Fulham have put in place their manager, their CEO, and their Chief Football Officer. They should have a clear idea of the kind of squad and system they want. Now they just need to build it. Who are they looking at? What do they need?
Fulham's defense was poor last year. I don't think that can be said enough. Some of that was a formation issue. In the diamond that Kit Symons ran, the only width came from fullbacks getting forward. That left the center back pair under immense pressure with only Scott Parker to shield them. At his age, that was asking too much. That being said, the center backs need to do better.
The most curious thing about the center backs was that Dan Burn only played 20 matches last season. Most of us thought he was going to be a big piece of the defense to build around, yet for some reason he seemed out of favor. I still believe he's worth building around. At his age, you can only expect him to improve, and Who Scored rated him as our best defender all year. But you still need someone to pair him with.
Fulham have been linked to Richard Stearman of Wolves, Lewis Dunk of Brighton, and Tom Lees of Sheffield Wednesday. The bid for Tom Lees has apparently been rejected, but that doesn't mean it still can't be finalized for a larger fee. All three players were part of very good Championship defences last season. I'd be happy with any being a partner for Burn. I would prefer Dunk or Lees as they are slightly younger, but any would be fine.
While Shaun Hutchinson is still around I'm not sure he's a viable championship player. Most of Fulham's bad performances seemed to come with him in the squad. Perhaps he's good enough to be your fourth option, but even that might be asking too much. To a lesser extent the same can be said of Nikolay Bodurov. His best attribute was that he was able to play a lot of games. But Fulham were bad in most of those games, so is that really a plus? I'm more than happy to have him as the fourth option, but not much more than that.
That means a third center back is needed. The good news is that he might already be around. Michael Turner played decently well in his loan spell from Norwich. He played pretty well at Norwich before then. At his age, he's unlikely to be someone that Norwich want to take back up to the Premier League. If they are willing to let him go at a good price, he'd make a great third option and a very good mentor to the likes of players like Burn and Tiago Casasola.
Center back isn't the only defensive position of need. Fulham could use some help at both fullback spots. On the left, I don't believe Sean Kavanagh or Kostas Stafylidis is the answer. They're both attack first kind of players, and in this squad defense is going to be more important. Either would make a fine left winger in a more defensive situation or as an attacking fullback in situations where a goal is needed, but I'm not ready to pencil either in as the every match starter.
Fernando Amorebieta is still around as a left back option, but for how long? I've always felt he's better as a center back or a left center back in a three man back line. Add in his injury problems, penchant for red cards, and high salary; and I think it's probably best to part ways with him. If Middlesbrough were willing to make the trade of James Husband for Amorebieta permanent, I'd be a very happy man.
The right side is actually somewhere I feel a bit better about. I think Jack Grimmer can do well there. I previously saw him more as a center back, but thought he did well as a right back last season. I think Tim Hoogland is also an adequate player there when healthy. While not a natural right back Bodurov can play there as well and Richard Stearman (if the transfer goes through) has spent time there.
As big as the problems are in defense, the midfield might require more work to get right. The major issue in projecting it is that we have no idea what kind of formation Symons plans on using. The diamond reigned supreme last year, but how much of that was simply a way to get Bryan Ruiz on the pitch effectively? I expect Symons to revert back to the 4-4-1-1 that he used with the youth squads and that Fulham have seemed to favor in the past. If that's the case, there is a lot of work to be done.
In the center of the midfield four you have Emerson Hyndman, Scott Parker, Lasse Vigen Christensen, and Ryan Tunnicliffe. Is that enough? Can you play a central midfield of just Hyndman and Christensen and get away with it? Does Scott Parker have anything left? There are more questions than answers here. I'd love to see one more quality defensive minded midfielder brought in, but the upside of Hyndman and Christensen can not be overrated. That paring has the potential to be very special. It just might be to early to roll it out all the time.
The wild cards here might be Thomas Eisfeld and Chris David. Both might be too attacking to play in the center of a 4-4-1-1, but if either can, they add needed depth. The question is, does the team see either as players for the future? Everyone was high on Chris David, but he was loaned off to the Eredivisie. Thomas Eisfeld has talent (he wouldn't have lasted as long at Arsenal as he did without it), but was he more of a Magath player?
Part of the problem with the diamond was that it kept Fulham narrow. As a result, we didn't get to see very much wing play last season. In a 4-4-1-1 that will have to change. Fulham do have a lot of wing options, but few are tested. As previously stated Kavanagh or Stafylidis can play on the wing if a little more defense is called for. Alex Kacaniklic is still a quality player and can start on either wing. But after that the cupboard is pretty bare. The club has been linked to Ben Pringle, and while another winger would be great. He's also a left sided player.
What are the other options? Adam Taggart can play wide, though we haven't seen him play anywhere really. George Williams had moments of first team brilliance before going out on loan and suffering a torn ACL. Can he be back to contribute at all this year? Ryan Williams is a natural wide player, though one without much experience. As previously stated both Eisfeld and David have played wide, but their futures are in question. Larnell Cole could possibly come out of hiding and contribute, but I wouldn't expect much. Ange-Freddy Plumain has done well with the U21's but might not be ready to contribute.
The wild card is Patrick Roberts. His natural position is wide right, and he has all the talent in the world. But is he ready? Having Kacaniklic and Roberts running at players from the wings could be a nightmare for teams to match up against, and in a perfect world that's what I'd like to see. That simply might be too much pressure for the young man though.
The most important piece of business Fulham can do is to keep Ross McCormack. If Norwich do make a bid, it might be hard for him to turn down Premier League Football. If he leaves, Fulham really have no one to replace him. He's the perfect player to have in the hole under a striker. He's also versatile enough to play as the main striker or even out wide. If he's still here when the window closes, I'll feel much better about Fulham's chances.
Is Bryan Ruiz a forward or a midfielder? Is he a slightly more talented version of Ross McCormack with a far lower work rate? Regardless, I expect him to be gone. Hopefully, that means Symons won't have to build an entire system just to suit Ruiz's talents. I also expect Hugo Rodallega to be gone. He's good enough to play in this squad, but I don't feel he's good enough to play over younger players with much more upside.
If McCormack is the second striker, you don't need much of a backup for him. He was an absolute iron man last season. But, in cases where he can't play Roberts, Taggart, David, Eisfeld, and Kacaniklic could all play underneath another striker. In some cases that would be more of a 4-5-1, but I don't see that as a problem.
The question is, who is McCormack's partner? Is Matt Smith the guy you want to go to war with? Is Cauley Woodrow ready to start producing? Is Moussa Dembele ready to take the leap? Ideally I'd like to see Woodrow and Dembele splitting time with Matt Smith being the big target guy off the bench, but that's a gamble. I wouldn't be at all shocked to see someone new come in.
What needs to happen most
There is a lot of potential in this Fulham squad. But that potential could disappear in a heartbeat. The most important thing the club can do is give new contracts to Hyndman, Christensen, Bettinelli, Burn, Dembele, Woodrow, and Roberts. Locking those guys up and investing in a few key areas might just be enough to have the team challenging for a playoff spot. And it sets them up quite well for the future.