How can Fulham avoid another Premier League relegation?


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The financial disparity between established Premier League clubs and sides newly-promoted from the Championship means that it has become increasingly hard to avoid relegation at the first time of asking, and no club is as familiar with this reality as Fulham.

The Cottagers had been labelled the archetypal ‘yo-yo club’ even before securing a return to the top flight back in April, as a series of factors have contributed to the West London outfit either feasting in the second tier or suffering famine in the league above.

The moulding of a supremely talented collection of players consisting of club stalwarts, high-profile signings and impressive loan arrivals has been accompanied by regular changes of manager and sometimes erratic recruitment, leading to each of Fulham’s last five seasons ending in either Championship promotion or Premier League relegation.

Although the issues they have faced during this time are somewhat representative of a wider trend of newly-promoted sides struggling in recent years, Fulham do have a greater deal of financial might than most clubs in their position thanks to the backing of the Khan family, and some of their Premier League problems have been entirely of their own making.

So how do Marco Silva and his players go about ensuring this coming campaign does not end as another single season stay in the top flight?

Make the most of ‘Mitro’

Whilst his current employers have quite fairly been characterised by their flittering between the top two divisions of English football, there is evidence to suggest that it is harsh to label Aleksandar Mitrovic a Championship flat-track bully.

During his time at Craven Cottage, the Serbian striker has netted an extraordinary 81 goals in 88 Championship appearances, yet in Fulham’s last season in the Premier League he only managed to get on the scoresheet three times and the number of goals per 90 he averages drops from 0.81 to 0.25 when the West London club make the step up.

It is these cold, hard statistics that suggest Mitrovic is incapable of translating his remarkable goal-getting in the second tier into finding the net on a consistent basis in the top flight.

However, the disparity does need to be contextualised. In the 2020/21 Premier League season, the former Newcastle United and Anderlecht frontman started in less than half of his 27 appearances as then head coach Scott Parker attempted to stave off the drop with a more mobile and dynamic frontline that often included loanees Ademola Lookman and Josh Maja.

Furthermore, Mitrovic bagged 11 Premier League goals in a team that finished the campaign with just seven wins in 2018/19 when he had a more prominent role – a tally that rivals the 12 that Ivan Toney managed last season as newly-promoted Brentford avoided the drop.

However, the most compelling reason to persist with the 27-year-old in the upcoming season is surely the huge part he has had in the success this current Fulham team has had under Silva.

Serbia’s record goal-scorer at international level found the net 43 times last season, annihilating the modern Championship record of 31 set by Toney in the previous year and also breaking Guy Whittingham’s longer-standing record of 42 goals in a 46-game second tier season.

Even though he broke records and scored 17 more goals in 2021/22 than he had in Fulham’s last Championship campaign in 2019/20, Mitrovic’s goals still only accounted for around 41 percent of the team’s overall tally, indicating that there is also now less of a reliance on him to decide matches for the Cottagers.

In 2019/20, no other player reached double figures in terms of league goals, with Tom Cairney’s eight strikes the highest total outside of Mitrovic’s. Last season, both Fabio Carvalho and Harry Wilson scored 11 times in the league, and Neeskens Kebano and Bobby Reid contributed nine and eight goals respectively.

Given the forward is seemingly now more productive than ever without being his team’s sole source of goals, Mitrovic seems well set to try and establish himself as a reliable Premier League goal-getter.

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Don’t be afraid to follow Frank 

Suggesting that Fulham should be following the lead of local rivals Brentford may border on the sacrilegious, but the Bees successful adaptation to the Premier League last season possibly provides a blueprint for survival for all of the sides promoted from the Championship.

The Brentford outfit that lost out to Fulham in the 2020 Play-Off Final played expansive, free-flowing football, typified by the fact that the number of 10+ pass sequences they put together averaged over 9.5 per 90 – only Fulham and Derby County averaged higher that year.

Thomas Frank’s team practically replicated this statistic in the following season, averaging just over 10 such sequences per 90, as they secured promotion through the play-offs. However, in their first ever season in the Premier League this number dropped to around six.

Whilst this should perhaps be expected given the relative quality of their opponents increased, Brentford’s willingness to play direct to Toney in order to utilise his physical prowess, and search out the direct runs of Bryan Mbuemo in wider areas helped them to unsettle even the most well-organised top flight defences.

In Fulham’s last season in the Premier League, they were averaging 10.3 10+ pass sequences per 90. This was the 11th highest total of any side in the league that season, yet the Cottagers were still relegated, finishing 11 points points from safety.

They averaged 14 per 90 last season as they dominated the Championship, yet it may be the case that following the Bees in reducing this number could make top-flight survival a more realistic proposition.

Mitrovic’s ability in the air means that being more direct should be possible, and although no one at Craven Cottage wanted to see Carvalho depart after a sparkling breakthrough season, replacing him in midfield with a more workmanlike figure could make Fulham more defensively sturdy, even if it makes them less easy on the eye.

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Give Silva time to shine

Even though Parker remained in charge from first game until last as Fulham failed to avoid the drop in 2020/21, over-enthusiastically chopping and changing managers is rarely conducive to remaining in the Premier League long-term.

All three of the sides relegated from the top flight last season replaced their manager at least once during the season, and although there are undoubtedly scenarios where change is either necessary or inevitable, Fulham’s experience during their 2018/19 relegation is arguably evidence that forcing managerial turnover can do more harm than good.

After Slavisa Jokanovic helped to achieve promotion through the play-offs in May 2018, bringing to an end a four-year stint in the Championship for the Cottagers, he was relieved of his duties in November of the following season as Fulham won just one of their first 12 games of the season.

Whilst this may appear to be the sort of form that merits a change in manager, the decision to replace one who was popular among players and supporters with one possessing as varied a track record as Claudio Ranieri proved to be a misjudgement. The Italian won just three of his 16 games in charge and was replaced before relegation had even been confirmed as supporters demanded his exit on the back of a series of abject displays.

There can be no guarantee that Jokanovic would have fared any better, yet the mood around the club would surely not have plummeted to such depths had a manager responsible for recent memories of success been persisted with.

Marco Silva should probably have as much, if not more, credit in the bank given the ease with which Fulham secured the Championship title last season.

Even though they were one of the favourites to once again reclaim a place in the top flight, Silva’s side regularly looked a class apart in scoring 106 goals across their 46 matches – second-highest scorers AFC Bournemouth found the net on 74 occasions – and there was never any realistic prospect that the ordeal of the play-offs would be required once more.

Silva also nearly kept Hull City in the Premier League in the 2016/17 season despite arriving in the January of that season with the club in a perilous position, and his lack of success at Everton seems less of a failing on his part with every manager that struggles in the Goodison Park dugout since.

Reports that the 44-year-old is becoming increasingly frustrated at Fulham’s lack of activity in the summer transfer window may end up resulting in a situation where he walks before the Khans get the chance to give him the push though.

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It is possible that even if Fulham do follow these principles in trying to make their next spell in the top flight go beyond the single season mark they will still be relegated.

At least two of the newly-promoted sides have gone down at the end of their first season in three of the last four Premier League campaigns, and with the financial burden of Covid-19 beginning to lessen many of the mid-table clubs have strengthened their playing squads.

However, attempting to operate in a more sustainable manner that utilises talent on the pitch and in the dugout that is already at the club should theoretically set Fulham up to prosper in the long run.

Although recent history suggests that it would be no surprise to see them preparing for another crack at the Premier League after promotion from the Championship in two years’ time.

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