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The secrets of Fulham’s revival – and how they turned the tide of history

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Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic celebrates scoring their first goal with Neeskens Kebano, Joao Palhinha and Bobby Decordova-Reid – Matthew Childs/Action Images

Of all the statistics and figures you could use to demonstrate how impressive this campaign has been for Fulham, none are more compelling than this: Marco Silva’s side have already collected four more points this season than they did in their previous Premier League campaign, in 2020 /21, and six more points than they did in the top flight in 2018/19.

You might call it third time lucky, except for the fact that luck has had nothing to do with it. Fulham are living in a new reality as a club and their rise in recent months has been a triumph of careful squad-building, quality coaching and, perhaps above all else, collaborative working across the organization.

Joined-up thinking. It might not sound particularly sexy, but it is real. And for Fulham, it is making a difference after a turbulent five years in which the club has bounced from promotion to relegation with almost hypnotic regularity. Up, down, up, down, up.

Now, Fulham are not only expecting to stay in the division. They start this weekend in eighth, only two points behind sixth-placed Brighton, and the European places are within their sights. That might sound a little ambitious but Silva’s side have, at the very least, put themselves in a position where European qualification is a reasonable target to aim for.

Across the first-team and the ownership, there is now a sense of togetherness at Fulham that has not always been there in recent years.

New Fulham Chairman Shahid Khan is greeted by fans ahead of the Barclays Premier League match between Fulham and Arsenal at Craven Cottage on August 24, 2013 - Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

New Fulham Chairman Shahid Khan is greeted by fans ahead of the Barclays Premier League match between Fulham and Arsenal at Craven Cottage on August 24, 2013 – Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

It is no secret that, in the not-so-distant past, there had been friction between managers and players, and indeed between managers and the club’s hierarchy. These days, sources say, there are no such divisions: the key players, the coaching staff, the executives and the owners are all pulling in the same direction, with the same ideas.

There is no better example of this than in the area of ​​recruitment, where Silva has fully bought into the data-driven model created by Tony Khan, the director of football operations and son of owner Shahid Khan. Silva is understood to have engaged with Fulham’s recruitment model with more enthusiasm than any of his recent predecessors, and he has also used his own connections to convince key targets to move to Craven Cottage.

Silva had already led an impressive side last season, of course, when Fulham won the Championship with 90 points. But the new signings this year have helped the team to go up to another level, and the club’s summer business undoubtedly laid the foundation for their performances in recent months.

The most eye-catching of the new arrivals has been Joao Palhinha, the combative midfielder who has added a steel and snarl that was missing in previous Premier League campaigns. Palhinha cost £17 million from Sporting Lisbon and turned up in London with genuine top-class pedigree – he was playing Champions League football last season.

The move for Palhinha demonstrated the alignment between club and coach. The midfielder scored extremely high on the club’s data analytics, and also had a human connection with Silva. He wanted to play for his compatriot. The Khans, and chief executive Alistair Mackintosh, could hardly have asked for more.

Fulham's Portuguese midfielder Joao Palhinha (R) vies with Tottenham Hotspur's Uruguayan midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur - ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

Fulham’s Portuguese midfielder Joao Palhinha (R) vies with Tottenham Hotspur’s Uruguayan midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur – ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

Part of Fulham’s transfer strategy in the summer was to target players with Premier League experience. They did so with the signings of Issa Diop (£15m from West Ham), Andreas Pereira (£10m from Manchester United), Bernd Leno (an initial £3m from Arsenal) and Willian (a free agent).

All four of those players have played crucial roles this season, with Pereira and Willian providing attacking class and Leno proving to be a superb addition in goal. Leno had fallen out of favor at Arsenal but he has been, without question, one of the best value-for-money deals in the division.

On Saturday, Silva’s side met Nottingham Forest, the club who were widely described as “doing a Fulham” following their promotion last summer. That label was in reference to Fulham’s £100m spend in the summer of 2018, which ultimately resulted in immediate relegation from the Premier League.

At Fulham they are aware of the jibes and of the comparisons made between the two clubs. Some of them, clearly, are fair. But there are significant differences, not least when it comes to the sheer number of signings that the two teams made. Fulham spent a huge amount of money in 2018, yes, but much of that went on two players: Aleksandar Mitrovic (who was obviously worth the investment) and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa (who is now thriving for Serie A leaders Napoli).

Partly through necessity, as a result of losing so many players from last season, Forest have invested in quantity as much as in quality. A total of 29 new signings have walked through the doors, which constitutes a rebuild on a far different scale to Fulham’s efforts in 2018.

Within Fulham, lessons have been learned from 2018/19, and indeed from 2020/21. The data-led model has certainly not been ripped up, though. It is the same approach as before, except with Silva on board there is a far greater level of involvement from the head coach.

Good recruitment can only take a club so far, though, and Silva’s work on the training ground has ensured these players have all been able to thrive together. The likes of Kenny Tete and Tim Ream have been superb this season, finding new levels of performance after struggling in the Premier League under other managers.

And then there is Mitrovic, who barely featured under Scott Parker in Fulham’s previous top-flight campaign. Silva has brought the best out of the Serbian striker, who scored a record 43 Championship goals last season and already has 11 in the Premier League this term.

Inside the club, there are people who believe the mood and morale is better now than at any point in the last decade. There is a new sense of stability and cohesion at Craven Cottage, and Fulham have earned the right to dream of far more than simply avoiding relegation.

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