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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.

Reading defeats Fulham, one win from the Premier League

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Jaap Stam’s first foray into management is going very well.

The Reading boss has his club one win from the Premier League after a Yann Kermorgant penalty lifted the Royals to a 1-0 second leg win over Fulham in the Championship playoff semifinal at the Madejski Stadium on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Man City 3-1 WBA | Arsenal 2-0 Sunderland ]

Stam played for Manchester United, Ajax, AC Milan, Lazio, and PSV Eindhoven, so promotion campaigns aren’t old hat for him, but Reading has won better than 54 percent of its matches with him in charge.

The Royals will face either Sheffield Wednesday or Huddersfield Town at Wembley Stadium on May 29 in the “Richest Game in Football.” Here’s Stam on Reading:

“It’s great to work with a club that’s got a lot of potential and with players willing to work really hard to get somewhere.

“To get this result today – against a very good team by the way – I’m very happy with that.

“Fulham have got a lot of threats. In the first half, we did quite well. In the second half, we started well. Then they’re controlling the game and we needed to defend. We needed to dig in.”

Could Stam be managing against his former club in the Premier League next season?

Championship Playoffs: Reading steal 1st-leg draw away to Fulham

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After 90 minutes of the Championship Playoffs semifinal between Fulham and Reading, it’s Jaap Stam’s Royals who hold the narrowest of advantages after securing a first-leg draw at Craven Cottage on Saturday.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Arsenal alive and fighting for 4th ]

In Tuesday’s second leg, when no away-goals rule will be in effect, a home victory of any scoreline will see Reading through to the final; any draw would send the two sides to extra time; any Fulham victory would send Slavisa Jokanovic’s Cottagers to Wembley for the Promotion Playoff final.

The first leg was thoroughly dominated by Fulham, in terms of possession (58 to 42) and chances created (Reading took just three shots over the 90 minutes, with just one on target; Fulham, meanwhile, took 12 with two on target). It was Reading, however, who went ahead early in the first half, as Jordan Obita fired past Marcus Bettinelli from a nearly impossible angle, smashing the inside of the far post for 1-0 in the 53rd minute.

[ MORE: Full “Chelsea Champions” reaction, here ]

Fulham needed just 12 minutes to respond, though, as a wonderfully free-flowing bit of build-up forced Ali Al Habsi into a diving save in the 65th minute. Unfortunately for the Omani international, the rebound fell no further than five yards out from goal, where Tom Cairney was the man in the right place at the right time and headed home to equalize.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Reading’s earlier work was so nearly undone in the 80th minute, when Paul McShane earned himself a red card with a studs-up, knee high challenge on Kevin McDonald. The man advantage just about paid of for Fulham in the fifth minute of stoppage time, but Ryan Fredericks‘ angled effort flashed across the face of goal and just wide of the far post.

Championship Playoffs: Wild five days in store for quartet of PL hopefuls

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The quartet of teams vying to join Newcastle United and Brighton and Hove Albion as newly-promoted Premier League teams begin a week-long gauntlet this weekend.

Fulham vs. Reading
12:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Craven Cottage
2:45 p.m. ET Tuesday at the Madejski Stadium

Fulham is one of the more exciting teams in the Championship, and hasn’t been shut out in league play since Feb. 1. That they’ve only kept two clean sheets during that time period is a concern, but the Cottagers are unbeaten in six matches to finish the regular season. Plenty of credit is due to Tom Cairney and Sone Aluko, who have logged nearly 8,000 minutes to go with 20 combined goals and another 20 combined assists.

There’s little predictable about Reading, which allowed the 15th most goals in 24-team championship but also managed to score 68.

Part of that vaunted attack is Yann Kermorgant, the 35-year-old French attacker who helped spearhead Bournemouth’s promotion two seasons ago. He’ll be key as will goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi and American midfielder Danny Williams, who played the fourth-most minutes of any Reading player this season.

The sides split their two Championship matches this season.

Huddersfield Town vs. Sheffield Wednesday
7 a.m. ET Sunday at John Smith’s Stadium
2:45 p.m. ET Wednesday at Hillsborough Stadium

David Wagner’s Terriers have dropped off a bit since their red-hot start to the season, and the German-American boss enters the playoffs having lost three-in-four and with a 5W-1D-7L record down the stretch.

Wagner was the Championship’s Manager of the Year, and was joined on the awards list by right back Tommy Smith and midfielder Aaron Mooy.

It’s the opposite in the other dugout, where Wednesday used a six-match winning streak to rip into a playoff place. Sure there was a loss to Fulham to close the season, but Wednesday boss Carlos Carvalhal won’t be sweating that too much.

Wednesday’s balanced team has a number of names familiar to the Premier League, including Jordan Rhodes, Barry Bannan, Steven Fletcher, Gary Hooper, and goalkeeper Keiren Westwood.

Final
May 29 at Wembley Stadium

Championship playoff matchups are set

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With the final day of the Championship regular season complete, all eyes are now on the playoff as four teams vie for the final spot in next season’s Premier League action.

Brighton Hove & Albion and Newcastle are both in automatically, and now we look for a third team to join them. The teams to participate were all but set before the day, but the playoff positions were clogged, so determining the matchups was down to the results on the final day.

Reading took down Burton Albion 4-2 on the final day, leaving them in third position. They will take on Fulham, who finished 6th after one of the best second halves of any team in the Championship. The Whites were in 10th in early January, but stormed through the Championship with 11 wins and five draws over their final 20 matches, keeping pace with Newcastle at the top.

Sheffield Wednesday fell to Fulham at Hillsborough on the final day, but it doesn’t affect their matchup as they take on Huddersfield Town, who also lost at home. Wednesday also had a fantastic second half of the season, playing 1-2 with Fulham at the top of the form table the entire way.

Here’s a closer look at each of the four teams in the playoff:

READING

Reading’s Yann Kermorgant celebrates with Tyler Blackett (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images).

One of the most baffling table positions of the entire season, Reading is considered by many to be the weakest team in the playoff despite finishing third. Their +4 goal differential gives a peek into how confusing it is to see them finish so high, but a closer inspection produces even more head-scratching. They conceded 62 goals this league season, far more than anyone else in the top 7, and at times look like a bottom-half team before peeking at the scoreboard and realizing they’ve won again. A perfect microcosm of this is their final-day result, a wild 4-2 win over struggling Burton Albion, a game which they were out-possessed and out-shot.

So where did they win their points? A scrappy team, Reading ground out 18 wins in one-goal games, while only losing five and drawing seven. They play their attack through French striker Yann Kermorgant, who has 17 goals on the season for sixth-highest in the Championship this year. They can also get goals from Jamacian international Garath McCleary on the wing or Chelsea youth product John Swift. Their weekly starting 11 features Premier League experience in goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi, and their squad features USMNT midfielder Danny Williams. Another recognizable name is former Manchester United central defender Tyler Blackett.

Reading was last in the Premier League for one season in 2012/13, seeing their way up after winning the league before immediately dropping back down. They also reached the semifinals of the 2014/15 FA Cup as a Championship side, losing to Arsenal.

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY

With Fulham receiving the bulk of the attention for their attractive style of play, Sheffield Wednesday fans felt slightly aggrieved as their side has been just as good in 2017, topping the form table over the final few weeks with six straight wins until defeat on the final day. They are the opposite of Reading in every way, a defensively stout club that can still move forward and put on a show. This team is a serious contender for promotion, and can shut down teams on their best day.

Their leading scorer for the second straight year is former Watford striker Fernando Forestieri. The Argentinian never saw the Premier League with the Hornets after they were promoted, but he moved to Hillsborough and bagged 12 goals for the Owls this campaign after hitting 15 last season. They have a pair of former Sunderland players with Premier League experience in goalkeeper Kieran Westwood and striker Steven Fletcher, with the latter bagging four goals amid the late-season winning streak. January signing Jordan Rhodes has been a relative disappointment, coming over from Middlesbrough and only bagging three goals in 17 appearances. Captain Glen Loovens is an experienced central defender who spent four seasons at Celtic plus a year in Spain before coming to Wednesday four years ago.

Sheffield Wednesday was a founding member of the Premier League in 1992 and has spent much of its history in the top flight, but they have not been there since relegation in 2000, and have even fallen into League One twice since then amid financial trouble.

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN

Huddersfield celebrates a goal by Manchester City loanee Aaron Mooy (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images).

Another team with an ugly goal differential that somehow ended up in the playoffs, Huddersfield Town is a club that has not seen top flight action since relegation in 1972. The Terriers have come a long way since their 19th place finish last season, thanks in large part to manager David Wagner, a former United States international who has impressed as the first non-British manager in the club’s history.

Like Reading, at times this season Huddersfield has looked completely off the pace, and they’ll be happy not to have drawn Fulham in the semifinals, who beat them a combined 9-1 in their pair of regular season meetings. However, again like Reading, an ability to grind out wins and avoid disappointing draws, they collected their points throughout the year. They had a fabulous turn of the calendar year, with a 14-match run between December and February that featured 12 wins and a draw, but they enter the playoffs having come back down to earth. Their -2 goal differential speaks for itself, as the next team down the table with a negative goal differential is Aston Villa who finished 12th. Huddersfield finished the season with three straight losses and just one goal in those games, a bad omen for the postseason.

Leading scorer Elias Kachunga spent his entire career in Germany before moving to Huddersfield last summer, but the 25-year-old has struggled with calf problems of late, and his playoff status is unclear after missing the last four games. Fellow striker Nahki Wells has seen his goals dry up, with just one score in his last 13 appearances.

FULHAM

The Whites have gathered the most publicity between these four teams throughout the last few months, and are considered by many as the favorites to win at Wembley. Manager Slavisa Jokanovic has the team playing free-flowing, possession-heavy football that looks absolutely gorgeous. Their Achilles heel this season has been finishing, a big reason why they are only sixth in the table. They also have been awful from the penalty spot, dropping a healthy amount of points on the year thanks to missed penalties that would otherwise have earned a higher league position. The defense is leaky, but U.S. international Tim Ream has improved greatly as the season has progressed alongside Chelsea loanee Tomas Kalas.

Fulham is a completely overhauled squad over the past few years, completely unrecognizable from the team that was relegated from the Premier League in 2014 or even the one that battled relegation to League One last year. American owner Shad Khan has given his son Tony a large say in transfer dealings, and it paid off in a huge way this past summer. At its best, Fulham is fabulous to watch. Tom Cairney pulls the strings in the attacking midfield, and there is no focal point up front, with anyone from Sone Aluko, Neeskens Kebano, Floyd Ayite, Chris Martin, or Lucas Piazon can deliver a stunning finishing touch. In fact, they played a number of games without a true striker while Martin was either suspended or tapped up by his parent club Derby County. Their leading scorer is somehow midfielder Stefan Johanson, who has partnered with Kevin McDonald to produce one of the best central midfield partnerships in the Championship. 16-year-old Ryan Sessegnon has an attacking flair that has reportedly caught the attention top Premier League clubs.

What has baffled Fulham this season are sides that bunker in and defend. They have often performed better against the top sides in the Championship, as shown by their pair of wins over Newcastle. However, against teams that close down the lanes and put defense first, the Whites at times have looked lost. Their matchup with Reading is fascinating in that regard, having obliterated Reading 5-0 on one occasion this year before losing 1-0 the next time around.