Nick Aylott

various non-academic texts |

With Fulham's opening fixture just a couple of hours away, here is my Premier League Prediction 2020-21...


There was an interesting discussion on talkSPORT before the Championship play-off final at Wembley the other night. Two contributors mentioned that their Fulham-supporting friends were actually quite ambivalent about the prospect of promotion to the Premier League. This provoked much mockery from one of the presenters. But ambivalence is exactly what I and others have felt.

It is actually easy to explain. Fulham's two most recent seasons in the Premier League were utterly miserable experiences. The club's last three seasons in the Championship, by contrast, have all been enormous fun. You actually win some matches, for a start. The division is full of famous clubs playing at a level that, according to many observers, has risen steadily over the last decade. The Premier League, meanwhile, has become predictable at each end.

There's perhaps an additional factor, too. Like other top-flight divisions in Europe, the Premier League was also – if you ask me – pretty much ruined last season by the VAR.

Still, a fan will always want his or her team to win – especially against local rivals, as in the play-off final. And that was what happened: Fulham beat Brentford 2-1 to clamber back into the Premier League. For my own part, and perhaps that of many Fulham fans, I am absolutely delighted at this outcome, even if I still think I would have been fairly relaxed about missing out.

Parker/Khan. Parker/Khan

Anyway, with this uniquely extended domestic season now finally over, it is time for me to resume my customary end-of-season review of Fulham's performance (although this will be the first one since we last got promoted, in 2017-18). Before that, though, I tend to comment on the club's management.

Fulham's owner, Shahid Khan, and his son Tony Khan, who is concurrently the club's vice-chairman, director of football operations, general manager and sporting director (check the website if you don't believe me), continue to run the club generously and chaotically. Player recruitment is, thankfully, no longer under the catastrophic influence of an eccentric American statistician, but transfer policy has continued to miss much more often than it hits.

Before the 2019-20 campaign, many pundits tipped Fulham to go up, due to the recruitment – on loan – of several supposedly exciting, proven attackers. Things didn't quite turn out as anticipated. Of those players, Decordova-Reid had a mediocre season. Cavaleiro and Knockaert were, let's face it, awful.

Yet all three players' loans were recently converted into long-term contracts, at eye-watering cost. Why? The only plausible explanation I can think of is this: the club believed that the players' incentives in the promotion race would sharpened by increasing the likelihood of their being at Fulham next season. If so, you can see the logic; but what an incredibly short-sighted way to spend a reported £30m. The contrast with Brentford's successful strategy in recent years, which has cost a tiny fraction of what Fulham have spent, and which has drawn so much admiration in the media, is all too painfully stark.

Still, Fulham were promoted. Maybe the end justifies the means.

Let us remember, too, that the Khan regime did appoint Scott Parker as head coach 17 months ago, which must be seen as a big success. Parker's reputation is suddenly very much in the ascendant. As has been noted, to take a team that fell apart during the challenge of playing at the top level, and to bring it successfully through a punishing Championship season, is a very considerable achievement indeed. How did he do it?

My own feeling over much of the year was that Fulham just weren't playing well enough to be realistic challengers for promotion. Fairly steady accumulation of points was punctuated by some really poor results, especially at home. Exciting, sophisticated attacking play came in occasional short bursts within matches, but then drifted away. Goals were a problem. Of Fulham's 22 league victories, including the play-offs, an incredible 16 – nearly three-quarters of them – were by a single-goal margin. The team just wasn't quite clicking.

However, with hindsight, and looking in more detail at specific periods over the year, a certain style did gradually take shape. Important milestones – putting Rodák in goal in October, Hector finally becoming available after Christmas, Reed's emergence after the restart – marked a progression in defensive play. The fact is, we stopped conceding soft goals, the bane of Fulham teams in many recent seasons.

Before the play-off final, The Independent's chief football writer compared “Brentford's rousing approach” to Fulham's “more rudimentary game”. Some, apparently, liken the style to “Jose Mourinho's when he was at his peak”, with “well-organised backlines and relatively free-form attack”, in which there is heavy reliance on individual inspiration to create chances. There might be something in that, although Fulham's determination to keep the ball for as long as possible during the play-off final was hardly Mourinho-esque.

The point about the final, though, is that Fulham's possession was clearly part of a thought-through game plan. Another aspect was the deployment of two deep-lying defensive midfielders to close the space that Brentford usually exploit so well on the counter. Another was the movement of the four forward players. Credit to Parker.

Who gets what?

So: on to the awards.

MOST IMPROVED. This usually goes to players who have improved compared to previous seasons, but the two main candidates here have developed during the latest campaign. One is Reed, of whom more later.

The other, who gets the award, is Onomah. He seemed to lack both fitness and confidence when he arrived from Tottenham at the start of the season, and you wondered what Parker's obvious faith in him said about the coach's judgement. Could it be that, like many other coaches, he is biased in favour of players that he already knows?

There were flashes of promise before lockdown, but things took off after after the restart. Onomah's goal in the play-off semi-final first leg was sensational. Playing high up the pitch, he was possibly Fulham's best player at Wembley. He runs in a slightly odd way, perhaps because of his strong build. But he has stamina, balance, a good touch and plays clever, unpredictable short passes with the outside of his right foot. Another feather in Parker's cap.

MOST SURPRISING. Reed was in the hunt for this one, too. But it goes to Kebano. He's 28, in his fourth season at Fulham, and has never really been a first choice under any coach. He was sent off in the second game after the restart. But then he forced his way back into the team. He scored with direct free kicks in three successive matches and then bagged another crucial goal in the next game. He was suddenly a vital player. He gave the team an extra dimension that the more recently recruited wide players failed to provide.

WEAKEST LINK. Cavaleiro challenged strongly for this unwanted award. He can, though, point to injuries as some excuse for under-performance.

So the title goes to Knockaert. We all know that he is far better than he showed this season. Fulham fans have seen proof of that often enough when he's previously played for opposing teams. And you certainly couldn't question his work-rate. His decision-making, too, was highly consistent – consistently dreadful, though. His atrocious pass at the end of the play-off final, which muffed a golden chance of a clinching third goal and which was instead followed by Brentford's nerve-wracking goal, summed up his season.

PLAYER OF THE SEASON. As usual, I refer to the record of performances that I saw on telly, the internet or live. Each player in each starting XI got a mark out of 5. (I disregard players who didn't play very often, although that wasn't unnecessary this season.) In my ranking, I thus follow the averages generated by this record.

Surprisingly, the top three don't include Mitrović, the Championship's top scorer, on whom the team was excessively reliant for goals. His decision, after relegation, to give Fulham a season to get back up to the Premier League now looks both admirable and shrewd (although I dread to think how much he's being paid). He was too often drawn into fights after the restart; and, in some ways, the team seemed to play better without him. But he remains a player of really top class. In fact, I'd like to see him in a slightly deeper role, where his strength would be less of an easy outlet for the team and his quality might be afforded greater expression.

Bryan, the Wembley hero, is another who didn't make the top three, and another who I'd be keen to see tried in a position other than his usual berth at left back. Even Hector and Rodák, who made such a colossal difference, don't quite average highly enough.

So here are the three who did. Interestingly, they comprise the first-choice central midfield!

3rd. Onomah (average 3.36). As noted, he got better and better.

2nd. Cairney (3.46). A really satisfying return to form for the captain – even if, to be honest, I was a bit surprised to see him end up so high in the rankings. He didn't dominate and decide games as he has done previously, not least through his goals. But his role in the side has gradually changed, which explains that; and I recorded only one really sub-par display all season.

1st. Reed (3.50). This defensive midfielder was fitfully impressive pre-lockdown. He dipped a bit in the final two matches of the season. Straight after the restart, however, he turned in eight absolutely terrific performances in a row, which took him to the top of the charts. Quick to press, tough in the tackle, intelligent in his passing, he really stood out. At 25, and after being loaned out by Southampton for three seasons in a row, you wonder if he can keep up that sort of form. Was it a flash in the pan? Still, he has to be worth signing if at all possible.

Interestingly, average team performance over the season was 3.03, compared to 3.07 in 2017-18, another promotion season, and 3.17 the one before, in which Fulham lost in the play-offs. That actually feels about right.

And now?

Lessons have been learned from the pre-season before last, says Parker. Let's hope he's right, because that recruitment then could hardly have been more misjudged. You could say much the same about the spending that occurred after the previous promotion, in 2002.

I'd suggest two simple guidelines, neither of them at all revolutionary, for the inevitable recruitment over the few weeks before the delayed start of the 2020-21 Premier League season.

First, there must be a plan for how Fulham are going to play in the Premier League. How do we handle being under pressure for much of many matches? How important is possession of the ball? Do we emulate the two most successful promoted sides of recent seasons, Sheffield United and Wolves, by using a slightly unusual playing system, which might suit certain players better than positions in more conventional formations do? Parker's successful negation of Brentford's excellent team at Wembley suggests that he is more pragmatic and flexible than his predecessor-but-one was when Fulham last went up.

Second, prioritise team-building rather than collecting individual quality (although that, of course, is also important). That means building on the team that we have, not ripping it up. It is not impossible to build an effective team quickly and almost from scratch, but it is really difficult. I think we need two full backs and a wide midfielder who are ready to go straight into the team. Otherwise, the focus should be on improving the depth of the squad. It also means careful research on the character of potential recruits and their likely contribution to team spirit, not just their technical ability. There is no point in signing players who see the move as a least-bad option, rather than as a great opportunity. And it means buying as early as possible, even if it means paying a higher price than might be obtainable at the last minute of the transfer window.

I don't think things can go as badly wrong as they did last time. But staying up is still probably against the odds. And if a second promotion in three seasons is followed by a second relegation, there's always the Championship to look forward to!

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