It seems only yesterday that Fulham were touted for great things this season. Becoming the first promoted side to spend over £100 million in their first transfer window seemed a huge statement of intent from Shahid Khan, a man whose investment can’t be understated. These weren’t panic buys either, beating the likes of Barcelona and Chelsea to Jean Michaël Seri from Nice, the Ivorian fetching £27 million. This signing, along with Aleksandar Mitrovic from Newcastle (£18m) and the loan signing André Schürrle from Borussia Dortmund, made it look like Fulham had all the makings of a solid first season back in the Premier League.
And then the season started.
It’s now thirty games later and Fulham sit second-bottom in the league, 13 points from safety with eight games to go and on their third manager of the season. If Manchester City are the epitome of buying success, then Fulham surely must be seen as the antithesis to this. But where exactly has it all gone wrong for the Cottagers? How did this side, seemingly destined for great things, get things so badly wrong? The answer to this could very well be found in the summer transfer window which brought so many good feelings before a ball had been kicked: It lies in Fulham’s recruitment.
‘Tony Khan elected to buy every player with a somewhat big name he could afford’
Where both Cardiff and Wolves have succeeded in creating a cohesive squad that works as a unit, Fulham have failed miserably. Like a child playing football manager for the first time, head of recruitment Tony Khan (son of chairman Shahid) elected to buy every player with a somewhat big name he could afford, with no regard for whether the players being bought would fit into the system being implemented by then-manager Slavisa Jokanovic. Cardiff and Wolves handled this very well, signing players that fit the philosophy of the current managers, something that their relative success can be attributed to.
That isn’t to say that all of Fulham’s signings haven’t worked out though. Fosu-Mensah could still develop into a great defender and Seri has shown glimpses of the talent which caught the eye of some of Europe’s biggest clubs. The problem Fulham now face with these two is the probability of them leaving should relegation become reality.
‘Only one side meddled with their squad too much, and it’s the one currently struggling’
The saying quality over quantity exists for a reason, and Fulham are finding this out the hard way. Of the three sides promoted last season, Cardiff signed six players, Wolves signed 11 and Fulham 12. All three squads were clearly strong to begin with, having earned promotion from an incredibly competitive Championship, however, only one side meddled with their squad too much, and it’s the one currently struggling. While Wolves only signed one player less than Fulham, the recruitment had been markedly better, and the integration of these players has been far slower and given more care.
If we cast our minds back to the opening day and see how the sides utilised their new signings, Fulham lined up against Crystal Palace with seven of their summer signings in the starting line-up, including a completely new centre back partnership of two new signings. Wolves’ starting XI contained five summer signings, however, there were no brand-new partnerships and no unnecessary changes in tactics.
‘The massive influx of signings seemed to disrupt the squad’s chemistry’
I’m not going to argue that the managers have been completely faultless during this season, as both (I’ll give Scott Parker the benefit of the doubt) have made their own mistakes. When Fulham were promoted, Jokanovic looked as though he had a squad and philosophy that would bring the club success in the new season. However, the massive influx of signings seemed to disrupt the squad’s chemistry and Jokanovic struggled to find a way to integrate new players into the squad, something that his successor, Claudio Ranieri, grappled with too.
Despite having a tried-and-tested squad that earned promotion from the Championship, Jokanovic seemed fixed on playing as many new players as possible, in as many ways as possible. Fulham’s defence was leaky from the very beginning, and Jokanovic’s selection did nothing to help things. Throughout Jokanovic’s Premier League tenure, he never selected the same back four in two successive games, continuously disrupting any chemistry the defence could possibly have. It was only in Ranieri’s first game that Fulham could boast having a ‘stable’ (loose use of the word) back four. A stable defence is the bedrock of any club and the absence of one is a heavy burden and a real barrier to success.
Perhaps the squad just isn’t motivated enough to compete at this level. When Ranieri was appointed manager in November, Fulham looked like they had a real shot at survival. After all, this was the man who guided Leicester City to one of the biggest upsets in the history of sport just 3 years ago. But it wasn’t to be. 106 days, 16 games and 12 points from a possible 48 and Ranieri was sacked, leaving Scott Parker as interim manager. (If you’re interested in obscure facts, here’s one for you – Slavisa Jokanovic was Ranieri’s first signing as Chelsea manager, while Scott Parker was his final Chelsea signing. The Circle of Life, eh?)
It’s a sad state of affairs at Fulham these days where a trip back down to the Championship is perhaps the remedy they need (after all, when has that ever backfired?). With relegation looming, the club needs a large overhaul in all areas – from players to coaching staff to recruitment. Shifting some of the higher earners doesn’t seem like it will be a problem, with players like Mitrovic, Seri, and Cairney likely wanting a move away, and with the vultures already circling Craven Cottage, finding a buyer won’t be too difficult. With just seven games remaining, the only upside for Fulham fans right now is that the season will be over soon.