Fulham foraged their way back into the Premier League at the first time of asking after navigating through the lucrative Championship playoff finals.
Scott Parker performed commendably as a permanent manager during a full season in charge of the Cottagers, a club he can call home having accumulated over 100 appearances in Southwest London before hanging up his footballing boots.
In similar form to his style on the pitch, Parker’s team were equally as efficient, finishing fourth in the usual league campaign, before beating Cardiff City and Brentford to return to the promised land, their second promotion in three years.
Although Fulham fans have every right to celebrate the achievements of the team, they will know the 2019/20 season wasn’t without its hiccups. This tactical analysis in the form of a scout report will cover where Fulham need to strengthen if they are to avoid instant relegation as they suffered in 2018/19, discussing potential player and tweaks in tactics that Parker could make to ensure survival in the top division.
Parker will be extremely wary of how Fulham have previously attempted to defy the Premier League drop. Slavisa Jokanovic spent over £100 million on new recruits in the summer, including a handful of high profile loanees, plus a few more new faces in the January transfer to almost completely reface the side that had defeated Aston Villa in the playoff final.
Of those 15 signed by the Serbian, just four started in the 1-0 loss to Barnsley on the opening day of the campaign just concluded. Parker did enjoy a mini-spree of his own, with the likes of Anthony Knockaert, Ivan Cavaleiro, Harry Arter, and Harrison Reed all joining from Premier League sides, whilst Josh Onomah moved from Tottenham Hotspur on a free.
Now with a blank chequebook at his disposal, Parker has the decision whether to follow in the footsteps of Jokanovic and completely revamp the furniture at Fulham, or trust the assets already at his disposal. He has already been given a benchmark of how either option can have a negative effect; Aston Villa spent £144 million after their leap from the Championship and only just avoided a downfall on the last day, whereas Norwich paid less than £4 million on signings and came back down immediately.
Parker will likely shadow the former, but with perhaps a little more injection in the areas that need improving. For starters, another striker to support Alexander Mitrovic seems like the first port of call. One of those acquired by Jokanovic, Mitrovic was by far Fulham’s main threat up front, netting 26 goals, amassing 16.64% of Fulham’s total league tally. However, after the free-scoring Serb the goals considerable drop off, with captain Tom Cairney the nearest competitor with eight.
Remaining on the offensive department, Parker may also look for more creativity to supply his strikers. Only two achieved more than four assists, Cavaleiro and playoff hero Joe Bryan, with Mitrovic again amongst the pack with three for himself. Those at the elite level require imagination from all over the field and granted Parker did invest well in wide positions, he may want a more in central midfielder to get in and around the action.
Down the opposite end, Fulham were boosted by the eventual arrival of Michael Hector from Chelsea. The 27-year-old center-back joined the Whites from the Blues in September but wasn’t available until the turn of the year. His impact was considerable; Fulham kept 10 clean sheets in the 23 games he featured, loosing on just three occasions.
His partner at the heart of the Fulham defence has generally been Tim Ream, who played 47/48 league matches under Parker. He may have been highly trusted by his boss, but there is a case to perhaps replace the 32-year-old American for a younger model.
Plenty of the goals Fulham conceded came down the right channel, or the left-hand side of the back four from which Ream is stationed; more on that further in the article. Despite playing fewer matches, Hector’s defensive statistics are improved on those achieved by Ream.
They are only marginal and based on rates per 90 minutes it’s understandable why Ream’s were lower. Although, the Premier League is won by margins and Parker will want to ensure his team is not undone by a small mistake.
However, Ream does typify the possession-based approach Parker has installed since his takeover, with his passing stats far greater than Hector’s, who is used to a more direct method from his previous spells at Reading and Sheffield Wednesday.
Clearly, Ream is much more progressive in his passing, generally starting moves from the back, and is even prone to dribbling past opponents to drive his side forward. Interestingly, the one stat Hector does prevail in the long passes column. Another issue that will be addressed is how Parker needs to occasionally vary his style to suit the opponent’s game, which is where Hector’s ability at picking a long pass would be crucial.
Death by a thousand passes
This links directly to the need for Parker to possibly rethink his passing philosophy. Fulham have been extremely patient in their build-up, keeping the ball moving until they find the right opening. On average, they made almost double the number of accurate passes than their opponents across the season (Fulham 438.75, opponents 246.15). This was largely successful, yet even in defeat Parker did not alter how handled fixtures, suffering the negative effects in several of their heaviest defeats.
In fact, they outshone the opposition in almost every passing department, most distinctively for lateral passes. This demonstrates that Fulham was happy to play side to side in order to fashion an opening by displacing their rival’s shape. This possession-based football is an admirable one to try and recreate in the Premier League, though the likes of Norwich and Bournemouth have suffered by not altering their traditional, attack-minded football.
Having so much of the ball meant Fulham rarely countered attacked, victims of their own demise as they would squander possession and be caught on the break. In many of their most damning losses, Fulham failed to record a single counter-attack, in others just one, and against Brentford managed five, yet the Bees blow them away with 12 of their own.
If they are to compete, the Cottagers will inevitably have to surrender possession to the likes of Manchester City or Liverpool in order to try to catch them off guard with a breakaway.
Another avenue they could explore is to be more direct, a tactic Parker has tried to steer clear from, evident in the chart below. It may not seem attractive, nor what the Fulham faithful will desire, but it is certainly a way of bypassing a team press or to relieve pressure after defending for long periods of the match. And with the added bonus of Mitrovic as an excellent target man, Fulham could well benefit from the long pass.
Right channel chaos
Tying in the point about Fulham’s faults down their left, a handful of the goals they have conceded in defeats have come from a ball into the right-hand channel. This typically happens because of the forward-thinking nature of both Bryan and Ream, leaving space in behind as they venture upfield.
In the 3-0 loss to Leeds, all three of the host’s goals were fashioned from a ball down the right. Helda Costa took matters into his own hands as he drove down the line and cut the ball back to Patrick Bamford for the opener.
From a pass into midfield, Leeds looked instantly for a ball down the right with Jack Harrison already anticipating where the pass was going to go. In a similar fashion to the first, Harrison found substitute Ezgjan Alioski lurking in the box for a tidy finish.
The icing on the Leeds cake was the most straightforward. Without hesitation, Pablo Hernandez hit a first-time pass into the path of Harrison, who shrugged off the attentions of Bryan and finished under Marek Rodak.
Including this result, Fulham’s joint heaviest defeat was at the hands of Hull City, who also knocked three past the Whites. Jarrod Bowen, now of West Ham colours, had already made that run into the right channel before it was anticipated as depicted below.
Nevertheless, Hull recycle the chance straight away with Bowen making the exact same move, but now with more grass in front of him to exploit. One-one-one with Alfie Mawson, the Tigers forward-shifted his body for a yard of space and fired into the bottom corner.
As Fulham looked to drag themselves back into the tie, Jackson Irvine managed to intercept in the middle of the field. The Australian did not hesitate in releasing Bowen down the right, who had already put on the afterburners. Rodak did deny the first attempt, but Tom Eaves was in a position to put in the rebound.
Other examples came against Barnsley, another 3-0 loss, Bristol City, Preston North End, and Stoke City, who were able to exploit the space in the right channel to score at the expense of Fulham.
If Scott Parker can eradicate the mistakes of Fulham’s last venture into the Premier League, whilst addressing several of their own issues, then they have every chance of staying afloat.
Analysis of the Whites has covered what positions they may want to invest in, especially in a goalscoring sense. Parker’s preference of possession-based football will also be needed to be adapted if they are to compete with the very best, which may mean more being more direct or relying on counter-attacks.
Their left-side of defence has also been exploited on numerous occasions which will certainly have to be addressed if Fulham are to avoid being picked apart by the league’s most dangerous players.