Fulham 2018/19 Season Review: Defence costs Cottagers as Parker's men return to Championship
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After a four-year exodus from the Premier League, Fulham returned to the English top flight for the 2018/19 season, before it was again cut short nine months later, with an immediate return to The Championship.

Having earned their status at the top tier of English football once more, the season brought hope of another fruitful era for the Cottagers, but as we saw those hopes ended rather untimely for the west Londoners.

As domestic football goes into hiatus for the summer, here is the story of the campaign on the banks of the Thames for the Craven Cottage outfit.

Story of the season

Despite only earning promotion through the Championship Playoffs twelve months ago - beating Aston Villa via Tom Cairney's lone strike at Wembley Stadium last May - hopes were high for Slavisa Jokanovic's bright, attacking and youthful side that looked capable of surviving the rigours of the English top flight.

Indeed, the signs early on in their Premier League return promised much, aside from the same teething problems experienced by many during the translation to the top level of the country's domestic top tier.

Losses then began to mount after the opening month, but despite this the consensus was that the Cottagers had recruited well and were still in a good position after a poor start.

Goals were still being leaked at an alarming rate, but as Aleksandar Mitrovic continued to confound his doubters - namely former boss Rafa Benitez at Newcastle United - the Serbian international's goals were keeping Fulham upwardly mobile in the goal stakes, even if the back line was rather counteracting their offensive prowess.

Indeed Mitrovic spent much of the early part of the season alongside the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Sergio Agüero at the top of the charts, as the Cottagers sought to tighten things up in defence.

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Leaky defence

As the season headed into the winter months however, problems were beginning to mount for the west Londoners. With just five points from 12 games, Jokanovic was given his marching orders by owner Shahid Khan, as Claudio Ranieri came in to occupy the dugout.

Goals were suddenly not enough, but as the Italian began to steady the ship, hopes were reignited that Fulham could yet begin to recover. Four points from successive home games against Leicester City and Southampton had re-instilled hope on the banks of the Thames.

With a priceless three points against fellow strugglers Huddersfield to end the year, the early weeks of 2019 drove home the growing inevitability of an immediate relegation, as Ranieri's men were dumped out of the Emirates FA Cup by League Two Oldham.

Signs of improvement again glimmered with a plucky showing against and in-form Spurs - denied by Harry Winks' last-gasp winner in stoppage time - and grabbing a win against Brighton.

With the buds of spring beginning to show, February and March for Fulham, however, saw their fate effectively sealed, as Ranieri became the second managerial casualty of the season on Thameside to end the second month of the year. The Cottagers went on to lose all eight Premier League games played in the space of two months - conceding a minimum two goals a game since the turn of the year.

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Parker springs optimism

As relegation was confirmed with another resounding defeat at Watford, the insertion of Scott Parker in a caretaker capacity suddenly injected life into Fulham's cause for the remaining five games of the season, as pressure subsided.

After a season signified by the sheer amount of goals conceded, Parker then led his side to a trio of wins, without conceding to Cardiff, Bournemouth or Everton - a statistic few could have even dreamt of seeing during any point of the campaign.

Though the season ended with back to back losses and without finding the net on their farewell to the top flight, with Parker, hopes spring eternal that the Cottagers are now set fair for life back in the Championship and moreover, capable of challenging to again rubber-band themselves back to the Premier League.

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Transfer dealings

Even before the 2018/19 campaign began as we have documented, the general opinion was that Fulham had brought well in the close season. The coup signing of Jean Michäel Seri from Nice was expected to serve the Whites well, but the Ivorian fell well short of his desired mark and by the end of the season become a regular bench-warmer.

The same can not be said of Mitrovic, after the club completed the permanent signing of the striker who went a long way to initially re-establishing the club as a Premier League outfit. Andre Schürrle however, of whom much was expected merely failed to show meaningful attacking menace and like Seri, found himself on the sidelines.

Perhaps the club's best signing was that of January loanee Ryan Babel. Brought in fifteen days into the new calendar year from Besiktas - where the former Liverpool man scored 22 times in the last two terms - the Dutchman's second but short-lived stint in England was arguably of greater success than his time on Merseyside between 2007 and 2011.

Though the 32-year-old may have only netted five times in 14 games, his presence in the attacking areas alone gave fans the hope that an unlikely act of escapology was indeed still possible. His four assists also toward the team almost single-handedly doubled their offensive threat, but he alone could not rescue the Cottagers from impending relegation.

The weaknesses for west Londoners was one too many and the additions of Maxime Le Marchand and Andre Zambo Anguissa were simply not enough to keep Fulham afloat, due to their sheer inconsistencies. 

With Joe Bryan and Sergio Rico also failing to perform week in, week out, the task of remaining in the top flight would have been a sizeable one for any team to complete. So for Fulham it proved.

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Player of the Season: Aleksandar Mitrovic

Despite only scoring once in their last fourteen league outings, the still only 24-year-old marksman takes the crown for Club Player of the Season. 

Netting double figures - ten of which came during the first half of the season - Mitrovic proved his critics wrong in emphatic style but was more than just about finding the net. 

The Serbian's hold-up play has been amongst the finest examples in the Premier League this past campaign, but not only that his aerial ability and threat has given been the shining light all season for the Whites. 

In the early stages of the season both for club and country, Mitrovic was amongst the most predatory forwards on the continent, but as Fulham floundered towards the middle stages of the term, the striker rather lost his way - and indeed any sort of service to him - losing all confidence in front of goal.

Fulham have put a £30m price tag on his ahead this summer, with both West Ham rumoured to make a move in the coming weeks. That has prompted many a Hammers fan to voice their outrage, but ask any Fulham fan of his ability and their appraisal will be unequivocal. To any side with a serious creative edge, Mitrovic will do a lot of damage next season.

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Next season

As Fulham adjust to life back on the second rung of the domestic ladder, the aim now will be re-balance the club, with the help of parachute payment next season.

The last time the Whites dropped down in 2014, it took four years to claim their place back in the top flight and to prevent the same gap - if not longer - developing again, much will depend on who the club keeps and who they let go.

Parker is a young and hungry steward who can capably lead his side in the Championship, but such is the difficulty in nature of the second tier, he will need more than good fortune and indeed player, to make the top six once more.

Having seen the likes of Leeds United fall on the final furlong this season, Marcelo Bielsa's men will be bent on finally  ending their own Premier League exodus, whilst West Brom, the losing playoff finalist in either Aston Villa or Derby County, Stoke City along with a number of other hopefuls - including fellow relegation victims Huddersfield and Cardiff - will all be gathering themselves the season ahead.

Fulham's current personnel will also be key and there remain huge question marks over their presence next term. Babel will likely return to Turkey with champions soon to be champions Galatasaray, Mitrovic will also depart, whilst Ryan Sessegnon is again one who will surely ply his trade at the top level again next term.

Defensively there huge issues. As we have seen this season scoring goals are one thing, but keeping them out is quite another, and in the Championship that is perhaps more critical than anywhere else.

The talent is unquestionably there in the lower levels of English football, but for Fulham to be successful next season, the Cottagers must pick their stock wisely.