(Writer’s Note: This is the first of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, having all 20 teams done prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on Aug. 10. Links to previews for the other teams can be found at the bottom of the page.)
Manager: Slovisa Jokanovic (Hire date: Dec. 27, 2015)
Tenure Length: 7th/20 in Premier League and 19th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 25-13-8, 88 points, 3rd in Championship
2017-18 Goals scored: 79
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-33
Number of Consecutive seasons in Premier League: 0
Last Promotion: 2018
Last Relegation: 2014
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Second-round loss (Bristol Rovers)
2017-18 FA Cup: Third-round loss (Southampton)
Fulham made its way back into the Premier League after four years in the Championship, claiming the playoff spot for promotion by rallying to defeat Derby County in the second leg of their semifinal to advance 2-1 on aggregate. The Cottagers then edged out Aston Villa 1-0 through Tom Cairney’s first-half goal and playing the final 20 minutes with 10 men.
The Cottagers did not kick into a higher gear until late December; they were as low as 15th in the Championship table on Dec. 2 after a 3-1 defeat to Brentford. But taking 10 of a possible 12 points from the holiday fixtures ignited a 23-match unbeaten run (18-5-0) for Fulham that did not end until the final matchday.
While Cairney and 18-year-old left back Ryan Sessegnon — the Championship Player of the Year — were the primary drivers of Fulham, the arrival of Aleksandar Mitrovic from Newcastle at the end of the January transfer window proved to be a pivotal addition for the young side. The Serbia international, who only joined Fulham after a loan deal to Belgian side Anderlecht fell through, scored 12 goals in 17 league matches.
POTENTIAL STARTING XI
(Note: Numbers for new players are little more than educated guesses from previous teams)
Jokanovic is not expected to stray from the 4-3-3 set-up that led to Fulham racking up the second-most goals in the Championship. The key to this, however, will be whether Newcastle United wants to keep Mitrovic.
Fulham reportedly has made a £20 million offer — a record transfer for owner Shahid Khan — to make the loan permanent. Though Sessengon is tipped to be one of the up-and-coming stars in the Premier League after racking up a team-high 16 goals, having a pure striker lead the line in the Serbian international may go a longer way in the Cottagers surviving for a second season in the top flight.
If the move for Mitrovic fails to materialize, Aboubakar Kamara — fourth on the team last season with seven goals — would likely get the first shot at leading the line. Behind Johansen and Cairney is Sheyi Ojo, who was on loan from Liverpool last season.
THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS
Fulham may make one additional high-profile move even if it lands Mitrovic as Khan is willing to spend to help keep his team in the top flight, but its big coup this summer was signing midfielder Jean Seri from Ligue 1 side Nice. The Ivory Coast international reportedly had Arsenal and Chelsea interested in his services and had nearly joined Barcelona prior to last season before a deal fell through right before the summer transfer deadline.
Left back Maxime Le Marchand followed Seri from Nice to Fulham in a double signing, a move that will allow Sessengon more freedom to maraud up and down the left flank to use his pace.
Right back is up for grabs after Ryan Fredericks moved to West Ham United, with Cyrus Christie expected to get first crack at claiming the spot. Goalkeeper David Button, who split time with Marcus Bettinelli last season, moved on to Brighton and Hove Albion.
THE GUY WORTH SEEING
Ryan Sessegnon (MF) — Sessegnon was reportedly in the mix late to be part of England’s World Cup roster despite not having made any previous appearances for the senior team. He claimed five individual post-season awards, and national manager Gareth Southgate likely will hand the teen his first Three Lions call-up this fall when they begin plotting their qualifying course for the 2020 European Championship.
What sets Sessegnon apart is his advanced maturity and poise in playing the game. Jokanovic has given the 18-year-old plenty of responsibility, telling The Independent, “I try to avoid calling this man a kid, because he is in an important business and what he is doing, normally a kid cannot do,”
Per Ladbrokes, Fulham currently is listed as the third-most likely team to go back down at 13/8 odds as of July 17, trailing fellow promoted side Cardiff City (4/5) and 2017 promoted side Huddersfield Town (6/5). The Cottagers are joint-third with Brighton and Hove Albion and Watford to finish in the bottom half of the table at 1/10 odds and listed at 5/1 odds to crack the top half.
FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES
Aug. 11 — Crystal Palace (11th) H
Aug. 18 — Tottenham Hotspur (3rd) A
Aug. 25 — Burnley (7th) H
Sep. 1 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) A
Apr. 20 — Bournemouth (12th) A
Apr. 27 — Cardiff City (N/A) H
May 4 — Wolverhampton (N/A) A
May 12 — Newcastle United (10th) H
The good news is that even if Fulham’s goal total from last season is scaled back to a 38-match average, the 62.8 goals would have ranked sixth in the top flight in 2017-18, trailing the top four teams and sixth-place Arsenal while edging out fifth-place Chelsea.
The bad news is Premier League defences are more airtight than those in the Championship. Again, though, the Cottagers can be optimistic considering Brighton and Hove Albion, Huddersfield Town and Southampton all stayed up despite averaging less than one goal per match and Newcastle United finished in the top half of the table while scoring just 39 goals in 38 matches.
If Mitrovic does wind up back at Craven Cottage, Fulham’s chances of staying up go from near 50/50 to as high as 80/20. The Cottagers appear to have a quality spine with Ream and Odoi in central defense and newcomer Seri joining holdovers Johansen and Cairney in the midfield underneath Mitrovic should he be on board.
The offence, though, will rightfully revolve around Sessengon as Jokanovic will play him in a more advanced role. While being targeted for physical play will be nothing new for the teenager, Sessengon is also going to have to adjust to higher-caliber defences, and how quickly he learns those nuances could determine the rate of adjustment Fulham makes in the top flight.
The other factor in Fulham’s favor is much like Bournemouth and Burnley, Jokanovic has a system in place over multiple seasons. After making sure the Cottagers did not fall to League One after taking over in December 2015, Fulham finished sixth and third in his two full seasons in the Championship.
Bournemouth is now enjoying its fourth consecutive season in the top flight, while Burnley is on its third straight Premier League campaign after needing to regroup in the Championship in 2014-15. That is what the Cottagers should be aiming for in the short-to-medium term, with an eye on Khan’s planned purchase of Wembley Stadium from the England FA something to watch going forward.
PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS
July 18 — Fulham July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace August 6 — Manchester City