Fulham have been bouncing between the top two divisions for the last five years, but is there anything they can take from Norwich’s struggles?
After an almost unsettling run of inconsistency over the previous few weeks, Fulham finally got the better of their end-of-season jitters on Bank Holiday Monday and Luton Town were on the receiving end. For the third time this season Fulham won 7-0, getting them over the 100-goal barrier for the season and finally sealing the EFL Championship trophy.
But Fulham have recently found getting into the Premier League to be fairly straightforward; staying there has proved to be considerably more difficult. They’ve now been promoted three times in the last five years, interspersed with two calamitous seasons in the Premier League from which they could manage just 54 points combined.
This is hardly a unique statistical blip, either. Norwich City are on the same up-and-down trajectory as Fulham, albeit a year behind them on the same cycle. Just over 48 hours before Fulham lifted the Championship trophy, Norwich’s journey in the opposite direction was confirmed after they lost at Aston Villa.
It’s hardly like Fulham somehow can’t support Premier League football. They played 13 consecutive seasons at that level from 2001 and when they were relegated in 2014, it was the first time in six years that they’d finished below 12th in the table. There is nothing which dictates that Fulham are pre-determined to get relegated from the Premier League once they’ve got there.
This season’s promotion was certainly more emphatic than their previous ones. In both 2018 and 2020 they went up through the play-offs, whereas on this occasion they are the champions and are likely to be by a considerable margin. Considering that they’ve had a couple of seasons’ worth of Premier League television and prize money and parachute payments in those intervening years, it’s no surprise that they’ve been able to build better teams than many of their contemporaries.
The most curious case of all is that of Aleksander Mitrovic, the strangely enigmatic striker who’s been leading their front line since he joined them on loan from Newcastle United in January 2018. That move was made permanent at the end of the 2017/18 season, but since then the league form of Mitrovic has come to mirror the form of Fulham, even though his sheer talent has remained undiminished; as recently as November 2021, he scored the last-minute goal that took Serbia to the 2022 World Cup ahead of Portugal, and he remains their record goalscorer with 44 goals from 71 appearances.
But in the league, his record has been considerably patchier. He’s only reached double figures in the Premier League once, in 2018/19 when he scored 11, despite having played three-and-a-half seasons at this level, and on Fulham’s last trip to the top flight he cut an almost sad figure; plagued by injuries and a positive Covid test, he was eventually replaced by Ivan Cavaleiro and Ademola Lookman and was only reinstated for the start of this season after manager Scott Parker was replaced by Marco Silva.
Silva’s arrival at Craven Cottage had been something of a surprise in itself. Parker stayed on beyond the end of last season and didn’t leave the club until almost the end of June. After a falling-out with the board and with Bournemouth not having given up their interest in him, he eventually left by mutual consent, having overseen two relegations and one promotion in 27 months since taking the job. When Silva was hired to replace him, one of his first decisions was to reinstate Mitrovic at the head of the team’s forward line. With 43 goals from 42 league matches – just over half of all the goals he’s scored for the club in his four-and-a-half years there – it’s fair to say that Mitrovic has repaid Silva’s faith.
But as Fulham rise again, so Norwich fall straight back past them. Some have even started to joke that the two clubs may never play each other in a league match again. But as touched upon previously on here, Norwich have made mistakes over their course of this season and have paid a heavy price. They were unfortunate in losing a talismanic player, Emi Buendia, to Aston Villa, and then went in heavily on spending last summer whereas in January – by which time it was clear that this Norwich team was simply not good enough – they were either unwilling or unable to spend.
Similarly, a strange eight-day delay between deciding to sack Daniel Farke and then doing so shortly after they’d won for the first time in the league all season might not have shifted the dial on their fortunes in the long run, but it still made the club look… kind of foolish, while signing a deal with an unknown gambling company provoked an angry reaction from supporters. This sort of mistake is what Fulham need to avoid next season.
If Silva might look to Norwich for signs of what not to do upon promotion, he might also look to Brentford for signs of how to succeed, and although many of these are to be found in the club’s long-term planning, there are hints that they could take, including Brentford’s emphasis on community and the potential for one player to turn a season on its head in a game that is won and lost by narrow margins.
And for Fulham, that player surely remains Aleksandar Mitrovic. Mitrovic is now 27 years old, somewhere close to what should be the peak of his career. It’s likely that has has previously got stuck between a rock and a hard place in the Premier League. He is a player that can get in position for a lot of chances, but has tended to need a few to put a goal away and lacks a little pace, and of course the problem for Fulham in the Premier League is that they would not have been creating a lot of chances against better-organised and fitter defences.
Having said that, 43 goals in 42 games in the Championship hints that he may have made progress on this. It will be impossible to say for sure until he has to face those defences again. Presuming that Fulham retain his services for next season – and anyone who scores more than 40 league goals in a season is going to attract interest from somewhere – Silva will surely lead with him again, next time around. At the peak of his career, and fresh from a record-breaking season, this is surely Mitrovic’s moment, if there is to be one for him in the Premier League.
Fulham’s potential biggest problem might well be an over-dependence on this one player. Only two other players – Harry Wilson and Fabio Carvalho – have managed to get into double figures this season, and even that’s only with 11 and 10 goals respectively. And for all the fireworks that went off against Luton, Silva could be justified in being a little worried at his team’s downturn over the last quarter of the season. The Luton win was only their fourth in their last ten league games, and a little more upward momentum from their last league game of the season would likely be most welcome.
In the immediate glow of promotion, such considerations probably don’t matter too much to Fulham. They were the best team in the Championship and thoroughly deserve both promotion and their league title. They’ve already scored more than 100 goals and have already recorded 90 points. And who knows, perhaps Marco Silva has unlocked the key inside Aleksandar Mitrovic that will make him a striker to be feared in the Premier League next season. Fulham’s previous promotions both came through the play-offs while this one came as champions. Both the club and their star striker are in good shape to break that yo-yo rhythm next season.
The post Can Fulham learn lessons from Norwich struggles to kick the yo-yo habit? appeared first on Football365.