Fulham in 2021 - Avoiding Relegation and Long-Term Strategy

Fulham returned to the Premier League in 2018 after four seasons in the Championship, finished well off the pace to immediately be relegated, and then earned promotion again through the playoff. Now sitting in 18th-place, the club is in clear danger of becoming a yo-yo team that will struggle to execute a long-term plan.

This Season

Early on this year Fulham’s struggles were on defense, allowing ten goals in their first five matches and not posting a clean sheet until their eighth. That put the team in an early hole, which was enough for me to project them to finish last in the league. Scott Parker has largely been able to resolve that issue - they’ve allowed only four over the past five matches, despite those fixtures including Man City, Liverpool, and Southampton. That has coincided with a move towards a style of play that emphasizes the high press and putting more pressure on opponents.

Unfortunately, Fulham’s goal scoring hasn’t improved along with the defense. They are averaging under a goal per game, with only two over the last five matches. For a team in a relegation struggle, that’s an enormous concern - even while playing the top of the table, draws aren’t going to be enough to stay up.

Despite the struggles to score, shots have not been an issue thus far - Fulham ranks 11th in the league in shots per game. That seems encouraging, but they haven’t been able to put nearly enough on target. Only 33% of their shots end up on target, the third-worst mark in the league. There are a number of additional indicators to show why that’s been the case:

There’s two primary explanations for why a team’s shot profile would look like this: either they’re taking the first shooting opportunity too often and sacrificing shot quality for shot quantity, or they’re lacking the spacing and creativity to create better chances. It could be a combination of the two, but in Fulham’s case it appears to be the latter.

While a creative threat to alleviate this weakness would be ideal, that’s likely not coming in this transfer window. Instead, Scott Parker needs to find a way to get his team playing in a way that will create better opportunities - that starts with much better spacing. As the examples below show, this team has significant struggles creating enough space and making the runs to open up shooting opportunities.

In this first example, Fulham has a throw-in in their attacking half; this obviously isn’t a great opportunity, but should at least provide an opportunity to begin an attacking possession. I have no problem with one of their attackers making a run to the corner; however, two end up making the same run, with one not much further behind. This does their opponent’s work for them, adding both the sideline and endline as additional defenders, and turns into a quick turnover.

The second example is the type of situation that leads to Fulham’s poor shooting opportunities. Four Fulham attackers are lined up around the top of the box, with no one making an overlapping run or making any other movements to stretch the defense. This leaves any shooting lanes non-existent, ensuring any shot will be off target or blocked.

In addition to Parker finding a way to create more space, the club also needs to figure out whether Aleksandar Mitrović is part of their plans going forward. He has often struggled to find a place in the high-pressing style that Parker has moved to, but I do believe there is the opportunity and a need to work around that.

Mitrović is the only member of the team with a proven ability to score in this league. While he’s underperformed his xG so far this year, as most of the squad has, he would appear to be the most likely to gain confidence and benefit from additional spacing being created. Fulham’s survival chances may depend on those goals, and Parker would be well-served to find a way to combine Mitrović’s strengths with the high-pressing that’s improved the defending.

Long-Term Aims

It may be counterintuitive, but I don’t believe the long-term plans for Fulham should drastically change depending on whether they survive or are relegated again. The strategy going forward needs to be focused on the long-term, and ensuring this club can return to the heights of ten to fifteen years ago. While they won’t join the ranks of the largest clubs in the league, they can learn from the best of the mid-table clubs and challenge for Europe in the long-term.

The first major area that the club needs to improve is finding values in the transfer market, as the recent transfer history has largely been questionable. At their heights earlier in the century, one of their defining characteristics was the ability to bring in talented and undervalued players from the United States. That particular avenue isn’t as likely at this point with the increased focus on American players throughout European soccer. However, it does demonstrate the importance of a club like Fulham finding values in the market with their limited budgets at this stage. Given the background in analytics of some of the club’s leadership, a focus needs to be on how to use that background to identify the market inefficiencies that the club can exploit. A start would be in finding a creative option in the midfield over the summer to help create chances.

Even before that, the first step in long-term improvement is deciding upon an identity and building every aspect of the club around it. While flexibility in a club is valuable, even that requires a certain type of player. A style of play that doesn’t suit Mitrović, without having another true scoring threat, is just one example of a club where the roster composition and strategy on the field haven’t always aligned.

That is one of most common issues seen across soccer, and one that for a club like Fulham could doom them to becoming a yo-yo team. Every aspect of the club needs to be headed in the same direction, with transfer and player development strategies that bring in the right type of player and a manager that is on board with building tactics around that. Everyone agreeing and heading in the same direction is the only way the club can become a consistent Premier League team with a chance of more success.

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