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How Fulham rebuilt their Premier League dreams

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Fulham Football Club will remain in the Championship.

The club that reached a Europa League final in 2010 is still battling to recover from its tumultuous faceplant a few seasons ago.

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The Whites came close to a Premier League return this week, falling by a single goal as so many have to a scrappy, rigid Reading side in the playoff semifinal. Forced to remain vigilant another season, they are primed for another run at the top flight.

Every club has a story. Fulham’s was storybook: bought by Mohamed Al Fayed in 1997, the club was in the third tier of English football and spiraling down further. Smart hires and an injection of cash spent in the right places changed that all, and within four seasons they had risen to the top flight where they would stick for a decade. The incredible run in 2010 inspired a fanbase to dream even bigger, high on the increasing level of success each new year brought.

Then, it all went wrong.

Al Fayed’s old age and failing health convinced him to sell, and in the process of shoring up the books, an 18-month dry spell caused the club to spoil in the summer heat, suddenly vulnerable. Panic does funny things to a team in crisis. They hired a crazy German manager. They signed an expensive yet broken striker. They were relegated from the PL in 2014. The next season, with hopes of starting fresh in the Championship, the club finished 20th and supporters had nightmares to two decades earlier.

Fast-forward to today and the Whites, despite their playoff stumble, look more and more prepared for a slow build to ready themselves not just for a top flight return but another lengthy stay, something only accomplished by years of preparation. The Premier League beckons.

“I’m really just interested in preserving the club and honoring the history and tradition of the club,” Tony Khan, Fulham’s Director of Football Operations and son of American owner Shad Khan, insists. “But also [I’m] trying to get the club hopefully to heights it’s never seen before.”

What happened? What changed? What went right when it all seemed to be going wrong?


POSSESS YOUR FATE

Fulham was unable to break down Reading, scoring just one goal over the course of both semifinal legs. The Championship playoffs are soccer’s version of the Hunger Games; only one can advance beyond the mire while the others are forgotten to time.

The Championship itself is a ruthless libretto – known dramatically as a physical gauntlet that sees only the toughest survive. Fulham under Slavisa Jokanovic, however, completely buck that ideal, playing a possession-heavy style of football that at its best manufactures a sparkling on-field product with brilliant goals and alluring flow.

That wasn’t the case until recently.

Last season, Fulham finished 20th in the table, largely thanks to an aging squad that couldn’t keep the ball and a leaky defense that carried over from its Premier League relegation. This year, with Jokanovic’s instruction and the bevy of new signings, Fulham held 57 percent possession and completed passes at an 87 percent rate, both of which shatter the numbers the Championship has seen over the last four years.

So how did they finish 6th, barely snagging the final playoff position?

“I think one of the big things we’ve seen over the course of the season is they’ve definitely learned and gotten better,” said Ted Knutson, owner of StatsBomb.com and an analytics professional with a heavy following on social media.

The results back up that claim. Fulham struggled to open the season, particularly through a brutal six-game stretch of winless league play in September.

“[We] took a lot of personal abuse when we came on and started to apply these things,” Khan said, “and now I’ve seen a lot of people turn around and see that we weren’t doing anything bad, and maybe what we were doing wasn’t so crazy.”

Fans weren’t happy that a career mathematician was taking over their club. They blissfully ignored that for years he had focused all his brainpower on sports.


BOYS OF SUMMER

Following the close call with relegation back to League One, it was clear that something had to change at Fulham. The players brought in were talented individuals, but they weren’t coming together.

“Their recruitment had been so bad that they had to improve,” Knutson said of Fulham’s past few seasons. “They literally had to. It’s a reversion to the mean. With the amount of money that’s in that club, they couldn’t have gotten much worse. This was just an impetus to help them make better decisions.”

That impetus was the addition of Tony Khan full-time.

Tony had been working with his father’s NFL team the Jacksonville Jaguars in the player recruitment and identification department with an analytics and technology focus, and before that in basketball and baseball analytics with his own company TruMedia.

While Tony had been heavily involved in player identification with the Jaguars in the past, this was the first time he had been truly given roster control with any team.

With him, Tony brought his analytics models and experience, and implemented the “both boxes checked” system of player recruitment. This helped merge traditional scouting and analytics to create a list of targeted players who passed the test in both categories.

It didn’t go over so well with fans.

“There are some people that have written some really nasty letters to me last summer and early in the season and even again in January,” Tony said. “In the past week multiple people have written me to say they’re very sorry about the things they said, they can’t believe they said those things, they’re very apologetic, and they see now what we’re trying to do; that we weren’t trying to stomp on tradition or do anything negative, that we really believe in what we’re doing. This might be different than the way things have traditionally been done but we think this is a good system that will help the club.”

Unfortunately, that fiery backlash wasn’t an isolated incident.

“We had the exact same thing happen down the road,” Knutson, a former employee in Brentford’s player recruitment department, said. “It is partly natural for that to happen; if the fans don’t understand quite what’s going on, it’s tougher for them to associate with and accept it. Also, most of the time when analytics is talked about these days, it’s talked about as sort of a flameout. Like the Damien Comolli Liverpool period, or ‘why hasn’t it helped Arsenal win the league?’ and the clubs that are doing it well tend to keep it under the radar.”

Thankfully for Fulham, the introduction of Khan’s methodology and direction had an immediate positive impact.

The front office overhauled the roster at an almost inconceivable level. Of the 49,386 minutes played by Fulham players last season, nearly 40,000 of those departed the club. In their place came attacking flair in Sone Aluko, Floyd Ayite, Neeskens Kebano, and Lucas Piazon plus a wildly successful midfield partnership in Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen.

“They mostly got it right,” Knutson said. “Kebano has been excellent, and their midfield has been really stout, and that might be the most important part in the Championship. Johansen and McDonald are top class midfielders that have stabilized the whole club.”

To finance this, the club sold striker Ross McCormack for a Championship record $15.5 million to Aston Villa. That decision came with significant risk, as McCormack had carried Fulham the previous season with a whopping 23 league goals, but the sale in hindsight was a massive success given his utterly disastrous campaign this year.

They offloaded bigger names in Maarten Stekelenburg, Kostas Mitroglou, and Ben Pringle. They let go aging players in Fernando Amorebieta and Jamie O’Hara. They also fleeced Cardiff City in a straight swap of full-backs, giving away former Swansea flop Jazz Richards in exchange for Scott Malone. Of the 66 goals scored by the club last season among all competitions, they retained 10.

Little of this would have taken place without Tony Khan and his influence.


ANALYZING THE GAME

Tony Khan – and his right-hand man Craig Kline – started working in sports analytics at the University of Illinois. He began working in basketball out of college studying statistical models, and came to football while his father began exploring options to purchase an NFL team.

By the time Shad Khan had bought the Jaguars, his son was fully immersed in sports metrics, and was given a role in the player identification department both implementing his own statistical models and helping to develop technology to further the department.

Khan also purchased TruMedia, a company that is heavily involved in professional sports metrics across a number of fronts, particularly in Major League Baseball.

In a nutshell, this isn’t Tony’s first rodeo. But it’s certainly his biggest. The transition was slow, as Tony took time between responsibilities with the Jaguars to implement the analytics department over the past year and a half. At first the internal response was slow, but since his full-time appointment things have really taken off.

“Going into this previous summer was the first time I really took it over and took the lead on it,” Tony said. “Since I’ve taken responsibility for [transfers], things have really gone in a great direction, I’m really proud of that.”

The implementation of analytics is growing across Europe. However, it’s facing plenty of roadblocks. It’s hard to figure out why.

“What’s wrong with more information?” Knutson asked. “How can that be wrong?”

While some sectors refuse to embrace the wave, others have welcomed it. Many of those clubs are American influenced from the top down, such as Liverpool, Arsenal, and Roma. Tony’s presence at Fulham has added the club to that list.

“Fulham are a fairly rich club in terms of what’s possible in the Championship,” said Knutson. “It took them a long time to figure out and actually make the changes. That’s not me being critical of the Khans – in many cases it’s better to take the time learning before making sweeping changes because then you’re less likely to make mistakes and you’re more likely to do it in a way that’s both acceptable and effective. So for Fulham to come along and do this has been very valuable.”

“It’s intrinsic in the American ideals that fit with sport, not just with football but with sport.”


LIGHT THE MATCH

“I’m here because I believe in the club,” Khan said. “I could be working at a number of different places and I love the Fulham Football Club and I’m here because I want to be here and I believe in the club.”

That’s a growing sentiment, but it’s not quite there yet. More and more statistics and metrics are beginning to meander their way into mainstream use. Chalkboards are popping up on social media. Knutson’s social media following has increased as his radar boards gain popularity.

“I do think the success we’ve had this season has opened a lot of people’s minds,” Khan said, “and led to many people that did not have a positive opinion on the place of analytics in player evaluation and recruitment in European football to see that it’s not such a bad thing and it can actually be very useful when applied properly as I think we have.”

There’s no magical formula or supercomputer that can solve every club’s problems.

The concept has always been to provide those tasked with critical choices with as much information as possible to increase the chances of making the right decision. As money in the game flows in, the weight those decisions carry become larger, and thus the need for additional help increases.

“I think the rest of Europe is starting to catch on, and it feels like there’s grass out there, and it’s all really dry, and it’s just waiting,” Knutson said with a snap of his fingers, “for a match to spark it.”

Tony Khan and Fulham have plenty of work to do this summer.

Upgrades are likely needed both up front and at the back, and keeping hold of the squad’s best players will be an accomplishment. Midfield playmaker Tom Cairney in particular is a gem wanted by many Premier League clubs, and maintaining his loyalty for another season in the Championship will be a true challenge. Jokanovic will no doubt be a marked man.

Nevertheless, the club continues looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, and with embracing advanced metrics, they hope for a leg up on the rest of the Championship rabble.

Lukaku rejects big comparisons: “I can’t say I’m in my prime”

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Romelu Lukaku has bagged a bunch of goals and played on three Premier League teams, but knows there’s another level to his game as he opens up life at Manchester United.

Rejecting comparisons to big strikers like Didier Drogba (because they’re different style players) and Robert Lewandowski (because he’s not yet at that level), Lukaku gave his thoughts about his career’s next steps.

[ MORE: Q&A with Edin Dzeko ]

Lukaku didn’t score in the PL for Chelsea, but has a 17-goal campaign on loan to West Bromwich Albion as well as 15-, 10-, 18-, and 25-goal seasons for Everton.

From Sky Sports:

“I’m 24 years of age, I cannot say I am the complete package, I can’t say I’m in my prime.

“There is still a lot of work to be done and I am delighted there is still a lot of work to be done. That means I can become even better than I am now.”

Lukaku most needs consistency in his game. Even in his massive campaign last season, he twice went four matches without a goal. While it’s possible to have fine performances but not find finish, Everton went 1W-3D-4L in those combined stretches and five of those matches were against bottom half sides.

Something tells us having Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Marcus Rashford setting him up could help, too.

Q&A: Edin Dzeko on Roma, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Champions League

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PST spoke to a quartet of AS Roma players this week as the club contends the 2017 International Champions Cup in the United States with the aim of a profile piece on i Lupi captain Daniele De Rossi’s quest for an elusive scudetto.

That piece came out well, but the conversations with some of his teammates were just as fun. While Kevin Strootman’s resilience and Hector Moreno’s Mexican ambassador status neatly fit into individual posts, our talk with ex-Man City striker and reigning Capocannoniere winner Edin Dzeko works better in Q&A form.

[ MORE: How will Chicharito slot in at West Ham? ]

Plenty has changed since Dzeko scored in Man City’s wild title-clinching finish against QPR. Dzeko talked about his surprising and explosive 29-goal Serie A season, his interest in a UEFA Champions League return to the Etihad Stadium, and a love for representing his home nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Enjoy.

PST: Obviously we know your quality from having scored 25-plus goals three times in seasons at Wolfsburg and Manchester City, but what was it like going from 10 goals to 39 in your second season at Roma?

Edin Dzeko: “It was definitely one of the best in my career. When you get up in your years you are supposed to go down, but actually I’ve gone up. I felt good and from the beginning of preseason I trained hard and it was an important season after getting to know the qualities of the teams and players in the league after my first season in Italy. Last year was big proof of it and like it always is, it was harder than it looked.”

PST: You’ve won the Bundesliga and the Premier League, the latter twice. Last season you shaved Juventus’ table advantage to four points. Can this be the year?

Dzeko: “I have hope that I can do the same in Italy. It’s definitely not easy with Juventus having it the last few years and not selling, only buying new players. Last season was really good for us. We were very close but we still dropped some easy points against the small teams and that cost us at the end. Next year we play Champions League. We changed coaches and a few players left and others came so we have to gather up to the new style of the coach and the new players have to learn what it is to play in Italy. Hopefully this season can be better than last, but we have to go step-by-step.”

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

PST: Wolfsburg had never won, and Man City hadn’t in 40-plus years. Can those experiences help in pushing Roma to its first scudetto since 2001?

Dzeko: “Hopefully. Also when I went to City and we won the first and second title, the team was probably was one of the best in England where it’s also not so easy to win the title. I have another three years contract in Rome and this town and these fans deserve a title. It’s such a shame, every year without a title for this club.”

PST: What would it mean?

Dzeko: “It would mean everything. Hopefully we will manage to do this in the next few years, but it would mean everything to them. I’d habe a lot of good feelings if Roma would manage to win the title. It would be amazing for all the players. They will love us and never forget. The people in Rome, they live for football. They live for us.”

PST: Hector Moreno mentioned that hunger in training was evident in just the few days he’s been there.

Dzeko: “You have to be hungry for good things because it’s a new young team, a new coach, and the team is step-by-step building itself in new directions. We lost four, five players from last seasons so it’s never easy to bring seven, eight new players and immediately work it out. So this preseason is important.”

(Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images)

PST: You’re Bosnia and Herzegovina’s all-time leading scorer, and you seem to relish international breaks and pulling on the shirt. 

Dzeko: “I’m proud of myself for what I’ve achieved because I remember when I was young and I was looking to the players, my idols, who were playing with Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s something special, we can take it to heart and I’m proud that I can be the idol of some young boys in Bosnia that can still believe they can do some good things and positive stuff in the future. When someone from our small country goes out and plays in a league like Italy, it gives the confidence for the rest of the young people that they can know that everything is possible.”

PST: You’re also pretty active in causes around Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Dzeko: “It’s important for me because it’s my country, it’s the country that gave me everything, where I grew up for 18 years before I left for Czech Republic first and then Germany, England, Italy. I want to help the people who need help because I have the possibility to do it. I will always be there for them and I’m also the UNICEF ambassador that makes me even more proud because I love kids.”

PST: Finally, Roma is in a different pot than Manchester City for this year’s UEFA Champions League. Would you like to be drawn with your old team, or prefer the clubs stay separate?

Dzeko: “I would love it, to be fair. I would love to go back there and even against City I bring so many good memories from the beautiful days and my connection with the fans and club. I would definitely look forward to it.”

Reports: Swans rebuff Everton bid for Sigurdsson; want $65M

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What’s $7-13 million amongst peers?

Swansea City has reportedly shot down either a $52 and/or a $58 million Everton bid for Gylfi Sigurdsson, offers that falls shy of Swans’ $65 million asking price.

$65 million? Why that’s almost Benjamin Mendy money.

Either way, with Sigurdsson absent from Swansea’s U.S. tour, a move seems predetermined.

[ SERIE A: Can De Rossi help Roma catch Juve? ]

The BBC says Monday’s offer was the $52m price, and that it was Everton’s first offer, though The Guardian says it’s a second $58m bid from Everton for the Icelandic playmaker who almost single-handedly ensured the Welsh side’s Premier League status last season.

Reports of an initial $52 million bid also came earlier this month.

Sigurdsson, 27, scored nine goals last season and teamed with Fernando Llorente to form a potent duo. He first made his PL impression with seven goals during a half-season loan from Hoffenheim, and moved to Spurs for a tumultuous two seasons.

He’s since recorded seven-, 11-, and 9-goal seasons for Swans.

Everton has spent big this summer and look set to have the depth to compete in both the Premier League and UEFA Europa League.

VIDEO: Chicharito talks West Ham signing, opener at Manchester United

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Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is back in the Premier League, and will debut for his new club at the home of his old club.

The league schedulers didn’t know the Mexican striker would be a member of West Ham United on Opening Day, but nonetheless have the first weekend ending with an 11 a.m. ET kickoff between the Irons and Red Devils of Manchester United at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: How will Chicharito slot in at West Ham? ]

Combine a new home with an old haunt, and you’ve got one fired up Little Pea:

“A little bit more than my teammates probably, of course to be back to Old Trafford to start this adventure this season with my new team. It’s gonna be a very important one and I’m going to be very happy to be there.”

Hear more from the latest West Ham buy below: