Fulham’s squad has many holes but Joao Palhinha is a Premier League game-changer

Fulham have only really known suffering when visiting Arsenal in the league.

They have not won once in 31 trips to Highbury and now the Emirates Stadium, and in their previous two gave the hosts a scare yet headed home with more psychological scars — denied either by a late equaliser in a 1-1 draw (Eddie Nketiah, 90+7, April 2021) or late winner in a 2-1 defeat (Gabriel Magalhaes, 86, August 2022).

Not on Saturday, though.

The build-up to this latest journey across London from west to north was marked by anxiety as Fulham wrestle with the reality of their main goalscorer Aleksandar Mitrovic’s recent departure. There has been angst too about more delayed recruitment, and head coach Marco Silva’s not-so-secret desire to recruit five more players this summer. There are now only five days left until the transfer window closes, if anyone needs reminding.

But one game can ease the tension, and that is exactly what happened against Arsenal.

This was a performance to calm the nerves. In a furious atmosphere, with electric tension matching a backdrop of thunder and lightning in the second half, it was Fulham who scored late to change the result, swapping agony for elation.

They needed a reaction here, not just because of the sale of a prolific striker but also because their first two performances of the new season were far below their 2022-23 level. Away to Everton on the opening weekend, Fulham pulled off the ultimate smash-and-grab to win 1-0, and against Brentford a week ago, they lacked any cutting edge in a 3-0 defeat.

But they also lacked Joao Palhinha for all but 23 minutes of those two matches because of a pre-season shoulder injury, and on his return to the starting line-up the midfielder was his own reminder that if anyone is indispensable from last season in this Fulham team, it is him. “That was the reason why I did everything to sign him and that’s one of the reasons why the club did everything last month to keep him,” noted Silva.

Palhinha’s presence in this team is an elixir for his team-mates. They are simply a better side when he plays. 

It was not just, him though.

There was Bernd Leno, flying under the radar again, defying the laws of expected goals (Fulham have conceded five times in the three games but from an expected goals against figure of 8.3, mainly thanks to the former Arsenal goalkeeper’s interventions).

Andreas Pereira was wily and alert enough to punish Arsenal before a minute had been played, while Issa Diop banished the memory of his mistake against Brentford with a flawless display. Silva too showed why he has been able to elevate Fulham since being appointed in the summer of 2021.

Tactically, they tried to stop Arsenal in central areas, with left-winger Bobby De Cordova-Reid sitting infield and tracking Thomas Partey, who was inverting from right-back for the home side:

export 2023 08 27T074303.935

“He was almost our third midfielder,” said Silva. “With Joao in the middle and (Sasa) Lukic on the right. Andreas and Harry Wilson were on a different line, behind Raul (Jimenez).”

export 2023 08 27T074407.041

The new boys offered their reassurances too, none more so than Jimenez, a striker playing with a point to prove at the stadium where his career trajectory altered dramatically in December 2020, suffering a serious head injury while playing for Wolves.

Discussions about Fulham in the last week have centred on who they will sign to replace Saudi Arabia-bound Mitrovic. On Saturday, it felt like Jimenez had digested all of that and was determined to put down a marker.

The 32-year-old, 102-cap Mexico international competed in 20 duels overall, and won eight of his 12 in the air up against William Saliba and Ben White. In the first half, he almost scored a sensational overhead kick and then also made a goal-saving block, to deny Gabriel Martinelli, six yards out.

That said, he is yet to score a competitive goal since his £5million move from Wolves last month and has not found the net since March last year in the Premier League, a run spanning 26 games. Although Jimenez was feeding off scraps against Arsenal, he made a case for him to lead the Fulham line this season.

“I’m really pleased with his performance,” Silva said of Jimenez. “In terms of effort and commitment, he was unbelievable. I’m sure he’s going to score soon.

“I cannot guarantee if a new striker is coming. We are working on that. But if someone comes, they have to really add something for us.”

GettyImages 1640466287 scaled

(Julian Finney/Getty Images)

That Fulham enter the final week of the window with Silva demanding five players is disconcerting.

It is a familiar tale, though, and recent summers at Craven Cottage have been marked by a flurry of late activity and a head coach complaining about late recruitment. It is divisive. On the one hand, it can result in bargain additions, such as Tosin Adarabioyo from Manchester City for £1.5million under Scott Parker on deadline day in 2020, or Leno for £8m last year. But it deprives the coach of the chance to prepare fully for the season ahead, and that is where the tension lies.

Evidently, it is a source of frustration for Silva, who said this week he gave the board his preferences “in May” and admitted it is more “difficult” to persuade players to sign late on. The optics of the club’s director of football, Tony Khan, overseeing what will possibly be the world’s biggest-ever wrestling event at Wembley Stadium this weekend, will not soothe anxieties.

But this summer is different, even if it feels tense again.

Only one of the 11 regular starters from last season’s squad has left — Mitrovic. The players Silva wants signed are to replace ones who mainly acted as cover a year ago (Layvin Kurzawa, Cedric Soares, Daniel James, Neeskens Kebano, Manor Solomon and Shane Duffy) and he acknowledged this on Thursday, even if he feels the squad overall is short of where it was last season. “We need to sign players, but we have to sign the right players, not just numbers,” he said.

It is worth remembering too that, for the first part of this summer, there was much uncertainty about whether Silva would still be at Fulham at all as he too was pursued by the Saudis. That also plays a part in lowering the tempo.

It is clear that Fulham’s off-season work this year can be improved, and Silva cautioned strongly against standing still and the risks of not improving on what was achieved in 2022-23: “If you think that’s enough, that will be the first mistake (leading to) trouble.”

Silva is an ambitious man, and with his contract situation still unresolved, how Fulham act in what’s left of this window feels key if there is to be any longer-term future with him.

Inescapably, the key issue right now is how Mitrovic going to be replaced. This summer may well be defined by that decision, and it may not necessarily mean a like-for-like signing. Silva’s teams before he came to Craven Cottage tended to share the goals around a lot more, with advanced midfielders and wide players often the key scorers. Fundamentally, though, Fulham have to replace Mitrovic’s goals, in whatever form.

They are believed to be chasing two full-backs, a midfielder, a winger and a striker. Timothy Castagne, a 27-year-old 33-cap Belgium international right-back now in the Championship with relegated Leicester City, is close to arriving.

But in the meantime, Fulham retain the qualities that made them so effective last season. In Palhinha, they retain their game-changing midfielder. In Silva, they retain their difference-maker of a head coach.

Saturday’s draw at Arsenal reminded everyone the club have recruited well in recent seasons and that there is still a lot to like about this Fulham team. They showed that with a strong performance which was worth a lot more than just a point.

Now they just need to fill the holes in their squad.

(Top photo: Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top