It’s been a season beyond expectation so far on the Stevenage Road. So much so, that there was a surreal calm at Motspur Park on deadline day this week. Deals were being done, but without the desperation that has been a staple of Premier League transfer windows of the recent past in SW6. That being said, the next such window is likely to bring more change to the playing staff than this winter has seen.
Five wins in a row has given way to three matches without victory, and while satisfaction is still high among the Fulham faithful, there are glances towards the summer and how the squad can be shaped to maintain the sort of form that has seen the club rise to sixth in the top flight. As well as some players have met the challenge of Premier League football, recent fixtures have demonstrated the limitations of members of the current crop.
Against Tottenham Hotspur, a lack of cutting edge in the final third was apparent, as The Whites dominated for 40-plus minutes, before succumbing to exactly the sort quality Marco Silva and company could do with adding to their squad. Bobby De Cordova-Reid has rightly been praised for his contributions this season. His versatility, and discipline make him an invaluable squad member. He has also chipped in with four goals, making him the second top scorer this season. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that of the current starters, he would be one of the first on the list to be upgraded. He is a technically gifted player, with quick feet and intelligent movement. However, he doesn’t strike fear into fullbacks when one on one, averaging just 0.4 successful dribbles per match. His delivery from wide areas doesn’t offer the same threat as some of his counterparts either, recording just one assist from his 20 appearances. He absolutely deserves to maintain a starting spot on current form, but moving forward there may be better options out there.
Manor Solomon’s display in the recent FA Cup tie against Sunderland underlined this. A constant threat, the Israeli winger gave the sense that something could happen every time he was on the ball in opposition territory. For comparison to De Cordova-Reid, in last seasons Champions League, Solomon averaged 1.8 successful dribbles per game, at a success rate of 90%, the season before it was 2.7 per 90mins in the same competition. His clever flick to Layvin Kurzawa was instrumental in Tom Cairney’s equaliser. There will be a clamour for him to start the upcoming run of league games, starting with a visit to Stamford Bridge, where The Cottagers will look to repeat the feat of three weeks ago and upset their wealthy neighbours. In the period since that memorable night by The Thames, Chelsea have spent a fortune trying to ensure lightening doesn’t strike twice. Such squad surgery is not on the agenda down the Fulham Road at London’s original club, but the quality of Solomon could be key to unlocking a Chelsea defence who will be determined to defend against lightening striking twice. With Willian still showing flashes of the brilliance that saw him win every major trophy in England, it would likely be the popular Jamaican who made way for the man from Shaktar Donetsk.
At the other end of the pitch, the thus far impressive Issa Diop had a moment to forget last weekend, gifting the visitors the lead with a lapse in concentration while in possession. Again, Diop has received deserved praise since arriving, but a centre-back in the mould of Joachim Andersen, who didn’t make such mistakes would be a welcome addition to the side, especially with Tim Ream’s advancing age. The American is ageing like wine, but surely can not go on forever, and both of the current prospective replacements look to have an error in them.
One area of the squad has seen an upgrade at the end of the most recent transfer window, and that is central midfield. With Nathaniel Chalobah and Josh Onomah departing, Serbian international Sasa Lukic has arrived, and seemingly improves the overall level and depth in the middle of the park. It will be interesting to see how quickly he is able to establish his role in the team, and if he starts more games than not for the remainder of the season. Harrison Reed has proven key to Silva’s high-energy approach, but isn’t as effective in possession in the Premier League as he was in The Championship, even if he has recorded his first goals for the club. His pass completion has dropped from 87% last season, to 79% this term while his tackle success rate has remained the same. Ultimately, he is as effective as ever at winning back the ball, but not as effective with it at his feet. Lukic for his part has averaged 87% or higher in five of the last six seasons and could prove to be an upgrade to the ever dependable “ginger Iniesta”.
If Fulham are to continue their impressive return to the top flight beyond this season, upgrades will be necessary, even for trusted performers who have brought the club to this point. To now that transition has been managed far better than in previous promotion campaigns, but it will need to be an ever evolving-process to maintain the momentum built through the first half of this season.