Every season the race for the Premier League is full of drama, excitement and often tension. But this year, Fulham have pulled so far clear of the competition they have declared themselves winners with four games to spare.
The prize? A place in the Premier League for the 2022/23 season.
Their points tally, 86, is enough to canter over the finish line safe in the knowledge automatic promotion is guaranteed. But the race, in truth, is only half run.
After spending 13 consecutive seasons in the Premier League between 2001-2014, Fulham’s fortunes have been somewhat less stable in recent years, with their last five campaigns ending in either promotion or relegation.
No one can question Fulham’s bounce-back ability. The pattern is consistent. Relegation woe is followed by the joy of immediate promotion.
And once again it’s only taken the London outfit one season of Championship football to realize their potential as a first-tier club, but questions over their longevity remain.
Here we look at how Fulham can ditch their yo-yo past in favor of a sustained run as a genuine Premier League entity.
Fail to prepare…
With promotion now mathematically secure Marco Silva will have one eye, or possibly even two, on next season.
In Silva, Fulham have a leader with Premier League know-how. In both top-flight forays of recent memory, they have been led by managers who lacked such experience.
His Premier League win percentage (35.71) may be somewhat underwhelming, but counts for something given his predecessors – Slavisa Jokanovic and Scott Parker – started their respective top-flight campaigns on zero.
Fulham have also led the Championship since mid-January and despite suffering a delay to their promotion parade with a few rogue results – notably against Coventry City and Derby County – have known their fate for weeks.
Any blip from here on in will surely only serve to dent, rather than derail, their Championship-winning credentials allowing for a more measured approach when preparing for the 2022/23 campaign.
learning from mistakes
Fulham have tried spending heavily with limited success in the past and will need to be shrewd operators in the summer transfer market to ensure they boost their squad in the areas they lack most.
This time around, with automatic promotion secure without the need for the play-offs, Fulham are ahead of the competing pack.
That security may pave the way for player trading earlier in the window and offer any newcomers more time to bed in.
Fulham’s recruitment policy has been flawed in recent years and relied too heavily at times on loanees. They splurged over £100m on 12 players ahead of 2018/19, before being forced into the January market for a short-term fix in an attempt to save their ill-fated season.
A more considered plan of attack, which centers around two or three key targets in specific areas of weakness, as well as some pragmatic fine-tuning to the current squad will provide a better platform for success – this model has been well executed by both Leeds and Brentford over recent seasons.
Build around Mitrovic
Aleksandar Mitrovic is undoubtedly Fulham’s talisman, although question marks remain over his Premier League suitability. Regardless, Silva appears to know how to get the best out of his record-breaking striker. He is driving in a settled system guided by Silva’s dynamic style.
In March, Mitrovic broke Ivan Toney’s Championship scoring record by notching his 32nd and 33rd league goals of the season in a win over Peterborough. Since then, the Serbian has scored another seven times to break the 40-goal barrier.
Fulham wins with & without Mitrovic scoring
There is a very clear correlation between Mitrovic’s bounty and Fulham’s fortunes. In 2020/21, the striker scored more international goals for Serbia (7) than he did at club level (4), as Fulham were relegated having only found the net 27 times all season.
It’s clear that under Silva, Mitrovic has much more potency. He has got better at coming deep and linking play and is much more of a complete forward, registering a further seven assists. It’s also no surprise that Fulham possess the league’s most abundant provider in Harry Wilson – 14 assists, averaging 0.41 per 90 minutes played.
In order to dictate the outcome of games in the Premier League, Fulham need to figure out a formula that puts their prized asset, who has been shortlisted for Championship Player of the Season alongside sidekick Wilson, at the center of the action.
Momentum is gold
Championship winners tend to fare better than play-off winners – although Norwich City remain an exception to that rule. Fulham must therefore harness the momentum gathered from such a successful season and put it to good use in the early part of the new term.
Leeds, Wolves and Burnley are all examples of clubs who have won the Championship title in recent years and exhibited staying power in the top-flight by profiting from the promotion wave. This does not last forever – as demonstrated by Sheffield United’s second season demise – but could serve to energize a positive start to the new term.
The same impetus applies to individuals. There will be a void left by teenage sensation Fabio Carvalho – who is set to depart for Liverpool in the summer – but among Fulham’s Premier League 2 (Division 2) title-winning youngsters there is a clear abundance of talent to supplement the quality within the first-team.
The carryover must also extend to Fulham’s stellar strike force. If Mitrovic and Wilson can hit the same heights and deliver a comparable amount of firepower in the Premier League, it’s entirely reasonable to forecast Fulham’s stay in the top tier to beyond extend a single season. Plenty of ifs, buts and maybes, but there are certainly grounds for cautious optimism.