Middlesbrough host table topping Fulham in a game that is expected to enthral and excite.
Few teams across Europe have looked as convincing as Fulham has this season. The whites have been thoroughly clinical in front of goal and equally impressive in the defensive quarters. They have built up an insurmountable +60 goal difference this season only leaving the side vulnerable to being overtaken on the points tally. Yet, even under these parameters, a fall from the precipice of Championship football is unlikely. While admittedly Bournemouth have a game in hand on the London-based side, this small advantage alone will not be enough to surmount the 8-point difference between the two sides. They would need Fulham to slip up. Something they have not looked likely to do since a minor blip in form in November.
They are beatable though. A recent clash with West Brom saw them fall on the wrong side of a tight 1-0 score line. Yet, they quickly bounced back against QPR highlighting how resolute of a force they can be. All the same, Middlesbrough should take some faith from WBA’s outcome as they undoubtedly come into this clash as the underdogs.
Middlesbrough, for their part, continued their pre-international break form with a 4-0 drumming over Peterborough United. The squads were at markedly different levels coming into this clash, but it is the pressure of favouritism that has often corrupted a typically strong side. Thus, turning out poor performances and results against some of the leagues weaker sides. While far from concrete proof that they have moved beyond the issue this season their convincing display is a positive sign. In managing to beat Peterborough so convincingly, Chris Wilder’s men have also improved their much-needed goal difference. An improvement that could be key when it comes to crunch time. Finally, their return to Championship action could not have got off to a better start. Now they must use the wind in their sails to try and pull off a surprise result.
However, Shahid Khan’s carefully curated side, with their talented talisman Alexander Mitrovic and young Liverpool target Fabio Carvalho, will be hell-bent on maintaining their excellent form to secure their Premier League future as soon as possible. In Marco Silva they have a talented head coach that understands how to deploy the fluid intense football which helps these players thrive, as individuals and as a team.
Owner: Shahid Khan
Having a rich owner does not necessarily equate to success on the pitch. A number of factors can dictate a club’s success beyond the owner’s net worth but the FFP rules provide a direct barrier to prevent an owners riches from being the only component to a team’s success. In the Championship, AFC Bournemouth, second only to Fulham, have an owner with an estimated net worth of £100m, one of the lowest reported figures in the Championship. As such, it is important to represent Shahid Khan’s influence beyond his financial support.
The entrepreneur has an estimated net worth of $7.9 billion. The fourth highest figure in the Championship providing considerable Capital to maximise their financial wherewithal within the limits of FFP. Furthermore, in Shahid Khan’s funds pot, they have enough conciliatory cash to fix any financial issues that may arise as was the case during the Covid outbreak.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan to a family that was involved in the Construction industry. He unfortunately lost his brother, Tariq Rafiq Khan who passed away in his early 20s. Despite the emotional setback, he would leave his native Pakistan to pursue further education in America. He arrived in the country with little money but enrolled at the University of Illinois. Khan moved up from his $2 a night room in the local YMCA to a place in the Beta Theta Pi fraternity with the support of his minimal $1.20 per hour salary for dishwashing. In 1971, he would graduate with a BSC in Industrial Engineering before being awarded the Mechanical Science and Engineering Distinguished Alumni in 1999.
After graduating he founded Bumper Works, a company that specialised in personalised car bumpers. A business that would grow to be relatively successful putting him in the position to acquire one of his former employers, Flex-N-Gate, in 1980. The company would continue to grow in his nurturing hands establishing and maintaining a business that ran at a multi-million-dollar level. In 2020, it is estimated that the company was worth $8.89 million, of which Khan owns a considerable chunk.
The growing success of his primary business, Flex-N-Gate, provided the stable platform from which he could invest in other ventures. The NFL side Jackson Jaguars would be his next acquisition, taking over the American football side in 2012. The takeover marked a progressive change in NFL ownership history as Khan became the first ethnic minority team owner.
Fulham was his second sport-associated acquisition, buying the then Premier League club for between £150-200m from Mohammed Al Fayed. His first investment outside USA borders, it presented a change in circumstances and a step into the unknown for Khan.
His sporting investments continued in 2019 as Shahid Khan and his son, Tony Khan, revealed that they were lead investors in AEW (a fight promotion company).
There are some concerns with Khan’s abridged history presented above. The first of which is his limited business experience outside of the USA. A potential issue that has not arisen during his ownership, but it does present some limitations that could be drastic with such a high-profile asset. Secondly, the motive behind his acquisition must be called into question. There is little personal information to indicate that he loves football and specifically Fulham indicating that he is involved either in the pursuit of personal glory or for financial benefit. The former of which, is not a drastic concern if it doesn’t cause fractures between himself and the supporters. However, stepping into football with the primary design of financial benefit can be problematic. Football is rarely a money-making exploit unless it is run within parameters that often prevent a club from reaching its true potential. Though, in Khan’s instance, this is not the case. His intentions are financially motivated but with the expressed intention of improving the club as a prospect for future owners. Craven Cottage is currently undergoing development to see a fourth, riverside stand erected which will further matchday income. A pool has been highlighted in the plans adding to the facilities for those guests that have more disposable income to spend at their beloved club. Furthermore, in an interview at the beginning of the season, Khan acknowledged the need to find avenues for further income. He revealed a plan to turn Craven Cottage into a hub of activity on non-matchdays, utilising its location and its available facilities to improve the spreadsheet. Meanwhile, in the short term, Khan will be fully invested in seeing the club return and then remain in the Premier League as the league that the club is in dramatically influences the clubs value.
Yet, Fulham are in safe hands in the short term. The abridged version of his professional career highlights his intense unending work ethic that he owes a lot of his success to. This commitment to his work will ensure that Fulham get their due dispensation despite him having to juggle other roles in his domestic USA. If Forbes’ former front-page model of the American Dream continues to own the club it would not be unreasonable for him to continue to target success in the domestic cups and league table as striving for such lofty ambitions is how he managed to get to where he is today. Finally, his extensive experience with Jackson Jaguars means that he understands how to run a multi-million-dollar sports franchise albeit with marked and important differences.
It is fair and accurate to report that Fulham are currently in good hands with the brilliantly moustachioed Khan.
Head Coach: Marco Silva
If there is anything that can be learned from Middlesbrough’s 2021/2022 season it is the influence and importance that a manager can have on a club. Middlesbrough were far from terrible under Neil Warnock, a manager that has shown how capable he is at this level time and again. However, he did struggle to meet the club’s playoff target and so the club decided to act. Neil Warnock was replaced by Chris Wilder and the club hasn’t looked back since.
Meanwhile, in London, Fulham managed to find that spark of magic before the season begun by recruiting Marco Silva. The Portuguese man started his managerial career well with Estoril, the club that he hung up his boots with. Under his tenure, Estoril were promoted into the Primera Division, the top league in Portugal. Yet, their meteoric rise did not end there as he continued to surprise Portuguese football. He completely outdid the club’s expectations of survival by finishing in the Europa League playoff positions. His success drew attention from across the sporting world with the potential for a move to a big club lingering in the background. His third season in charge of the club saw him improve even further securing a guaranteed spot in the Europa League group stage. Convinced by his performance over three years in charge at Estoril, Sporting CP secured his services for the following season. He may have fell just short of the club’s league aims that season, finishing 3rd in Primera Division, but lifting the Taça de Portugal meant that he brought the first piece of silverware to Sporting since 2008. Despite this return to a winning mentality and an outstanding 59.2%-win rate, Sporting did not to stick to their guns. Instead opting to break his contract to pursue the highly regarded Jorge Jesus. Realising the controversy that would surround the decision, Sporting released a 400-page document to validate their decision. Either way, his first experience at an Internationally renowned club came to a close after a single season.
Silva was short of a job but not short of a positive reputation and it did not take long for him to be a point of interest in England. In 2017, Hull City were staring relegation in the face and, in a moment of pure inspiration, recruited Silva to stop the rot and make a charge for Premier League survival. Despite Silva’s best efforts, which were notably impressive, turning relegation favourites into a side with mid-table form, Hull City ultimately fell out of the league. Disappointed with the outcome, but his reputation only enhanced due to his efforts, he left Hull City. The Tigers praised his performance but equally recognised their disappointment that he decided to part ways with the club. Watford would then come knocking. The Hornets are typically associated with high head coach turnovers but, when Marco Silva arrived, they seemed to settle into the possibility of keeping him long term. He started at Watford with a bang too. The club climbed the early table standings, and they were established as potential outsiders for the European places. Then it all fell apart.
Everton parted company with Ronald Koeman and the Toffee’s headhunted Marco Silva. The Portuguese’s head was turned by the interest but wanting to continue in the same vein, Watford rejected reported bids of £10m. Unfortunately, the damage had been done, Marco Silva was a distracted and deterred figure at Vicarage Road. The club were ultimately forced to part ways with a head coach they once considered to be a suitable long-term option. Their statement following their split condemned Everton’s illegal pursuit of Marco Silva citing it as a primary cause in the downfall of his performance.
His time at Vicarage Road called into question the reliability of the undoubtedly talented coach with fears that external interest would divert his attention should he start strongly at his next club.
Undeterred by this possibility, Everton scooped up the Portuguese finally tying their man to an agreement at Goodison Park. Once more, Silva started his tenure at the Toffee’s in fine form, but things would take a turn following the Anfield derby. Marco Silva’s men performed admirably during the game matching Jürgen Klopp’s superior side stride for stride. However, a late renowned Divock Origi goal stopped Everton from securing a deserved point from the clash. From that point the club seemed to enter a downward spiral. Marco Silva, for the first time in his coaching career appeared helpless and out of his depth. An issue that has persisted with following coaches of Everton helping to recoup some of his lost reputation.
Silva took some much-needed time out of the game to reassess what went wrong during his tenure at Goodison Park. During this time his name was mentioned alongside opening positions but nothing concrete formed until, 18 months later, he received a visit from Shahid Khan. The Fulham owner decided to go out of his way to discuss the possibility of Silva taking over at the club travelling from USA to Portugal. Khan was undeniably impressed during these talks and Fulham was an exciting proposition for Silva. A club that was set to perform well this season if they were led correctly and he believed that he was the man to do it.
Fulham and Silva haven’t looked back since. A marriage made in heaven; Silva has re-entered the footballing consciousness with a bang while Fulham look set to return to the heights of Premier League football.
To summarise Marco Silva’s tactical identity in one word it would be intensity. The Portuguese manager sits between Jürgen Klopp’s gegenpress and Pep Guardiola’s high tempo possession-based football.
A high defensive line and a high line of engagement mean that Silva’s sides typically engage with the opposition in the final third. The side has won possession 177 times in the final third due to this philosophy allowing them to engage a disrupted defensive line often resulting in key chances. However, if the opposition can break the press, then they can become vulnerable defensively.
Silva’s sides try and succeed in dominating. The whites have averaged 60.3% possession this season, second only to ‘The Swansea Way’. This constant control of possession is an additional proponent to the sides defence as the opposition needs the ball to threaten them. Likewise, it is because of this control over possession that the side has comparatively low defensive figures despite have a very solid defensive record. Additionally, maintaining possession supports Silva’s high tempo passing through which his sides create many of their opportunities. These are often funnelled down the flanks, with the wide areas having 37.5% and 35.7% of attacking touches respectively (as per theanalyst [21st January 2022]). Yet, they have creativity in central areas too providing them with ample ability to switch up their approach should the situation demand it.
Finally, Marco Silva works best with a highly motivated and fit squad. In Fulham they undoubtedly have that in spades. However, there is no denying the fact that they remain heavily reliant on their talisman, Aleksander Mitrovic, to put away the oodles of chances the side creates.
One To Watch: Aleksander Mitrovic
Fulham are expected to tally among the best Championship goalscoring sides in recent history. Their current record, which has seen them score 92 goals in 38 games, puts them 30 goals beyond the next best prolific side, AFC Bournemouth. The sides consistent prolific form is not down to a single man, but a multitude of talented forward players. Yet, Aleksander Mitrovic has done the heavy lifting on this front after netting a truly phenomenal 37 goals in 36 appearances. Or, to put it slightly differently, he has scored more than a goal a game this season.
At 27 years old, Mitrovic only seems to get better with age. Despite seeming to struggle to establish himself at Premier League level he has consistently flaunted his ability in the Championship with this season only being the pinnacle of many impressive flings with the league. For instance, his last visit to the second division, in the 2019-2020 season, saw him hit the back of the net a very impressive 26 times. Yet he has somehow managed to find another gear under Marco Silva to the point where he has already beaten the Championship record for most goals scored in a single season. Now it is only a question is how many goals he will put away before the stopwatch stops on the record-breaking tally.
Aleksander Mitrovic is the ideal poacher. The archetype for any young player with aspirations of playing such a role. His height and physicality have often led to him being miscategorised as primarily reliant on his aerial threat. However, while he is a threat in the air (having scored 8 headers by 21st January 2022 according to theanaylst), he is a considerably more talented player than his physicality suggests. In fact, the same report highlighted his right foot as the most prolific weapon in his arsenal while his left foot remained closely behind his aerial success.
Mitrovic comes alive in the box. He will hold himself in an almost lazy manner appearing unfazed by the sides developing attacking move putting the defender at ease and giving himself the singular moment needed to turn his positioning into something more clinical. Mitrovic will manage to find a yard or two between him and his marker and he will utilise this almost unrecognisable space to turn a shot in at goal. When challenging for a cross, this space is usually found by pulling away from the defender. This movement will give him time and opportunity for a free header but often from a slightly deeper position than if he challenged for the ball directly with the defender. He makes up for this minor disadvantage with a powerful header of the ball.
He does follow a similar pattern for grounded passes, but it shares its role with a couple of other slight movements. One such alternative is the well-studied and known run across the front of the defender. Often starting behind his opposite number, he will make a short burst across the back of his man and then into the space between the defender and the ball. This move leaves little margin for error and demands a first touch finish as taking a moment to control the ball would mean that he loses any benefit gained from this movement. Yet, in Mitrovic, this is no concern as his one touch finishes have been nothing short of enlightened this season. On the other hand, a drastic change in direction and surprising acceleration can help him find space well away from his opposite number. However, these moves often push him further back in the box with the path to goal spotted with those in the opposition’s colours. It is in this situation that his precise finishing really comes to the fore. Aleksander Mitrovic could probably manage to hit a bottle in the bottom corner from these situations if it was demanded of him.
To put this in a simpler context, if Aleksander Mitrovic manages to secure possession in the box, then the odds are undeniably against the defending side. Middlesbrough will be wary of the Serbian hitman, and they will try to do everything in their power to stop his hand shaking next to his ear in celebration.
Hot Prospect: Fabio Carvalho
It would be impossible to discuss Fulham without referencing Fabio Carvalho. The Portuguese attacking midfielder has been so impressive during his time at Craven Cottage that he was close to completing a move to Liverpool in January. At just 19 years of age, he has shown ability in spades which, if it can be shaped by the right tacticians and coaches, could develop into a prominent talent on the international stage.
Fabio Carvalho has thrived in Marco Silva’s system finding a home in the central attacking midfielder position in a 4-2-3-1. In the No. 10, or behind the striker, the fluidity and variation in his play really comes to the fore. He has provided seven goals and seven assists to the cause so far this season and it is likely that he will only further add to these numbers by the end of the season. Regardless, 14 goal contributions from a deeper facilitator and creator role is no small feat.
Intriguingly, the 19-year-old is also an example of the limitations of statistics. His stats highlight that he is an influential player for Fulham, as reflected in his direct goal contributions, but he is consistently secondary and tertiary provider for Fulham in the most important categories. However, the eye test reflects his importance to the side as considerably more essential than how it is painted in the statistics.
He does have considerable pace to burn but it is his agility that makes him such a slippery customer allowing him to make it look easy as he slinks away from opponents. Yet he has an eye for a pass particularly in the final third, as shown by his current assists tally. Unlike a lot of players of his diminutive stature, Fabio Carvalho does not shirk the physical aspects of the game instead thriving in these close quarters either using his low centre of gravity to get the better of his opponent or winning a freekick.
Despite these positives it is his role as ‘facilitator’ that should be highly praised. Bobby Reid has largely occupied a wide left role this season. However, his desire, as a striker to get involved inside the box, has been accounted for with his inside forward role. Joe Bryan will often add width when Reid vacates the wide position but can find support from Carvalho making runs into his favoured left-wing space. Likewise, this movement opens up space for Reid in central areas preventing it from becoming overpopulated. Yet, this movement comes at his individual cost as he moves away from the centre of the action. Meanwhile, this movement can also provide an opening for the side’s deeper midfielders, especially Cairney who has an outstanding range of passing and accompanying vision. In these more attacking spaces, the Scotsman can pick out a slide rule pass which can cut open the defence. This movement is essential to the sides attacking system, but it comes at the behest of Carvalho’s attacking statistics. Nonetheless, he is a very talented player that earned his interest from Liverpool.
Prediction: Middlesbrough 3-2 Fulham
Fulham have consistently been in high scoring games this season and the same is expected to occur at the Riverside tonight. However, this time, Middlesbrough might just have enough to come out on top.