The Parker way: How Fulham won promotion to the Premier League

Fulham win promotion to the Premier League under Scott Parker

As Fulham supporters bask in the glory of their play-off final victory over Brentford, there is perhaps a sense of surprise among the Whites’ fanbase that Scott Parker’s side have bounced back to the Premier League at the first attempt.

That was always the plan, of course. But it’s fair to say that there were times this season when – based on the ‘eye-test’ alone – Fulham didn’t always look capable of achieving promotion.

In part that was down to Cottagers’ fans being spoiled by the sublime football played by Slaviša Jokanović’s promotion-winning team of 2017/18. Parker’s side have felt somewhat workmanlike when compared with the swashbuckling style of two seasons ago; unwilling to play with the handbrake off, despite the array of attacking riches available to the former England international.

Anthony Knockaert, Ivan Cavaleiro and Bobby Decordova-Reid were recruited at considerable expense in the summer, while Aleksandar Mitrović was handed a lucrative contract to keep him at the club until 2024. With such an armoury at their disposal, no wonder expectations were high at Fulham. In the eyes of some, this team was required to entertain as well as simply succeed.

Fulham FC - Average positions

But there is more than one way to skin a cat and Parker has been determined to imprint his values on the club from the moment he took charge at Craven Cottage. The Whites have certainly had a defined playing style under his tutelage, aiming to maintain possession and patiently wait to carve out an attacking opportunity. They’ve been notably more solid at the back too, particularly in the second half of the campaign when centre-back Michael Hector became eligible to play after joining from Chelsea.

Parker’s full-backs are more conservative than the marauding wing-backs of previous campaigns, which – while not as aesthetically pleasing – has added to that sense of defensive resilience this season.

It may not be ‘champagne football’, but this team’s success deserves credit and Fulham’s stats from 2019/20 demonstrate that they are more than worthy of a place in the Premier League.

Fulham FC - Passes by zone

Perhaps the most obvious area where the Whites have excelled is in possession. No team in the division have attempted (511.67) or completed (437.94) more passes per 90 than Parker’s men. They’ve shown attacking intent when on the ball too  – only one Championship side have completed more forward passes than Fulham (123.33 per 90) and 42.52 per 90 of their completed passes have been in the final third. That’s better than every other outfit in the second tier.

What’s also notable is just how effective Fulham have been in attacking areas, particularly when taking on opponents and battling with defenders in the final third. They have completed the second most dribbles in the league (21.85 per 90) and perform similarly well when it comes to progressive runs (16.81 per 90), while also ranking second for attacking duels attempted (77.42) and won (37.4) per 90.

With the battering ram-like 26-goal top scorer Mitrović up front it is no surprise that Fulham are combative in and around the penalty area. But their impressive dribbling ability is slightly more unexpected and is testament to the positive play from Cavaleiro and (more recently) Neeskens Kebano, who both rank highly in terms of successfully getting past defenders.

Aleksandar Mitrović's Dynamic Radar for Fulham in the 2019/20 EFL Championship

The Whites aren’t shot-shy either. Sure, they may not be topping the charts for shots per 90, but for a team focused on retaining possession and waiting for the right opportunity an average of 12.71 per game is more than respectable.

That patience on the ball has also been a key element in Fulham improving defensively, after leaking 81 goals in the Premier League last season. An initial glance at their defensive numbers makes for slightly concerning reading – Parker’s side rank as one of the division’s worst teams for interceptions (39.86 per 90), successful defensive actions (94.27 per 90), and aerial duels won (19.69 per 90).

But the reason for such low numbers is simple – Fulham haven’t had to make as many defensive interventions or get involved in the same number of battles at the back because they’re seeing such a large amount of the ball. Their domination of possession means that a comparison against other teams who turn it over more frequently is rather unfair.

This is perfectly illustrated by looking at defensive duels attempted per 90 vs defensive duels won per 90. The Cottagers are ranked bottom of the Championship for the former (58.14), but 16th for the latter (12.16). Their success rate of 59.7% is in the top half of the division, reflecting a competent defence to compliment Fulham’s attacking talents. Their record of 0.37 clean sheets per 90 (third-best in the league) also backs up the notion that Parker deserves credit for improving his side’s defensive resilience since taking over as Whites’ boss.

Michael Hector – Fulham

Critics may point to a perceived negativity as a stick to beat the young manager with, and it is true that no team has played more backwards passes than the Cottagers this season (75.57 per 90). But the truth is this – if we look across the various metrics, Fulham have been a balanced outfit who have performed well in and out of possession and are worthy of their place in the top flight next season.

It may not have been spectacular, Parker’s side may not thrill like Jokanović’s teams did in the past, but his methods have yielded dividends.

Fulham may benefit from their manager’s pragmatism next season when they’re no longer a big fish in a small pond, even if that approach hasn’t always set the pulses racing en route to the Premier League.

All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.

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