Fulham’s recruitment strategies have come under significant scrutiny ever since Shahid Khan’s purchase of the club in 2013, but the transfer window of summer 2021 may represent the most coherent and effective approach to appointments and player acquisitions yet.
It all started with the appointment of Marco Silva, a decision that this writer was not entirely enamoured with at the time due to his brief stints and questionable successes in English football to date. But the Portuguese head coach has silenced this doubter as his side have surged to the summit of The Championship with no sign of slowing down. A brave, attacking approach has seen previous signings utilised to their potential, while making use of players from the club’s academy to good effect.
What Silva appears to have achieved in a short period of time is galvanise the squad. He has successfully reintegrated Jean Michael Seri and installed him into a pivotal role in this team. Tim Ream is back to his best, looking like the composed centre-half the Fulham faithful came to love in the 2017/18 promotion campaign, Aleksandar Mitrovic is once again terrorising defences and Antonee Robinson has demonstrated decision-making in the final third to match his assuredness in defensive situations. It remains to be seen exactly how this season will pan out, but it may well be that this windows’ most significant signing was indeed Silva himself.
Silva’s impact on the pitch has been there for all to see, but his impact on the inner workings of the transfer strategy are evident too. There has long been discontent between head coaches at the club and those seemingly in charge of acquiring new members of the playing staff. Slavisa Jokanovic was never afraid to express his frustrations at the apparent slow nature of the Fulham’s transfer business. Scott Parker ended last season making clear and loud references to the changes he felt were needed within the clubs “structure”, a thinly veiled inference that recruitment was a key issue in The Whites inability to arrest the roller coaster nature of the last four years. It has long been reported that the head coach of Fulham Football Club does not have a significant input when decisions are made regarding incoming transfers.
This summer, however, the man in dugout also appears to be making decisions on who he works with at Motspur Park. While Harry Wilson would have been sought after by any promotion-chasing side, the signings made on deadline day are too obviously linked to Silva for him not to have had significant input into their arrivals. Both Nathaniel Chalobah and Domingos Quina played under the Portuguese tactician at Watford while Quina also shares a nationality with him. Having players the manager is familiar with and clearly fit with his formations avoids the square pegs in round holes approach that was evident at various points of last season. Ruben Loftus-Cheek on the right wing, Ivan Cavaleiro at centre-forward and Bobby Decordova-Reid at right wing-back should be a thing of the past, and not just because Loftus-Cheek has departed following his less than stellar loan spell.
It feels pretty clear where each of the new arrivals fit into the squad. Wilson has already made the right flank his own, bringing his set-piece delivery and goals to the side. He has shown his ability at this level before contributing goals and assists for Derby and Cardiff in recent years. Paolo Gazzaniga provides good competition for the no.1 spot between the posts, and while most fans would like to see Marek Rodak given the chance to establish himself as first choice once again, Gazzaniga has Premier League experience and is yet let the team down this term. Chalobah is a midfielder in the mould of those favoured by Silva previously, physically imposing and technically astute. He will provide an option in deep midfield position, and also an alternative to the box-to-box role currently being performed so well by Josh Onomah.
While Fabio Carvalho has performed above even the most optimistic fans expectations at the start of this season, it has become apparent that there is a lack of options to effectively replace him should the rough treatment of the Championship’s defenders begin to catch up with the teenager. It would be irresponsible to expect him to play 46 games at the intensity needed to be successful in the second tier, and protecting his bright future should be a priority as much as encouraging his development. Quina provides a like-for-like option when Carvalho needs taking out of the firing line, and the exciting Portuguese youngster should provide the energy needed for a 10 in a Marco Silva team.
Less is known about Rodrigo Muniz, but the dearth of options at centre-forward led to Cavaleiro playing a significant portion of last season filling the void after Mitrovic fell out of favour. Muniz will at least provide a more natural fit in the event of Mitrovic’s absence from the field, and while expectations may need to be tempered while the Brazilian adapts to life on a new continent, it is encouraging that this gaping hole in the squad has been filled. He is also very much a Silva signing. The head coach has expressed as much in press conferences, and he is very happy to have been trusted in identifying the potential in the striker.
One thing that stands out about this window is the lower dependence on loanees. The loan market has been a favourite of the Fulham recruitment team over the years, with no less than seven starters departing the club following the expiration of their loan deals at the conclusion of last season. The season prior, use of the loan market was also frequent. Decordova-Reid, Cavaleiro, Anthony Knockaert, Harrison Reed and Harry Arter all arrived on loan, with options and obligations attached. One such obligation forced the club into the permanent signing of Anthony Knockaert, a decision which can now be said was a poor one. This summer just one loanee has arrived, meaning next summers budget should not be as impacted by this seasons players, as has been the case in the past. This should in turn relieve the dependence on further loan signings, as there should be funds to do permanent deals. Lessons, at last, appear to have been learned.
Of course all of this means very little if Fulham do not achieve the undeniable objective of securing promotion, and all of the excitement about a successful window will be forgotten if promotion is followed by another relegation. But to fully appreciate this window, we should also remain aware of the successes of previous ones, even if they do exist in amongst more obvious failings. Kenny Tete, Tosin Adarabioyo and Robinson all acquitted themselves well in the Premier League. After all, Fulham were not relegated because the defence was leaky, at least not once those reinforcements were brought in. Another season together, and the back four is mostly ready to compete in the top tier. The same can be said of Harrison Reed, who despite rumoured interest from Premier League clubs has remained in West London. With Mitrovic signing a new contract the club has ensured that the most important members of the squad have been retained.
In addition, this summers acquisitions arrive with more Premier League experience behind them. While Cavaleiro and Knockaert had represented clubs in the top division, they had not experienced any prolonged involvement or success at that level. Chalobah and Gazzaniga have both had longer spells in the top flight, and Wilson produced seven goals in his last campaign there. Muniz may be an unknown quantity, but there is far less guess work surrounding the majority if this summer’s signings. The club look in a better place to maintain Premier League status if promotion is to be realised at the end of this season. Another summer window in the same vein as this most recent one would go a long way toward instilling more confidence in the team achieving just that.