2013/14 Fulham Season Preview: Apprehension abounds as Fulham aim for mediocrity

It’s been a while since I’ve felt this nervous about the Fulham squad.

Actually, come to think of it, no it hasn’t. I felt this way in March and April when Fulham started dropping points after points after points to get themselves sucked into a relegation battle.

With new owner Shahid Khan, Fulham are still same old Fulham – Khan’s focus on “sustainable success” is pretty much how Mohamed Al Fayed ran things. The new Riverside stand is sucking money from the transfer kitty, and it would seem Fulham are about £2 million short of just about all of their transfer targets’ valuations, and nobody wants to budge.

Therefore, it’s been very difficult to build on a squad that last year was barely good enough for 12th. In fact, Jol’s brought in six new additions, but only two he’s paid a transfer fee for: Sascha Riether (who was part of last season’s squad) and Maarten Stekelenburg.

Jol has, thankfully, improved on the squad’s depth in the midfield, something that was terribly lacking last season. With Steve Sidwell’s mind-boggling consecutive red cards, the midfield both on the creative side and defensive side down the stretch was thin. Georgios Karagounis’s 36-year-old body tired heavily, but there was nobody to cover for him with loanee Eyong Enoh playing alongside.

Now, Derek Boateng and Adel Taarabt will come in to provide added depth, and Sidwell and Karagounis are rested and ready to go. But that’s not even close to enough. Last year’s midfield loan squad of Enoh, Emanuel Frimpong, and Urby Emmanuelson are gone, and these four will not be enough to traverse the grind of an entire season. Jol needs to add at least one more central midfielder, either on the creative or defensive side, and it needs to happen in this transfer window. (Footnote: getting Mahamadou Diarra back due to returned fitness doesn’t count).

What Jol and Alistair Mackintosh have done so far this transfer window, though, can’t be underestimated. He hasn’t grabbed 50984459874 players like Paolo Di Canio, but he’s filling holes. Fernando Amorebieta was massive to grab on a free. While we do and always shall love Mark Schwarzer, Maarten Stekelenburg looks like an obvious upgrade between the sticks. Darren Bent will add goals to an otherwise stagnant offense. Adel Taarabt adds a spark plug to the midfield or wing. There’s still work to be done (LB, CM at the least), but he’s making things happen.

Finally, I would like to – as I did on Twitter – express my disappointment at Martin Jol’s admission a few days ago of the club’s aim of 12th in the table. I understand that this season’s aim is all about survival until next year when the youth squad can start making its way up to the top (more on that later). But why are we admitting the side’s mediocrity to the public? It’s disappointing to hear the club not striving for best case scenario. I don’t think there’s anyone here that, with a few additions, doesn’t believe the best-case scenario for this club is somewhere around 8th place if everyone gels right away and Jol picks the right players at the right times. Obviously it’s more realistic to look around 12th-14th, but why aren’t we aiming towards the best we can achieve? It’s a shame, and almost feels like Jol’s admitting defeat before the season even begins.

Now for the fun part, predictions. I did a rundown of how I thought the league would shape up for ProSoccerTalk here, but things have changed since then. Southampton’s huge grab of Pablo Osvaldo – while ridiculously overpriced – will propel them out of the relegation battle. I’ve also been convinced by those on Twitter and elsewhere that Spurs will indeed eclipse Arsenal no matter what happens with Gareth Bale, both due to Spurs’ fantastic buys in the market (which are being overshadowed by Bale) and the Gunners’ desire to sit and stare at their piles of cash rather than use them.

League winner: Manchester City

Top 4: Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur

Relegation: Sunderland (sorry Jozy, I still love you), Hull City TIGRES *rawrrrrr*, Crystal Palace

Most impressive mid-table side: Swansea City

Most disappointing mid-table side: Stoke City

Fulham’s finish: 13 – can obviously be improved as the transfer window goes on, but right now this is a bottom-half side at best)

Fulham’s Player of the Year: Dimitar Berbatov – he’s the best player on the squad, and while Riether continues to impress, Berbatov is MVP of this side in my opinion. Without him, we are nothing.

Fulham’s surprise player: Alexander Kacaniklic – ok, not a massive surprise, but the kid has come so far, and I think will become an absolutely vital piece of this team alongside Ashkan Dejagah. The wings for Fulham are one of the bright spots, and they will be charged with overshadowing the lack of creativity in the middle. Kaca receiving the number 11 is huge, and I’m excited for him to inject both youth and talent into what this club has going forward.

Biggest question mark at Fulham: How will Martin Jol piece together this mish-mash of new players? And more importantly, where does Bryan Ruiz best fit in/does he at all? Darren Bent’s addition creates an interesting selection headache for Martin Jol. Does he play Berbatov and Bent up top together with Ruiz behind supporting? It leaves the back of the midfield very exposed. Does Jol play Berbatov behind Bent and Ruiz on the wing? That removes a winger from the picture, so who of Dejagah/Kacaniklic/Duff/Taarabt gets the axe? Does Jol sit Ruiz? The club has invested a lot – £11 million and a preseason trip to Costa Rica – in the playmaker. And finally, where does Adel Taarabt come in? Does he start in the midfield? On the wing? On the bench as a super-sub? Nowhere at the moment? Jol has some big decisions to make.

Final word: I’m nervous about how this current squad will hold up, but with a few more players for depth (not just anybody *cough* Scott Parker *cough*) we can make it through this year unscathed. My expectations, as I believe those at Fulham are striving towards, are simply to make it through this season intact, and then start the seemingly never-ending line of incredible talent from the youth squad into the first team. There’s a sea of talent at the lower youth levels, and in a season or two we’ll really begin to reap the benefits of their success and development. So until that time comes, let’s work towards ensuring our safety in the league, pass Dimi the ball, and COME ON YOU WHITES!

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