The Season So Far
Off the back of a much-publicised £100m-plus summer spend, Fulham were supposed to emulate the achievements of Wolves, coming up from the Championship to establish themselves in the top flight within a few weeks. Their signings looked good on paper: Aleksandar Mitrović has genuine pedigree as a goalscorer, while André Schürrle, Jean Michaël Seri, Alfie Mawson, Calum Chambers and Luciano Vietto need no introduction at this level. With exciting prospects like Ryan Sessegnon and established pros like Stefan Johansen and Tom Cairney already at the club, a mid-table finish looked achievable. Alas, the Cottagers have been abject from start to finish and, now under their third manager of the season, are as good as down.
Slaviša Jokanović was quickly exposed as too naïve for the Premier League, sending his team out with instructions to play easy-on-the-eye attacking football but to turn into statues as soon as the ball was turned over. Claudio Ranieri, an odd choice of manager for a newly promoted club in a relegation dogfight, wasted no time in demonstrating that he wasn’t the man for the job either. Sent packing this week after a mere 17 games, Ranieri – a man so likeable and avuncular that simply saying his name aloud makes one smile – somehow made himself a figure of hate at Craven Cottage and won’t be missed in the slightest.
The Season Ahead
It’s surely too late for Fulham to save themselves from the drop and everyone at the club will now be thinking about next season. For many of the high-earning players, that will mean looking for a move – hardly an incentive to give their all during a relegation battle. For the board, it will mean deciding which of the remaining players are worth keeping and which aren’t. For whichever manager takes the job, it will mean accepting a poisoned chalice.
In charge for Sunday’s game will be “caretaker” Scott (E.) Parker. It seems the 2010-11 FWA Footballer of the Year retired all of five minutes ago, but he’s actually spent a year as Tottenham’s Under 18s Coach and has been First Team Coach at Fulham since last summer. Always a responsible and tactically aware player in the centre of the pitch — except for when he was at Chelsea, when he a responsible and tactically aware player on the bench — few would be surprised were Parker to make a decent fist of a career in the dugout, but this will surely be a burning baptism of fire.
At no point during the season have Fulham settled on a system or a side. They’ve used 27 players, the second highest figure in the division, and 16 of those have been new signings, of which no club has used more. This has, from start to finish, been an improvised effort. As such, their demise should come as no surprise. It would be equally unsurprising were Scott Parker to send out yet another new XI with new instructions this weekend. What would be surprising is if they somehow managed to play competently.
Well-stocked as they are with top-level players and exciting youth prospects, they’re probably lots of fun to play on FIFA and Football Manager.
It’s worth remembering that their attack is half-decent: they rank considerably higher for Expected Goals than the teams that will stay up above them and Mitrović, always a danger in the box, is already into double figures for the season. Besides Mitrović no-one else has stepped up to the plate, but with the likes of André Schürrle, Ryan Babel and Ryan Sessegnon to call on, that’s entirely down to managerial incompetence. This is a team capable of scoring goals.
Being as they are a team which has been set up to disregard all aspects of playing without the ball, Fulham have comfortably the worst defence in the Premier League. They’ve allowed an average of 2.25 goals against per game and while that’s significantly worse than their Expected Goals Against figure, their xGA figure is still the worst in the division. Fulham may pack a punch, but they still deserve to go down with not so much as a whimper.
Only Burnley and Brighton have allowed more shots on their goal this season, but that’s been by design rather than by accident. Sean Dyche and Chris Hughton have made their careers out of playing reactively and frustrating their opposition, while Fulham’s managers have condemned their team to the drop by making life as easy as possible for other teams.
If Eden Hazard gets back to full fitness in time for this game, he should have lots of fun.
Fulham have a bloated squad full of selectable players, so who knows, really. Schürrle is a doubt due to a viral infection and Alfie Mawson and Marcus Bettinelli are both out, but everyone else is available.
As for Chelsea… yeah.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Hazard and Gonzalo Higuaín filled their boots here? It should really be 5-0 or 6-0, but Chelsea will no doubt make harder work of it than they have any right to before winning 2-1 at the death with an own goal.