It’s almost impossible to conclude that last season was anything other than a major success for Fulham. In preseason, Sporting Index projected them and Nottingham Forest to finish on only 37 points, with Bournemouth last at 31 points. FiveThirtyEight also had them in the relegation zone with 36 points before the season started. These weren’t unreasonable guesses given Fulham’s recent past of yo-yoing between the top two divisions in England, and how stacked the league has become.
In terms of overperforming relative to preseason expectations, only Arsenal and Brentford had a greater discrepancy in the positive direction according to Sporting Index. It has been a while since Fulham achieved this level of success, as you’d have to go back to 2011-12 to find the last time Fulham finished in the top 10. This past season was something of a rarity, in that all three promoted Premier League sides (Fulham, Bournemouth, and Nottingham Forest) managed to stave off relegation, which led to an incredible amount of chaos at the bottom end of the table.
Fulham go into next season as one of the more fascinating clubs in the Premier League, trying to establish themselves once again as a regular PL participant. While their 10th place finish would suggest that a solid foundation is in place to build on, the reality is far from certain.
How did they play?
Trying to nail down Fulham’s style of play in possession makes for an interesting exercise. According to FBref, they ranked 11th in total possession, and 8th in field tilt (share of passes in the final third). They don’t dominate the ball and territory high up the pitch, but aren’t having to bunker down in their own third all the time either. Even when looking at more granular metrics, nothing immediately pops up. The Analyst’s sequencing data has Fulham middle of the road in terms of passes per sequence and direct speed.
If there’s two things that’s been a feature of Fulham’s in-possession play, it’s holding onto the ball in deep areas and lots of crossing. FBref had Fulham with the second most attempted crosses in the league last season and in completed crosses into the box. Looking at Marco Silva’s Coach ID style principles, you can see the heavy emphasis of those two traits both when they won the Championship in 2021-22 and this past season in the PL.
During the early buildup phase, Fulham tended to have the fullbacks positioned deep with one of the pivots (usually João Palhinha) offering himself as a passing option. If the opposition doesn’t apply a ton of pressure, they’ll slowly circulate it across the defensive line (this accounts for the high deep circulation numbers above). Against opponents who make it hard to pass the ball around the defensive line, Aleksandar Mitrovic becomes a prominent figure. Because of his size and physicality, he’s an option to go long if teams make it hard on Fulham to build from the back, even if the initial aerial duel isn’t won. Alternatively, he can also present himself as something of a release valve closer towards the GK. From there, he can play with his back to goal for quick lay-offs or make a quick switch of play if given enough space. Mitrovic is in the 91st percentile among strikers in passes that travel more than 40 yards of the width of the pitch.
Higher up the pitch, Fulham’s right side consists of Harrison Reed being active off the ball. Sometimes it would be him dragging a marker to create space for others. Other times he’d sense an opportunity to make forward runs within the channel. Part of that is because Kenny Tete was likely to take a more conservative position at right-back compared to the opposite fullback Antoinee Robinson, who was more likely to provide overlapping runs when Fulham tried to create on the left side. These machinations lead to a bunch of crossing attempts.
Out of possession, Fulham were on the lower end in terms of their defensive aggressiveness according to public metrics. They ranked 16th in passes per defensive action according to
The Analyst, and 18th in high turnovers generated (number of sequences that start in open play and begin 40m or less from the opponent’s goal). MARKSTATS had Fulham middle of the road in terms of opponent’s pass completion percentage outside of the final third and defensive actions’ average distance from the own goal.
Fulham largely operated defensively in a narrow 4-4-2 shape. When attempting to press high, one of the front two will use a curved run to press the center-back and force them towards the touchline to force a trap, while the other glues themselves to the pivot player. Jon Mackenzie made mention of this in a video highlighting Fulham’s success. When it worked, it led to Fulham forcing errant passes with the limited space afforded and regaining possession high up the pitch.
A major issue Fulham faced in these situations where they tried to box in opponents was they were at the mercy of the opposition’s technical quality being able to access the free space on the opposite side via switches of play. Another worry was how much they conceded in transitions. According to Understat, only three clubs conceded more shots from fast attacks than Fulham in 2022-23 (Liverpool, Everton, Leeds). They also had the 4th highest expected goals conceded in these situations at 7.68. A lot of their transition defense seems to rest on João Palhinha using his long strides to quickly close down space and snuff out any potential counter attacks.
How good were they?
On the surface, Fulham’s top line numbers of 52 points with a +2 goal difference were about as good as one could hope for, given the preseason projections and the general consensus of them being a club who might struggle to stay up. Those numbers aren’t far off of Leeds’ 59 points and +8 GD in 2020-21, and Sheffield United’s 54 points and even GD. Look further under the hood though, and Fulham’s statistical résumé starts to go off the rails.
For starters, Fulham’s non-penalty expected goal difference, according to FBref was -18.8, 16th in the league. No team had a greater positive difference between GD and xGD than Fulham. The numbers don’t get any better when accounting for game states. Fulham were 16th in non-penalty xGD at an even game state according to Hugh Klein’s macro table, 17th when behind by a goal, and 17th when up a goal. Fulham also benefited from opponents being on the receiving end of red cards, as they have had the most minutes with a man-advantage in the league.
Part of the reason why Fulham was able to overperform their expected goals difference stemmed from outlier shot stopping performance courtesy of Bernd Leno. Only Alisson has saved more goals than expected according to FBref. This output is in stark contrast to the previous five seasons where he’s had stretches of being a good shot-stopper but nowhere near what he’s shown with Fulham. It’s rare to see goalkeepers have consecutive seasons saving 9-10 goals above expectations.
The only saving grace is that there’s been a clear contrast in their performance against clubs within the top 10 vs those in the bottom 10. Against clubs who were in the bottom 10, Fulham had a +1.2 expected goal difference (including penalties) according to FBref vs -18.6 versus those in the top 10. As mentioned earlier, the aggressiveness of their out of possession strategy against teams of higher quality and the issues they had in transition likely contributed to their defensive woes.
Squad profile concerns
As far as key members in the squad are concerned, Aleksander Mitrovic is one of the first names to be brought up. His 14 goals had him tied for 10th in the league, and his overall non-penalty goals and assists per 90 rate of 0.49 was within the top 30. Interestingly, his underlying numbers have remained steady in the three PL seasons he’s played for Fulham. He’s shown the ability to put up heavy shot numbers, while having greater technical ability in earlier phases of play than given credit for.
Another crucial contributor for Fulham was João Palhinha. He was in the 99th percentile among all Premier League players in combined tackles and interceptions per 90 mins, highlighting how active he was out of possession. At age 28, he’s at the later stages of his prime and likely has 2-3 more seasons of being an all-action midfield destroyer.
One of the worries for Fulham going into next season is that they have got an old squad. In fact, FBref had them with the oldest average age in the PL when weighted by minutes played. At least a bit of this is due to Tim Ream (35) logging 2897 minutes and to a lesser extent Willian (34) at 2126. Going through all the players who played 1000 or more minutes and you mostly find 25-28 year olds. Though not quite as dire as Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace sides from 2018-20, there’s not a ton of youth to be found.
There are key decisions to be made with the squad. Willian is a free agent, Manor Solomon has left for Tottenham, and Daniel James has returned to Leeds. Regulars such as Tim Ream, Tosin Adarabioyo, and Harrison Reed have contracts expiring in 2024 (there’s a club option for another season with Reed). Because of the club’s age profile, skewing younger with their recruitment would be the best option and particularly players who are in their early primes. There’s obvious benefits from this style of recruitment, as finding a young star helps give you a chance at outperforming your financial resources.
It wouldn’t be outlandish to say that if one wanted to stack up how Premier League teams ranked in terms of overall squad talent last season, Fulham were near the bottom. This tends to be the case with newly promoted sides. Marco Silva himself has made mention about how the squad needs to be strengthened this summer. Given the current state of the league, that ranking arguably says more about how much talent PL clubs have accumulated because of the outsized financial power they have.
Perhaps the one good thing for Fulham is that it’s clear the overall quality of talent needs to be raised across the squad, and they should have the financial capabilities to try and be ambitious. We’ve mentioned Palhinha’s impressive play and besides himself and Mitrovic, it gets harder to name players on Fulham’s 2022-23 squad who would be capable starters elsewhere around the league. Mitrovic and Carlos Vinicius are arguably just good enough that striker shouldn’t be a top priority this summer, although both are in their late 20s so taking a punt on a ST with upside would make sense. The same can be said for Palhinha and Reed in midfield. Looking for upgrades in the backline and especially in attacking positions would be sensible. On average, forwards bring more value than other positions and there have been instances where elite talents can help drive lower mid-table clubs to higher heights due to their excellence (Jack Grealish in 2021 and Dimitri Payet in 2016 come to mind).
Although the next section could include a litany of potential targets, for the purposes of brevity with this exercise we’ll be limiting ourselves to four outfield players
Emmanuel Agbadou – Stade de Reims
Outside of goalkeeping, centre back is the toughest position to judge. Team context and the tactical environment in which they play have a major influence on performance, even more than in other positions. We’ve seen instances of players having their perception change for the better or worse due to moving into a new structure which enhanced their abilities. As a result, defensive metrics should be taken with a pinch of salt, as they are more indicative of highlighting a defender’s style of play than assessing their raw ability (although this can, obviously, assist when matching a desired player to a team style and thus facilitating the transition).
With those admittedly big caveats out of the way, Emmanuel Agbadou is an interesting CB option due to the skill set he showed this season just finished. He’ll regularly roam off the line to mark nearby opposition although occasionally that leads to him being dragged into no man’s land. He’s pretty good at knowing when to engage, even if it can look a bit awkward at times when situated in wider areas. In general, the off-ball awareness is solid and it’s common to see him gesturing towards his teammates to form a tight defensive line. When defending transition or semi-transitions, he’ll constantly scan around his area so he gives himself a better chance of not being caught out of position.
At this stage, it’d be more accurate to describe Agbadou as someone who could be a good partner alongside a ball-playing CB in possession rather than being the primary progressor himself. Part of that is due to not having quite a high enough feel as a passer, particularly in disguising his deliveries to find space in advantageous areas. That said, he’s a comfortable long distance passer towards runners on the right side, and can uncork a hollywood style switch of play
The publicly available models that attempt to quantify a player’s total value are mixed on Agbadou. The DAVIES model uses on-ball actions to estimate player value, and had him in the top 50 on a per 90 basis in Ligue 1 among players with 25% or more minutes played. Edvin’s Estimated Impact metric attempts to incorporate both individual player statistics and plus-minus data to estimate a player’s impact on their team’s goal difference per 90 minutes compared to the average player. When adjusted so it’s compared to an average Premier League player, he was in the top 100. Hugh Klein’s own adjusted plus-minus model had him in the 69th percentile in overall expected points above replacement within the top 5 leagues. TransferLab is very high on Agbadou’s combination of defensive sweeping action and ball progression.
Quantifying a central defender’s impact statistically is harder compared to other positions so it’s fair to be less inclined to take the all-in-one models at face value. That said, the film would suggest Agbadou could perform solidly in a sweeper role while providing at least some ball progression. He is a bit older than the suggested early prime age bracket, but there is some evidence for center-backs peaking in their late 20s so skewing a bit older for this position isn’t a death knell. Contract length is an issue and could lead to Reims driving a hard bargain, but their recent history of transfer dealings might suggest they’d still do business at a certain price. The contractual concerns with Adarabioyo make Emmanuel Agbadou a worthwhile gamble at solidifying the RCB spot.
Thierry Correia – Valencia FC
The fullback position has been one of constant evolution. They’ve mostly acted as wingers over the past 15 years, while the wide forwards tucked inside. It led to the adoption of the 2-3-5 structure for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, where the five stretched the opposition backline across the pitch. This past season has seen a bit of a tweak from some of the biggest clubs, in which defenders have moved into midfield to help continue having the same buildup play, but also be better prepared to defend against transitions. It’s tough to know whether this kind of tactic will become predominant across clubs of varying financial capacity or one just reserved for the absolute elite.
Thierry Correia certainly plays like the kind of fullback we’ve become accustomed to seeing, generating tons of events across the right side. His defensive work rate is impressive, whether it be pressing from buildup or stepping out of the defensive line to slow down transition opportunities. Although he can be susceptible to the occasional bout of ball-watching off the ball, his recovery speed mostly allows him to make up for those instances. He’s largely patient with staying on his feet when engaging with his opponent and using his mobility to regain possession with standing tackles. Correia’s defensive territory map shows how much ground he covers out of possession.
In possession for Correia is where there is a bit less certainty. Against a set defense, he’s not one who’ll constantly try to beat his man off the dribble. Rather, he likes to create quick 1-2’s to set up a cross or get into the penalty box. His passing output hit career highs since becoming a regular starter and compared favorably to most fullbacks in La Liga. When given time and breathing room, he’s capable of hitting penetrative passes behind the opposition on the flank either with long or short lobs to runners.
Like with CBs, it’s fair to exercise a bit more caution about how public models estimate value provided from fullbacks compared to other positions. Correia was outside the top 100 according to DAVIES among La Liga players and the most skeptical compared to other models. Estimated Impact was slightly more positive with him just inside the top 100. Adjusted plus-minus placed him in the 90th percentile within the big 5 leagues. TransferLab gives him an overall score of 88, likely due to his defensive contribution, but shows that he is top 10% for a number of key defensive metrics versus other La Liga full backs.
Valencia have been in a constant state of flux both on and off the pitch under Peter Lim. They have been dealing with financial troubles and barely survived relegation last season. A club dealing with those concerns could be prone to undervaluing their players and not getting enough in a transfer. This could be advantageous to a club like Fulham. At minimum, he should provide ample competition for Kenny Tete and could be his successor in the not too distant future.
David Pereira da Costa – RC Lens
Lens were one of the best stories in European football this past season. It’s rare to see a club who was in the 2nd division as recently as 2019-20 end up qualifying for the Champions League less than five years later, and doing so in convincing fashion. They’ve been an example of how much smart coaching and recruitment can make up for the gap in resources versus some of the other established giants in French football. It’s also a bonus when talented players come through the academy and can be capable of playing regular minutes early on, which has been the case with David Pereira da Costa over the past two seasons.
One aspect of Costa’s game which pops out is the consistency he shows with his forward passing. He usually gets the ball to his target without them having to break stride during their run. While he’s certainly one-footed, there’s a variety to his passing that helps make up for it whether it be chipped lobs into the wide zone of the box or him receiving in the interior before quickly dishing to a teammate further forward. He was in the 83rd percentile in passes into the box and 93rd in progressive passes among Ligue 1 players according to FBRef.
As a dribbler, Costa’s not one who’ll consistently evade multiple players during a long carry. Rather, he can manipulate his dribble in different ways to create breathing room through utilising feints, faking a cross to get the opponent off-balance on the flank, or shifting the ball with the outside of his foot. He’s got good touch when receiving within the channels, albeit his frame can lead to him getting out-muscled at times. He’s constantly floating across the final third with his positioning and this can lead to third man run scenarios.
Costa’s estimated value according to the all-in-one metrics does have a wide range. DAVIES rated him in the top 60. Estimated Impact was by far the lowest and had him in the 160-180th range among Ligue 1 players. Adjusted plus-minus placed him in the 90th percentile in the big 5 leagues. TransferLab is the highest with an overall score of 96, showing Costa in the top 20% for most metrics among Ligue 1 wingers.
Costa would come with notable risk as a transfer target. He’s played less than 3000 league minutes over the past two seasons so a move abroad at this stage could be a bit early for his development. His contract runs through 2026 so he’d likely not come cheap. As well, Lens might be unwilling to entertain offers for him at all given they’re dealing with big European clubs inquiring about their other talents. Acquiring him now would be banking on having the necessary infrastructure to facilitate his development. The playmaking diversity, receiving technique, and jitterbug movements makes him someone who can end up being an impressive #10 in the not too distant future.
Armand Laurienté – Sassuolo
As mentioned previously, Fulham’s options in the wide areas weren’t amazing. Willian should be given credit for remaining a capable Premier League player in his mid-30’s, which is no small feat. However, it’d be very hard to bank on another season at that level given what we know about age curves. Solomon showed a bit of promise in a small sample size, but he won’t be back for next season. Bobby De Cordova-Reid isn’t quite good enough to be an everyday starter. Finding someone else besides Mitrovic who can regularly get 15 or more goals and assists is of the utmost importance and the clearest way for Fulham to maintain solid footing in the league.
Armand Laurienté is in that sweet spot of being an early prime talent that Fulham also desperately need. His biggest selling point is how electric he can be off the dribble. With how deep Sassuolo tend to operate, he’s used as an outlet higher up the pitch to attack defenders in space. His change of pace dribble is impressive, either when cutting inside or going towards the touchline. Also impressive is his ability to maintain possession even while being nudged or bumped by opposing defenders. Laurienté ranked 8th in Serie A in carries into the box among players who played at least 25% of the season according to FBref. Particularly in dynamic situations, he’s a handful to deal with.
It’s common to see him have the ball near the touchline and look to combine with the striker to access the central zones, something one could envision happening with Mitrovic. He flashed the ability to create chances from reverse passes, toe poke deliveries with his right foot after carrying into the box or short left crosses towards the middle.
Off the ball, Laurienté’s movement is somewhat static. He’s often situated close to the touchline to stretch the opposition and isolated against the opposing full-back. He can use his speed to find space along the flank if his marker tries to press up on him. There aren’t a ton of runs where he starts wide and looks to move against the grain towards the channel. This is part of the reason why his shot chart consists of a ton of inefficient shots on the left side.
Even with those concerns and the limited value he provides out of possession, the impact metrics largely rated Laurienté very highly. The DAVIES model had him in the top 75 on a per 90 basis among Serie A players. Estimated Impact rated him 10th in Serie A. Adjusted plus-minus ranked him in the 97th percentile in overall expected points above replacement in the top 5 leagues. TransferLab is similarly very high on his ability to drive play in the final third.
Laurienté’s contract length is a likely sticking point, as Sassuolo wouldn’t want to part with an exciting talent of his caliber so soon after acquiring him last summer. He’d possibly be the most expensive of the four players profiled here but has the tools to make an immediate impact in English football. High-end attackers can positively influence a team’s goal differential like no other, and there’s a chance (albeit not a great one) Laurienté has the skill set to be of that caliber.
Other potential targets: Filipe Relvas (CB, Portimonense), Yan Couto (RWB, Manchester City), André Almeida (CM, Valencia), Rodrigo Zalazar (AM, Schalke)
The worst thing that Fulham could do this summer is keep their powder dry and mostly bring the band back together after over performing in 2022-23. It doesn’t take much going wrong for a team that’s somewhere between 14th-16th in underlying/true talent to suddenly find themselves in the relegation battle. While it’s unlikely again that all three promoted sides once again stay up next season, being anywhere near the relegation zone leads to nervy times and questionable decision making.
2023-24 should be about further solidifying themselves, which means accumulating formidable talents at key positions to help raise your floor and further insulate yourself from the worst case scenario. Doing that should help the club in the near term, and stringing together consecutive windows of solid recruitment can lead to a hot streak which elevates you to the level seen by Brighton currently or Southampton from 2014-17. Fulham passed the all important first test, but remaining in the English top flight for the foreseeable future will require considerable ingenuity and not resting on your laurels.
Header image copyright IMAGO / Sebastian Frej