Fulham were widely tipped for relegation following promotion, but Marco Silva has built a team capable of holding its own at a higher level.
It was no surprise that so many of us predicted them to go down this season. After all, that’s exactly what happened the last two times they had been promoted. But as November draws close with the Premier League still looking in a slightly unusual shape, it seems as though a lot of us got it wrong with Fulham.
In mitigation, there was a slight air of unhappiness around the club during the summer over ticket prices and particularly the £1,000 cost of getting a ticket in the still uncompleted Riverside Stand. And although promotion was more or less confirmed by the middle of March, they limped rather than sprinted over the finishing line to the Championship title, losing five and drawing two of their last 11 games.
The end of last season seemed to offer Fulham supporters a grim portent of another campaign at the wrong end of the Premier League, but under Marco Silva, Fulham have blossomed and sit in seventh place in the table, with a brief wobble that took in two successive defeats rectified with two straight wins against Aston Villa and Leeds.
Fulham have flourished since Silva took control of the team, with some smart operation in the transfer market. The club’s summer transfer activity looks truly excellent. Bernd Leno is a solid and experienced goalkeeper who has thrived from being a first choice again; Andreas Pereira has benefited from making the opposite journey (in terms of exposure) as he looks rejuvenated away from Manchester United. Joao Palhinha has added a solid core to their defensive midfield.
This has been matched by improvement from key players already at the club, with the development of Harrison Reed a case in point. A fringe player at Southampton, Reed only played 17 times for the Saints and was loaned out to Norwich City and Blackburn Rovers before first arriving at Craven Cottage in August 2019. Having made that switch permanent a year later, Reed has successfully pushed himself into their first team and flourished under Silva, with recent performances making him look increasingly indispensable.
And then there’s the big, hairy, occasionally angry, Serbian elephant in the room. Aleksandar Mitrovic has been a flag around whom all of Fulham could rally since first arriving at Craven Cottage in February 2019, but this season has seen him fit the final pieces to the jigsaw of his game. We can hardly say it wasn’t coming. He didn’t receive as much attention as he deserved for scoring 43 goals in 44 games in the Championship last season, but it was a staggering number nevertheless. This season, he’s kicked off with nine in his first 11 games.
This is the player who Newcastle thought they’d signed from Anderlecht in the summer of 2015, but players mature at different rates and the signs are that he is aging like a fine wine. There can be no masking the fact that Fulham’s last two Premier League seasons prior to this one were pretty terrible; it’s difficult to score a lot of goals when your team is on the defensive most of the time; he’s already scored three times as many as he did two seasons ago. That this blistering form coincides with Marco Silva’s arrival at the club may not be mere coincidence alone.
It feels as though Silva is becoming the manager that Hull City, Watford and Everton all wanted in the first place but never really saw, though perhaps he was always destined to fail at all three. Relegation under the Allam family was always likely at Hull, while Watford’s volatility in the managerial market has both pre and post-dated Silva’s spell at Vicarage Road and Everton pursued him doggedly and then didn’t seem to know what to do with him once they’d finally got him there. Other, more experienced managers have also failed at Goodison Park.
And it’s also worth remembering just what a state Fulham were in when he arrived at the club, having lost nine of their last 12 games. For all the talk of the in-built advantage of parachute payments, they needed a lot of work. And for all that they tailed off towards the end of the season, they had previously sparkled, scoring seven goals three times, six goals twice (in successive games) and five goals twice. They scored 106 goals in their 46 league games, meaning that even though Mitrovic scored those 43 league goals, even that was less than half their overall total.
There are, of course, caveats to all of this. We’re not even a third of the way through the season, so things could yet change. The mid-season break for a World Cup will disrupt the rhythm of this season, and Fulham will likely be one of the clubs who don’t want it to come around, such has been their form so far. And that defence looks as though it could still do with a little fine-tuning. Fulham have conceded 22 goals in their first 12 league games of the season; only Bournemouth, Leicester City and Nottingham Forest have conceded more.
But then again, they’ve also scored 22 goals in those 12 games. Only Arsenal, Manchester City and Spurs have scored more, while Liverpool have scored the same and both Chelsea and Manchester United have scored six fewer. And perhaps there’s nothing wrong with conceding a few goals if you have a player of the calibre of Mitrovic up front, smacking in a goal more or less every game. ‘We’ll score on more than you’ can feel like a risky strategy, but it’s been working well enough for Fulham.
It certainly feels as though Marco Silva hasn’t got the credit that he deserves for turning Fulham around after their 2021 relegation and getting them promoted back at the first attempt, while scoring comfortably more than 100 goals, and then defying apocalyptic pre-season predictions to establish his team at the upper end of mid-table, is no small achievement.
Others may have made more headlines throughout 2022, but Silva has been quietly got on with the job of ridding Fulham of the insecurities that took them down from the Premier League twice in three years and building a team which is both difficult to beat and entertaining. He’s had a fabulous 2022.
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