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Fulham: How Marco Silva’s tactics and recruitment overhauled a yo-yo club

Fulham have previously been dubbed the “ultimate yo-yo club” by pundits and football fans alike.

They are supposedly a team too good for the Championship, but wholly unprepared for the step up in quality in the Premier League. They’re stuck in purgatory between leagues. So how, then, are Fulham in the top-half of the Premier League after 15 games?

Have they spent £100m again? No, according to The Athletic, Fulham’s net spend was £53m.

Instead of shopping in foreign markets where players often take longer to adjust to the league, Fulham spent most of their money on Premier League proven players, with nine of the twelve signings having played in the English top flight before. This meant that most of the players only had to learn Marco Silva’s systems and tactical plans rather than a whole new league and country.

Fulham had been burned in the past by spending big on highly-rated European talent. For example, neither Jean Michaël Seri nor André-Frank Zambo Anguissa thrived during their times Craven Cottage.

Instead, Marco Silva worked with Director of Football (and club owner’s son), Tony Khan, to identify players who fit roles within Silva’s tactical style. In the past, there was a feeling that signings were made based purely on ability rather than how they suit Fulham’s system, with the aforementioned signings from Ligue 1 both being defensive midfielders who were better at progressing the ball in high possession teams, rather than winning it back for an underdog.

Silva’s influence on new arrivals was seen with the capture of Andreas Pereira, who he had been talking to a year before he eventually arrived.

Fulham's Andreas Pereira

“I actually had a conversation with Andreas last season when I joined Fulham,” said Marco Silva about the Manchester United man, who has started in every game this season and has been Fulham’s chief creator from set-pieces.

Silva also wanted a change in profile at the base of Fulham’s midfield. He wanted a destroyer, a defensive midfielder better suited to a league in which Fulham would rarely be the team in control.

Silva informed Seri of this change in tactic. “He understood clearly what I wanted from a player in that position. But in some moments, we knew what this season would be like, so we changed the profile of the player,” Silva admitted.

Enter João Palhinha, a £17m signing from Sporting Lisbon, who BBC broadcaster Reece Parkinson called “signing of the season, surely.” FBRef shows that Palhinha has the most successful tackles of any player in Europe’s top five leagues, averaging 4.4 per game.

Palhinha’s combative spirit and tough tackling have helped Fulham become more secure defensively whilst maintaining an attacking threat, as seen by Fulham’s significantly better goal difference this season compared to the last two survival attempts (-2 after 15 games this season compared to -21 at the same stage in 2018-19).

To improve defensively, Fulham attempt to defend from the front, settling into a 4-4-2 formation without the ball. Andreas Pereira frequently joins the front line, with Aleksandar Mitrovic there to press opposition defenders into mistakes.

Fulham’s wingers double-up with the full-backs to defend against crosses, whilst the midfield two of Palhinha and Harrison Reed pressure and disrupt the opponent’s chief creators.

Fulham's Marco Silva and Harrison Reed

Finally, the defence, martialled by 35-year-old Tim Ream – who was recalled to the US men’s national team due to excellent performances for Fulham – regularly steps out of the back line to intercept passes into the strikers before danger arises, leading to Fulham having the most interceptions in the league so far.

However, Fulham’s defence is not perfect, showcased by Silva’s recent switch between Tosin Adarabioyo and Issa Diop alongside Ream, not knowing who his best pair is due to bad positioning, which leaves space behind for teams to exploit.

When teams do get through the defence they still have to get past German international and former Arsenal number 1, Bernd Leno, who WhoScored considers the best-performing goalkeeper in the Premier League this season.

However, perhaps the part of Fulham’s game that has changed the least between the Premier League and the Championship is their attack. Whilst build-up play has had to speed up, often countering teams quickly rather than slowly building up, the final third objective has stayed the same. Full-backs overlap, wingers invert, and get the ball to Mitrovic by any necessary.