This time feels different for Fulham. The build up has been eerily familiar; late transfer business, a disgruntled fan base and a frustrated head coach. But once the referee blew his whistle at 12:30pm on Saturday, Marco Silva’s team set about their business with a ferocious intent, that galvanised the home support and set the tempo for a whirlwind afternoon. Worries of centre-back signings and a lack of squad depth were quickly forgotten.
It has become a trademark of Marco Silva, Fulham manager. His footballing philosophy is infectious and he won the Fulham faithful over quickly upon his arrival in SW6 as a result. Upon promotion Silva declared “One thing I am one hundred per cent sure of is that I will not change my philosophy”, which is a nice headline quote, but how will that look in practice? Will Fulham be able to assert themselves offensively a level up in the same way that brought three separate 7-0 wins? What adaptations will have to be made?
All of those question were answered against a Liverpool team that have a legitimate claim to being the best football team in Europe at present. It looked different because the opposition was strong, but the fundamentals remained. High energy pressing, with a desire to win the ball back that was evident more than last season, simply because The Whites had less possession than Craven Cottage regulars will have become used to. Liverpool restricted The Cottagers to 33% possession, but that does not tell the story of the game, as the hosts matched their accomplished visitors with the ball, and won their battles without it.
It is with the ball that there was clearly no compromise for Silva’s men. Direct, at pace and in numbers. Fulham overwhelmed teams last season with their attacking output, and a side that made every final last season were regularly in danger of experiencing the same fate as most of last season’s Championship opposition. Possession is measured by Opta based on the number of passes a team makes, and as the Portuguese tactician has said many times, why use three or four passes to create a chance when two will do? Fulham have always looked at their best in transition, and with his side clearly well-drilled over preseason, transitions will be forced upon opponents at a level where they will command more of the ball than previously.
Silva has placed a lot of emphasis on preseason when discussing the wait for new arrivals, and it is clear to see why. The level of fitness required to carry out his instructions will be non-negotiable. His charges were relentless, and even midway though the second-half, as it looked like the energy levels were dipping, Fulham found another gear and reasserted themselves in the game. The embodiment of this was Aleksandar Mitrovic. Craven Cottage regulars are more than aware of how he has developed his game under what is now his fourth head coach in West London, but anyone yet to see the latest version of Mitro would have been impressed. Silva’s demands of work-rate go from back to front, and his attacking focal point won 18 of 23 duels up against Virgil van Dijk and co. And that’s before we mention the two goals that put him top of the Premier League scoring charts, alongside Erling Haaland, after game week one.
Fulham are clearly playing to his strengths, but the no.9 has also adapted to the requirements of the system, and the system is what provides greater optimism than in previous years. The last time The Whites were here their Serbian talisman was cast aside for a reactive approach as the team were set up to “stay in the game”. This time it is all about being proactive. Asserting their style on the opposition, and setting up to try to win three points at every opportunity. There is no settling for what we have, and while respect is due to the opponents, it will also be demanded in return.
Last season was one of redemption for so many of the main protagonists in this squad, and indeed the man in charge. But that theme will continue into the new campaign, as Mitrovic sets out his stall to prove the Premier League naysayers wrong, Silva looks to establish himself for an extended period in the Premier League and other squad members battle to retain their favour among shiny new signings. Tim Ream and Marek Rodak did just that in the curtain raiser, but there will be more questions asked before all of the doubters are silenced. Fulham’s recent history in this division guarantees that, but this time it feels different.