Scott Parker's First Managerial Season Explained
Initially appointed as caretaker manager of Fulham in March 2019, Scott Parker has secured Fulham a place back in England's top-tier at the first time of asking. He has remarkably done so in his maiden season as a senior manager, building a squad that has clearly bought into his simplistic, but far from primitive philosophy.
Flashpoint Moments Provide Inspiration
One of the most distinctive aspects of Fulham’s promotion is that they never occupied an automatic promotion slot at any point. Their first 15 games of the campaign yielded mixed results, with six wins, five draws and four defeats. In a testament to their potential for destruction, Fulham saw four of their first five wins yield multiple-goal margins.
However, a grave defeat was never far away when Fulham threatened to go on a winning run, with none proving worse than a 3-0 drubbing at home to the eventual bottom-placed team Hull City on 2 November. Far from being a tired apologist armed with media-friendly soundbites, Parker defended his approach to the hilt with the air of an experienced sage many years his senior.
It was a gamble that paid off, with Fulham winning the next four. However, they began December with three straight defeats, the last of which was an excruciating 1-0 defeat at rivals Brentford.
Thus, if there was a single moment that truly acted like the catalyst to a charge for the playoffs, it would be the 2-1 win over Leeds just four days before Christmas. With an early penalty (scored by Mitrovic), seven yellow cards, an equaliser from Patrick Bamford and the winner from Josh Onomah, it was not for the faint of heart, but Fulham pulled through and seldom looked back.
Fulham would lose just three more times en-route to the playoffs, while taking 17 of the final 21 points available. In turn, they also began the playoff final with Brentford having avoided defeat in 50 percent of their games entered as betting outsiders, and it is this determination to defy the odds that gives them a fighting chance of survival next season.
Mitro-glycerin in Explosive Form
With Parker demonstrating his desire to employ a defensive, possession-focused mindset, which he himself has described as “old school”, the fact that he retained the services of Alexander Mitrovic prior to 2019/20 is all the more remarkable. Mitrovic is a man who has little patience for build-up play, and loves nothing more than to create havoc in the final third, but Parker has found a way to get the best out of the Serbian shooter.
Aptly backed by three attacking midfielders, with Ivan Cavaleiro (bagging seven assists) being a particular influence on his output, Mitrovic earned the Championship golden boot last term, registering 26 goals across 21 games. Fulham won exactly two-thirds (14) of his goalscoring matches in 2019/20, with eight of those goals proving decisive in victory, and acting as the difference between a shot at promotion and mid-table obscurity.
Fuelled by an eagerness to capitalise on Mitrovic’s taste for goals, the left side of the pitch proved particularly unplayable for opponents, and will be a huge asset in Fulham's quest to defy the fixed odds surrounding their relegation. Notably, Joe Bryan matched Cavaleiro’s tally of seven assists, and highlighting Parker’s appreciation for full-back fluidity – even with his apparent preference for ‘old school’ tactics on the ball.
Cavaleiro is Parker’s Prime Project
Though matched by Bryan in the assists stakes, Cavaleiro was unquestionably one of the best players in the entire Championship last term, making his switch from Wolves permanent just six months into what was originally just a season-long loan.
Cavaleiro’s competitive edge in 2019/20 largely came from his ability to carry the ball in a way that consistently forced opponents into taking him on. It is an approach not without its risks, but his close control, good sense of spatial awareness and expert eye for passing ensured that his recipient (usually Mitrovic) enjoyed ample space to run into.
Whether crossing or cutting back, nothing was beyond Cavaleiro when he was on form. Yet, as a man who frequently found himself in rotation during Wolves' strong 2018/19 campaign, he will be more eager than anyone to prove that he belongs in the top flight.
‘Bad’ PL `Experience Better Than None
Current odds show that Fulham are roughly evens alongside West Bromwich to drop straight back down. With Parker eager to avoid falling into the same trap that Slavisa Jokanovic did two years ago, his approach to player recruitment in 2019/20 reflected a desire to give overlooked players a second chance, and an opportunity to prove themselves.
That much is evidenced by the January loan of Terence Kongolo from Huddersfield, and his decision to make the loan acquisition of Cardiff’s Bobby Reid permanent just eight days later. Both men were relegated with their respective clubs in 2018/19, while Reid’s teammate Harry Arter had the additional distinction of being the worst-disciplined player (in terms of cards) in that same season.
A similar approach may be forthcoming in 2020/21. Parker has already signed loanee Anthony Knockaert for £10.5m from Brighton, now that he is surplus to requirements on the south coast, and with several more players in a similar situation sure to join, Fulham will have a side rich in character.
Despite this, survival will be a big achievement, but Parker is here until the bitter end. If Fulham are going down yet again, we can be sure they are going down fighting this time.