Fulham are a hard club to figure. The owner is rich enough to do whatever he wants to with the club but he chooses not to. The club is located in a very cosmopolitan location (West London) but fancies itself a “family club”. The stadium is situated on the banks of the Thames and is ripe for a more expansive “stadium experience” but instead Craven Cottage is still an “old school” ground – which is code for both outdated supporter experience as well as less than ideal match day revenue for the club.
On the field, the vibe is the same. While Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs trot out world class players and spend in the transfer market (and fellow London clubs QPR and West Ham at least spend a lot of money even if they don’t do it nearly as wisely), Fulham are left feeling more like a relegation struggler from the industrial north rather than a club from toney West London. The spending is minimal. The talent is marginal. Assets are dwindling.
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It wasn’t that long ago that Fulham looked like they’d continue to battle it out with the pre-Bale Tottenham, Everton and Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa for “best of the rest” status. How long ago that feels. At that point, Brede Hangeland was reaching his prime and was consistently linked with moves to bigger clubs. Mark Schwarzer was an extremely solid veteran in the net. John Arne Riise was marauding down the left flank and unleashing vicious crosses and shots. Clint Dempsey and Mousa Dembele were ascending and a crew of solid veterans and squad players made up a very competitive team.
In 2012-13 everything started going wrong. Dempsey and Dembele were both sold to Spurs with no suitable replacements brought in. Everyone else on the roster seemed to take one step in the wrong direction. Players like Hangeland who had been very good in his prime when Fulham went deep into the Europa Cup a few seasons back, started to fade from his best – and he had company. The holdover squad players went from being valuable contributors around a strong core to being marginal contributors around a mediocre core. None of the new recruits other than Dimitar Berbatov were sufficiently good to make a significant difference on the field.
The results were a relegation scare with their 12th place finish belying the 7 points that separated the Cottagers from the drop zone.
The biggest concern for Fulham, given their modest finish last season and the overall age of their roster is that you have to search far and wide for a player to put into this category. Of the 11 players on Fulham’s roster with the most matches started last season, only 2 are under 30 and even they are 27 (Bryan Ruiz) and 28 (Philippe Senderos) and neither of them scream “upside”. The only player who might fit the bill is Alexander Kacaniklic who is at least young at 21 years-old and has the potential to evolve into an average-to-slightly-above average Premier League player.
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Just about everyone else is on this list. Fulham cut ties with a number of older players early this summer but those left aren’t spring chickens. It may be that the likes of Berbatov, Damien Duff, Sascha Riether, Brede Hangeland and John Arne Riise can hold off any further declines in their performances but it no reasonable outsider could talk themselves into any of those players actually improving going into next season.
The grim truth is that Fulham need more and younger talent all over the pitch and they can’t be picky about where the player plays on the field – just about anyone that meets that description will improve them in the short, medium and long term. With that said, if I were drawing up an order of importance, here it is:
Goalkeeper – With Mark Schwarzer out of contract there is a gaping hole between the pipes at Craven Cottage. Fortunately, Fulham have already filled this hole with Maarten Stekelenburg who meets one of the criteria (talented) but not really the other (he’s 30 years-old).
Center Back – With Brede Hangeland fading and Philippe Senderos being Philippe Senderos it is time for Fulham to buy the replacement for Chris Smalling that they didn’t buy when he left for Manchester United a few years ago. Not that Smalling is the greatest player in England but he was an up-and-coming center back whose departure left Fulham with a major player development hole.
Attacking Midfielder – If you’re getting the sense that I’m not high on the spine of Fulham’s team, you’d be right. At this time last year they were flush with talent in this spot as Clint Dempsey and Mousa Dembele were both still on the books. With both gone and neither even close to adequately replaced, it would be a good idea to get the attack a new sparkplug.
Holding Midfielder – Hard to believe that Steve Sidwell is 30 years-old. The holding midfielder remains strong in the holding role for now despite his poor – and at times idiotic – disciplinary record. Given that disciplinary record and likely declining physical skills it is easy to project more fouls, more cards, and more suspensions coming as tackles, interceptions and blocked shots decline. Time to at least start grooming a youngster here.
Anywhere on the Flanks – With so much work to do down the spine, I’m not optimistic that Fulham will have the resources to buy on the flanks as well but if they do then any of the outside spots could use a significant boost with left midfield probably the most in need.
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The depressing thing for Fulham supporters is that Fulham don’t even seem to be ambitious enough to find themselves in the middle of any good gossip. They’ve already secured a bunch of middle aged answers to the issue above in the form of Stekelenburg (30), 28 year-old CB/card machine Fernando Amorebieta, and 30 year-old Ghanaian holding midfielder Derek Boateng. The problem is that they’ve hardly been linked with anyone who can help reduce the age of the squad while also increasing the level of talent. Here are the few that have been mentioned that fit that category:
Bakary Sako – The French attacking midfielder was reasonably productive at Wolves last season with 9 goals and 11 assists in the Championship. He’s also on the right side of his prime at 25 years-old.
Andre Wisdom – The Liverpool CB/RB would be a nice fit if Fulham could land him permanently. Getting him on loan wouldn’t be a terrible idea but with veterans at CB and RB more likely to be good this season, Fulham have no real motivation to help Liverpool develop Wisdom for future seasons.
Victor Wanyama – This is the right idea for Fulham but the problem is that they appear to be well toward the back of the line for the Kenyan’s’ services with Southampton and Cardiff City ahead of them. There’s no reason that Fulham shouldn’t be competing for players like this.