After being in English football’s doldrums that is the Championship, Fulham will return to the Premier League with a brand new squad. By summer’s end, the club have gone on to spend the extreme majority of their £170 million prize money from their promotion. Whether or not this makes Fulham a contender for European places is harder said than done, but there is no denying that this part of Southwest London has been buzzing at a level that hasn’t been seen in a generation.
With that, they are rewarded with a visit by London rivals Crystal Palace. The opposition just so happened to be the last foes Fulham were up against the last time in the Premier League. On that fateful day, both sides went on to score twice with Cauley Woodrow and Chris David scoring their first ever goals in front of the home crowd. Yeah, I don’t want to talk about it anymore. The point is, the past is the past and a new dawn is upon Fulham fans. With that brings so much optimism that anything short of three points tomorrow may not be taken so lightly.
But here’s the thing about this Crystal Palace side that many Fulham supporters don’t know: they actually were quite good last season! Despite the horrifying start to 2017/18 under Frank De Boer, ex-Fulham and England boss Roy Hodgson steared the ship back into mid-table by season’s end. When it was all said and done, Palace sat ninth in goals scored and were the best Premier League club outside of “the Big Six” in expected goals. The defense was a bit more mediocre to Hodgson’s liking just a 14th best total in expected goals, however plenty of that was due to the De Boer reign more than anything else. By season’s end, this was a club outshooting their opponents 476-467. That’s pretty good for a supposed bottom half team.
Oh, and Palace were able to do this while only having the ball 46.9% of the time. If that is not a true definition of counter-attacking football, I don’t know what is. So it is very clear that Fulham will need to be patient with the ball at their feet and find a way to get past the midfield and defense in order to break them down with consistency. There is potential to do that, but with so many new faces in and around the matchday squad, don’t be surprised if there are a few hiccups or ten.
While they may not have picked up as many signings as Fulham did, Crystal Palace can bank on another season under Hodgson, more experience in the Premier League, and better continuity throughout the squad. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if Fulham have a bit of a stumble in one of the more anticipated Saturday’s in Craven Cottage history. But if for anything else, there will be another 18 more fixtures to get excited about. With that in mind, let’s peak into the three main players for Fulham supporters to watch out for.
First one up is easily Crystal Palace’s most irreplaceable player. While his radar will tell you that anyone would be out of their mind to spend over £70 million on Zaha as Crystal Palace’s board was advertising him for, there’s no denying that last season was a breakthrough season for him. By season’s end, he posted career highs in goals (nine), shots (2.26 per 90 minutes), shooting accuracy (40.6% on target) and key passes (1.87 per 90 minutes).
However, Ruben Loftus-Cheek is gone and Jordan Ayew may not be the like-for-like replacement for him. Therefore, it will be up to Zaha to free up his teammates like Ayew, Andros Townsend and the human shrug emoji that was Christian Benteke’s inexplicable 2017/18 campaign. If he can somehow maintain a high caliber of performances in while hitting 26 years-old by season’s end, there is no denying where Zaha stands among the Premier League’s best and most consistent attacking players.
Next up, we go from an established footballer to one that is a massive head scratcher. But at 22-years old, and coming from Schalke on a free transfer, Max Meyer does have the ingredients to revive his career. It was just two seasons ago that the central midfielder was playering over 2,000 Bundesliga minutes and racking up five goals and six assists in the process. He was rewarded with three caps for Germany and seemed like a future member of the most recent World Cup squad. Instead, he is among the many of a long line of German youngsters that are struggling to fulfill their complete potential this past World Cup cycle. With that, Meyer really struggled under Domenico Tedesco’s 3-4-3 formation where he was playing a more defensive role.
Fortunately at Palace, Luka Milivojevic is there to play that type of position instead so Meyer can express himself more in the number ten role. And if Meyer’s not able to get the job done or if Hodgson preferes a more conservative midfield, than former West Ham man Cheikhou Kouyate is there for cover.
Lastly, we round out this preview by looking into the career of James Tompkins. With well over 22,000 league minutes under his belt before turning 29, the center back is a true definition of a Premier League veteran. But before he moves on to the latter stages of his career, Tomkins had a career season in 2017/18 where he had his best passing season (81.8% accuracy) while also reaching marks in possession adjusted clearances (6.79 per 90 minutes) and headers won (4.37 per 90 minutes) that were the highest since 2014/15. He may not be strong everywhere else, but we’re at the point where we know what to get out of him. If Fulham are to have any troubles scoring on Saturday, you will know who is most responsible for those troubles.