Premier League-bound Fulham have the players style to compete at a higher level

Fulham celebrate their victory over Aston Villa and resulting Premier League promotion by lifting the promotion playoff trophy at Wembley.
Tom Cairney’s first-half goal proved enough as ten-man Fulham hung on for a 1-0 win to beat Aston Villa and return to the Premier League.
Tom Cairney’s first-half goal proved enough as ten-man Fulham hung on for a 1-0 win to beat Aston Villa and return to the Premier League.
American international Tim Ream describes the feeling of returning to the Premier League after helping Fulham beat Aston Villa at Wembley Stadium.

Back in the autumn, promotion looked not so much a distant dream as a laughable fantasy for Fulham, languishing in the lower half of the Championship with internal disagreements making anything beyond survival look like the height of optimism.

But an extraordinary unbeaten run of 23 games, stretching from December to May, took them to within a whisker of automatic promotion. And on Sunday they completed the job, beating Aston Villa 1-0 in the playoff final to return to the Premier League. So who are this Fulham team and how will they do next season?

Who’s the manager?

Slavisa Jokanovic probably should have managed in the Premier League before now. The Serbian, a former Chelsea player, won promotion with Watford in 2015, before a contract disagreement saw him jettisoned in favour of Quique Sanchez Flores. His brooding touchline demeanour gives the impression of a man to whom joy doesn’t come easily, but conversely the football his team plays is excellent.

This is a manager whose teams play flowing football, usually passing out from the back, but equally one with the pragmatism to realise that sometimes a more direct approach can be useful too. It is also clear, from the way they clung on with 10 men against Villa, that it is a team with granite will too.

Who’s their star man?

Even with promotion secured, perhaps Fulham’s biggest task in the summer transfer window will be to keep Ryan Sessegnon. He only turned 18 a couple of weeks ago, but plays with the maturity and clarity of thought that a veteran would be proud of. Sessegnon can sometimes wander through games quietly, but has a knack of suddenly arriving in the right place to score.

There have been comparisons with Gareth Bale, inevitable as he started as a left-back but became a wide attacker, but that sense of timing which allows him to be a sort of poaching winger, is oddly reminiscent to Frank Lampard. Hopefully he stays for now, but this electric youngster is destined for bigger things eventually.

Who are their other big players?

Sessegnon might be Fulham’s star player, but he is arguably not the most important one. That title goes to Tom Cairney, the midfielder through whom most of their play is channelled. A No. 10 with a delightful left foot, who would almost certainly have been playing in the Premier League next season with or without Fulham. Their team is and will be built around his talents.

Perhaps the most important player in the second half of the campaign has been Aleksandar Mitrovic, providing some aggression and what Antonio Conte refers to as a “point of reference” up front for Cairney and Sessegnon. Kevin McDonald provides ballast in midfield and right-back Ryan Fredericks will also be at home in the Premier League.

How do they play?

It is usually the first thing said about Fulham that they have played the most attractive football in the Championship, but there is a good reason for that. Their passing is crisp and deliberate, not just for the sake of passing, and the pace they possess gives them a cutting edge which will be crucial in the Premier League. The question is whether that passing will be crisp and purposeful enough to cope with a higher standard of opposition.

Where will they need to strengthen?

In short, everywhere. Their squad certainly needs beefing up: in the second half of the season you could usually predict 10 of their starting XI every week, so more depth will definitely be required. Perhaps the priorities should be signing Mitrovic and Matt Targett, who spent the latter half of the campaign on loan, on permanent deals. Left-back Targett in particular would be a shrewd purchase from Southampton, as he has allowed Sessegnon to be liberated from defence to brilliant attack.

A central defender, a right winger, central midfield reinforcements and at least one striker in addition to Mitrovic, should be top of Fulham’s shopping list.

How will they cope in the Premier League?

Assuming they can recreate and upgrade their flowing style of play, they should do well. Much will depend on their fitness, and keeping hold of key players over the summer. In theory the brilliant second half of the season should give Jokanovic some credit in the bank, so if they are struggling as Christmas approaches, hopefully they won’t panic.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.