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Silva worth his weight in gold as Fulham continue to shine

Posted on January 11, 2023

Fulham vs Chelsea has been a one-sided rivalry in recent times. The Blues are unbeaten in 21 meetings with the Cottagers, last losing back in 2006. But when the west London sides meet in the Premier League on Thursday, Fulham will begin the game higher up the table than their more illustrious opponents.

Arsenal and Newcastle United have done better than anticipated so far this season, but no team in the division has exceeded expectations to a greater degree than Fulham. Promoted as Championship champions last term, Marco Silva’s men were the joint-second favourites to go down.

Instead, the Cottagers will climb into the top six if they avoid defeat by their neighbours this week. Remarkably a point against Chelsea would also see Fulham better their tally from the entirety of the 2020/21 campaign, when they were relegated with a whimper after amassing just 28 points under Scott Parker.

Fulham’s last two stays in the top-flight lasted for a season each. In the summers of 2018 and 2020, they prepared for the Premier League by signing 12 and 10 new players, respectively. But their approach to recruitment was too scattergun and they did not come particularly close to surviving in either campaign.

This time around, Fulham showed much more discipline and focus in the transfer market. They made a total of seven signings, five of whom have instantly become key players at Craven Cottage.

Joao Palhinha was the pick of the bunch. The Portugal international has been phenomenal success in the centre of the park. Palhinha has been monstrous off the ball: no player in the Premier League with more than eight appearances can match his rate of 4.8 tackles per game. He is tidy on the ball too, with a pass accuracy of 83.3%, and has even chipped in with three goals.

Further forward, Andreas Pereira has excelled as a No.10. Only Kevin De Bruyne (3.5), Bruno Fernandes (2.8), Kieran Trippier (2.6) and James Maddison (2.4) have averaged more key passes per game than the former Manchester United man (2.3).

After his disastrous spell at Arsenal was followed by a stint back home in Brazil, Willian looked like a curious signing. But the 34-year-old, who is likely to start against his former club Chelsea, has made himself a fixture in Silva’s side, chipping in with a goal and two assists so far.

Further back Bernd Leno and Issa Diop have contributed to Fulham’s defensive efforts, including a run of three clean sheets in their last four games in all competitions.

It is not just the newcomers that have impressed. The 35-year-old Tim Ream has rolled back the years alongside Diop at centre-back. Harrison Reed continues to shine in his own understated way. And Aleksandar Mitrovic has made a mockery of the contention that he was not cut out for the Premier League.

With 11 goals in his 15 appearances, the Serbia international has been outscored only by Erling Haaland, Harry Kane and Ivan Toney this season. With a score of 7.45, Mitrovic is also among the top five strikers in WhoScored’s rating system.

The real star of the show, though, has been Silva. The Portuguese had a mixed reputation in England after his spells with Hull City, Watford and Everton brought varying degrees of success.

Silva guided Fulham to promotion with a 90-point haul in his debut campaign at the helm, but he has done an even better job this term. Fulham are capable of playing some fantastic football, but this team is much more gritty and streetwise than its predecessors from 2018/19 and 2020/21. Well organised with and without the ball, they have a clearly defined model of play and every player knows exactly what his role is.

"Of course, we are pleased with the points we achieved right now, the position in the table will be a consequence always of the points," Silva said last week.

"Performance-wise I think we are doing really well as well, and that's it. We have to keep going, keep the feet on the ground, and prepare the next match like it's the most important one for us, which is something we have been doing so far since we joined this football club."

Craven Cottage has often been a happy hunting ground for Chelsea, but Graham Potter should expect a tough test for his team on Thursday.