By Daniel Ghorbal
After a nine week break, the return of the Premier League is upon us as Jurgen Klopp’s side travel to Craven Cottage to face newly promoted Fulham.
Having just won the community shield against fierce competitors Manchester City, Liverpool come into the campaign with a renewed sense of optimism, with new signings impressing in pre-season and a really competitive squad fighting to start this opener. Fulham were mightily impressive in their title-winning Championship campaign, having scored over 100 goals and playing a brand of football that had supporters on the edge of their seats. Despite that, manager Marco Silva has been audibly annoyed in a recent press conference about the clubs lack of planning upon their return to the big time. Heading into Saturday’s match against Liverpool, they have just two centre-backs at their disposal, whilst having limited options across the rest of the pitch.
Although the business they have done has been shrewd, Silva has expressed his frustrations about the slow paced nature of Fulham’s business, stating that the club desperately need reinforcements. To some, this may come across as him being negative about what he has currently, but the former Everton manager made it crystal clear that he is satisfied with the level of quality he has within his squad. He is emphasising that further depth is required to keep competition high and legs fresh, something he definitely deserves after securing their return to the top flight so assuringly.
In terms of their summer recruitment thus far, I have been impressed by the calibre of player Marco Silva has attracted to the London outfit. Many allude to the club’s rather rash spending spree following the 17/18 promotion, with several of those signings failing to make a mark at all.
Added to the ranks this time around are: Bernd Leno, Kevin Mbabu, Joao Palhinha, Andreas Pereira and Manor Solomon. Bar the latter who is ineligible for this fixture, the expectation is that most of the fellow summer signings will start the season opener, players with experience in both the Premier League and Champions League.
The standout for me is Joao Palhinha, a classy operator who dictates play in the number six position. His contributions in Sporting Lisbon’s 2020/21 title winning campaign were huge, boasting superb awareness of the game and a level of calmness on the ball. Palhinha has become a fixture in the Portugal team now too, and him staying fit will be vital for Fulham’s chances this season. Added to the very technical Harrison Reed and former Manchester United midfielder Andreas Pereira, there is enough quality within that Fulham midfield to see them have steady spells of possession within games. Although it’ll be extremely difficult against a hungry Liverpool outfit, Palhinha and Reed’s tenacity will certainly make it an uncomfortable afternoon for the selected trio within Klopp’s midfield.
Defensively, Fulham will have their issues to say the least. Although a back five of Leno, Tete/Mbabu, Adarabioyo, Ream and Robinson has a good balance to it, forming new partnerships and hitting the ground running at the highest level is tough to adapt to. Tim Ream, Fulham’s long-serving captain, is a player well respected amongst the Craven Cottage faithful, but there are question marks about his mobility.
To say Diaz, Salah and Nunez is one of the league’s fastest forward lines would be an understatement, so Ream needs to rely on his experience and nous to ensure that he is not caught out. Adarabioyo is a player I like alongside the American central defender, a former Manchester City player who has already proved that he is more than capable of performing well at this level. As mentioned earlier, Silva is more than happy with the partnership he has at the centre of his defence, but the worry is that an injury or suspension to either Ream or Adarabioyo would be real cause for concern. Fulham have no other senior out and out centre backs, meaning Kenny Tete or Kevin Mbabu would have to fill in at the back.
Likewise, going forward Fulham have some interesting prospects to put it lightly. Surprisingly, it has taken me this long to mention Fulham’s talismanic figure, Alexsander Mitrovic. The Serbian international broke records at will last season, landing himself the Golden Boot with a Championship best of 43 goals. Mitrovic’s heading power and incisive finishing gives Fulham life, but the worry this time around is whether or not he can get the service he requires.
The two key men for that last time around were Harry Wilson, a doubt for the weekend with a knee injury requiring checks, and Fabio Carvalho, the now Liverpool man. Wilson and Carvalho got 47 goal contributions between them in the 2021/22 season, and with Carvalho’s replacement in Solomon unlikely to feature until September, the oneness is on Harry Wilson to deliver.
After numerous loan spells from Liverpool, seeing him settled at Fulham is great to see, and after being one of the standout players in the second tier, the hope and expectation is that he can replicate some of the sheer brilliance he produced. With a wand of a left foot, his delivery both from set pieces and open play is exceptional, many of which led to emphatic Mitrovic goals. On Saturday, if he isn’t fit then the likely starters are Neeskens Kebano and Bobby Decordova-Reid. Picking up pieces in and around Mitrovic whilst offering a goal threat is important for Fulham’s chances in this fixture, and it is worth remembering that Reid scored the last time Liverpool visited Craven Cottage, a game in which Klopp’s side were under the cosh for large spells.
Overall, Marco Silva is a manager with real intelligence and purpose, and he will be honest enough to accept that as far as opening days come they don’t get much tougher. Liverpool will come to West London with a pace and purpose, taking the game to their newly promoted counterparts from the off. The interesting observations for me will be seeing how Fulham approach the game. It is common to sit back and soak up pressure, but with the technical quality of their midfield there is no reason why they can’t have a go. The Craven Cottage faithful, despite the early kick off, will be in fine voice for their much anticipated return, and Liverpool need to rise to the occasion and set their standards from minute one.