It felt as though the warnings from history had been ignored. Not once, in fact, but twice. Come the Premier League transfer deadline day, Fulham signed three players. On its Football League equivalent, they added one more.
It took the tally of the new arrivals to 11. This was Fulham, that byword for bad buying, the club who spent £100 million in the summer of 2018 and who beat a swift and ignominious return to the Championship. Had they learnt nothing?
Three months on, different conclusions can be drawn. Perhaps the problem in the past was not a policy of buying, but who they bought and how they fitted in. Now Fulham’s deadline-day dash may have looked more a case of desperation than inspiration but it has produced their chance of salvation.
Their revival may not rank as a dramatic one. They upset the odds to defeat Leicester but only have two league wins this season and one was against West Bromwich Albion. But a side who seemed simple to beat are now altogether harder opponents, even if the progress is not reflected in the table. They have drawn their last four league games. Their next three are against Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United and after that, they may look relegation fodder again.
As it is, Fulham are still in the drop zone. And yet since their December defeat at Manchester City – a respectable 2-0, not the thrashing that might have been forecast a few weeks earlier – they have conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League. An asterisk can be attached to that statistic: COVID postponements mean they have also played the fewest games.
But it amounts to improvement after their shambolic start to the season; their prospects would be better but for some entertainingly hopeless penalty taking. A new defensive unit, with deadline-day recruits Tosin Adarabioyo and Joachim Andersen installed at centre-back and the latter a rare loanee wearing the captain’s armband plus the borrowed goalkeeper Alphonse Areola, has brought some solidity. Each has justified his signing. Scott Parker’s leftfield gambit to reinvent Bobby Decordova-Reid as a right wing-back has been justified as he has combined energy with goals.
When so many join at the last minute, it is harder to maintain it is a masterplan, but it highlights how the underestimated Parker has shown his capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, forging a team from his squad of strangers, using the late injection of more quality. His last league line-up, who held Southampton on Boxing Day, featured six summer signings, plus a loanee acquired permanently, in Harrison Reed, and a player who had returned to the club after being lent out, in Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa. It included only two who started the season in the team: Reed and Ivan Cavaleiro, and both of them have been benched in the meantime.
Plans have been jettisoned. The talismen Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic have been dropped. Ademola Lookman, Decordova-Reid and Cavaleiro have offered a different way of attacking, even if a return of two goals from their last five games suggests Fulham require more incision to turn draws into wins.
But they have inverted footballing logic. The received wisdom is that some of the promoted teams who survive do so with continuity and understanding. Fulham have ripped up the core of their team but those early-season showings, conceding three goals in the first hour each to Arsenal and Aston Villa and four to Leeds, indicated they – and their defence in particular – simply were not good enough. Now they have conceded fewer goals than Manchester United.
Others who beat the drop have the momentum to make swift starts; Fulham, in contrast, were awful in September. Some have defined and different styles of play, like Sheffield United last season; not Fulham. Still more land their first-choice targets and get their business done early; not Fulham.
They may be breaking every rule in the survival manual. It might not be enough to rescue their season but their frantic dealing has provided hope. And, perhaps, reasons for others to emulate them on deadline day next season.
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