, while Bassey became more fluent with the ball at his feet, both utilising their abilities with their strong foot. Although young and relatively inexperienced in a Premier League defence, this combination can be effective in years to come – only if Tosin decides to finally put pen to paper and continue his career at Fulham.

Antonee Robinson has been a staple of Fulham’s defence this season. A player with the most interceptions in the Premier League whose speed has allowed him to get forward and support the wingers, while also tracking back and covering the left flank. Just like Palhinha, Fulham’s squad without Antonee is completely less effective, although he may struggle at times with his final delivery, it’s his progression into the final third that makes Fulham dangerous. He often tends to cover the most distance in the squad from game to game and is detrimental to Fulham’s counter attacking capabilities. Without him the Jenga pile threatens to topple.

These are just some of Fulham’s most important components, and with them we have seen the team become incredibly successful at times. Fulham must find consistency, they have shown time and time again this season that they are always able to compete at this level, and in turn push for a return to future European competitions.

But for now, I personally love the passion and competitiveness that the Fulham Squad has shown this year, and here’s hoping that this fact continues towards the end of the 2023/24 season.  

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