Fulham Season Preview: trust in Slav

With the 2018-19 Premier League season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Fulham fan Michael Gregg (@1966MJG).

You won the Championship Play-Off Final last season, but the surge to promotion hadn’t looked likely when you were 17th in November. Were the club and Slavisa Jokanovic rewarded for staying true to their principles?

Absolutely. There was a small minority of fans who wanted a change in October/November time due to the results, but if you dug a little deeper and looked at how close the league was, then the board were right not to make a rash change because we were behind the targets set. Fair play to Jovanovic for sticking to the passing style and not reverting to a more direct style which many wanted.

The main talking point from last season was the wonderful rise of Ryan Sessegnon. He seems to come alive in the box – but is there another level for him to go up in terms of his all-round game?

He only turned 18 in May and still has a lot to learn. He’s an intelligent player able to find space and his anticipation of where a ball (Or a man) will be is the best I’ve ever seen. He needs to learn how to take a player on, even though he has been playing as a wide forward he lacks the trickery to beat a man with the ball. If he can add that and also improve his defensive awareness when playing left back (If he ever goes back to that position) he will be a major star.

A big blow this summer is the loss of right-back Ryan Fredericks, who has left for West Ham on a free. Do you think Cyrus Christie will provide as much pace and drive?

Christie was clearly bought to replace Fredericks when it was clear he was going to leave, and he has some big boots to fill. Fredericks played out of his skin for last 6 months and Christie now has the harder job of providing all that Fredericks offered, but in the Premier League. From what I have seen his crossing is better, the real question is does he have the ability to bomb down the wing directly like Ryan did.

Marcus Bettinelli took the goalkeeping jersey off David Button last season. Do you think he can step up to the Premier League?

Its going to hard now for Betts given we have spent over £5M on Fabri from Beşiktaş. He’s still young and you never really know how the season will pan out, but I sense its going to be a frustrating one for him. He has the ability for sure, needs to improve his command of the area and distribution to be a real top keeper.

Tim Ream and Denis Odoi aren’t your classic centre-backs; they look more impressive with the ball than without it. Are you concerned by their lack of aerial prowess, or excited by their intelligence?

Odoi for me was always a makeshift centre back. He did much better than I expected to keep Kalas out of the team but as he showed a couple of times last season he can be a bit rash. Ream was my Player of the Season and I was so happy for him after a rough time when he first joined us a few years ago. Calm on the ball, he improved his heading and turned into a real leader at the back.

At the time of writing it looks like we will be signing Alfie Mawson from Swansea which will mean Odoi will revert back to his defensive utility role within the squad.

Matt Targett looks like an excellent crosser of a ball from deep. Given the balance he gave your side after joining on loan from Southampton last season, you must be keen for him to return?

Class player, I would love us to sign him. Still young and can only improve as well. Looks like we will have to pay over the odds but worth it to team him up again on the left with Ryan Sessegnon. I think Southampton will crack and we will get him back.

Kevin McDonald certainly uses the ball well, but he does look prone to the occasional slip when put under pressure. Could that be problematic against potentially more aggressive sides?

Not really, it’s the way we play, on the edge. He will have the biggest challenge in the step up to the PL. He sometimes becomes the third centre back and last man. Will he be found out at this level? He made us tick last year, ball retention and kept it moving through him. Cairney and others got the glory, but he was the engine.

Your main signings so far are Maxime Le Marchand and Jean Michael Seri – both from Nice. Do you hope that, without disrupting what you’ve been good at, they’ll add some power to the spine?

Seri comes with a great reputation and I know many in football have been surprised we got him. As long as the new players buy into the philosophy of the team and take to the passing style I don’t see anyone disrupting things. If they do then they don’t last long under Jokanovic.

Tom Cairney appeared to undertake a deeper role than the one we saw in 2016-17 with Stefan Johansen pushing on. Are you excited to see the impact they can have in the Premier League?

With the signing we have made its going to be a real battle to win a starting place in the Fulham midfield. One thing you see from Fulham is they are always interchanging positions and I’m confident they can all do well in whatever position they start or even change to in a game. Johansen can do the ugly things in a game, take a booking when needed for example. He works hard and against the better teams who will have the ball more he will work his socks off. With Cairney its his chance to show what he can offer at the top level. If you were being over critical he’s a bit too one footed so needs to gamble with his weaker foot a bit more.

Aboubakar Kamara always seems to give you that bit more power and drive when he starts over Lucas Piazon and Floyd Ayite. Could Kamara become a regular in the Premier League?

Super-sub is what I’m looking for from AK. I want him coming on with 20 minutes to go to scare the life out of tiring defenders. As long as he stays true to his skill set of being direct and pacy he will be a real handful.

Aleksandar Mitrovic seemed to give you a focal point last season which you didn’t quite have with Rui Fonte up until Christmas. You must be delighted the Serb has signed permanently?

It’s great news he’s now re-joined us and is the cog that the two wider players and attacking midfielders work off. He’s a bull of a player and only 23 as well.

Whites aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Premier League season as a whole? Any thoughts on your competitors? 

One thing is noticeable from 4 seasons away from the PL and that’s I haven’t really followed it. I’m learning the names of players and remembering how hard it is. Also, how expensive players are as well. It truly is a different level.

I do think the PL is 6 teams at the top and 14 others all trying not to get relegated first and also can they make 7th. That’s who we are competing against.

Where will you finish?

The signings look good, but its very difficult to say how we will do.
If I was to put money on it, I’d say 13th. The main thing in the first season is to stay up, because that’s when it really starts to pay dividends.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Fulham have sufficient belief in their possession principles to offer a breath of fresh air to the Premier League; midfield controller Tom Cairney deserves his shot at this level. The signings of Fabri, Alfie Mawson and Jean Michael Seri plus Aleksandar Mitrovic after a loan spell, ensures the Cottagers have muscle in their spine. With 2014 World Cup winning forward Andre Schurrle joining on loan, a top half finish is well within their reach. 10th