Fulham and Marco Silva had a fantastic 2022/23 campaign. Upon returning to the top flight from the Championship they silenced the doubters by steering well clear of danger and finishing 10th, above West London rivals Chelsea. Silva used the club’s budget wisely, investing in players who had suffered a dip in form or confidence and rejuvenating them. Both Willian and Andreas Pereira had endured less than impressive spells back in Brazil with Corinthians and Flamengo, Silva however saw the potential and both ended up playing a pivotal role for the Cottagers.
The other hallmark of Fulham’s success last season was the players who had previously not been deemed good enough for the Premier League making the step up. Previously Harrison Reed and Tim Ream had struggled in the top flight, whilst clearly looking too good for the Championship. Last season was different. Ream was excellent throughout, looking like one of the best ball-playing centre-backs in the league. Reed was linked with an England call-up for his industrious style of play in the middle of the park, constantly breaking up play and using the ball intelligently when he had it.
With these aspects in mind, Fulham’s best bet of avoiding “Second Season Syndrome” (A relatively common theme where promoted sides look like an established top division team in their first season, only to collapse in their second) – was to firstly worry about holding onto what they had, rather than looking to immediately build. So far the West Londoners’ resolve has been tested severely: Marco Silva was reportedly tempted by a big offer from Saudi Arabia, top scorer Aleksandr Mitrovic looks set to join Al-Hilal and importantly Tosin Adarabioyo seems to be on his way to either Monaco or Tottenham.
Naturally, Fulham have had to start seeking out other options for their potentially departing stars. Raul Jimenez has joined from Wolves, Marco Silva will hope to work his magical skills of rejuvenation in the misfiring Mexican striker. The latest news is that Calvin Bassey will join from Ajax, looking to directly replace Adarabioyo in the heart of the defence, but is he the right man for the job?
The first issue is that Bassey may not prove to be an Adarabioyo replacement at all. Tosin Adarabioyo plays as a centre-back on the right side whilst Ream plays on the left, Bassey is left-footed and looks far more comfortable on his favoured side. With Tim Ream at the age of 35, albeit coming off the best season of his career, the club may well be signing Bassey with the view to being the American’s long-term replacement. This does of course mean Fulham would need to dip into the market again.
Italian-born Bassey had a troubled season at Ajax. He signed after an excellent spell at Rangers that included a Scottish Premiership win and a memorable run to a Europa League Final, in which Bassey was vital. But after arriving in Amsterdam for a fee of £20 million, it quickly became clear that the Nigerian international was lacking confidence – perhaps it spiralled from a red card just 15 minutes into his debut in the equivalent of the Dutch Community Shield.
Whilst Ajax laboured to a poor campaign, finishing 13 points off champions Feyenoord, Bassey struggled to find form. He admitted to Dutch media outlets that on occasion the notoriously demanding Dutch football media’s criticism was affecting him and his family, which was adding to the pressure. It wasn’t that Bassey was particularly poor consistently but more that Ajax were underperforming and the defender who came in with a big price tag seemed powerless to change the club’s fortunes. The campaign ended with the 23-year-old benched for 5 of the last 8 games.
However, don’t be too disheartened Fulham fans. Bassey was playing in a highly dysfunctional side, in a season which should have been used as a transition but wasn’t. Even the evergreen Dusan Tadic, magnificent for Ajax over recent years, did not look himself in a team that saw out two different managers by the end of the season. When looking at Bassey’s best moments in Scotland, it’s clear he prospers when having the confidence of his manager and the players around him. It was Steven Gerrard who brought him to Glasgow, and the Liverpool legend wanted to bring him to Aston Villa too – describing Bassey as a “rough diamond”.
Although Gerrard openly questioned the defender’s maturity, he never hesitated to back his footballing ability and would always turn to him when on the biggest occasions. If this kind of belief is instilled in Bassey by his manager (man management is one of Silva’s key strengths) then Fulham may well see the player that had European scouts stumbling over each while he was at Rangers.
In terms of a style of play, Fulham can expect a defender who is very comfortable on the ball. Bassey’s career to date has seen him play for possession-dominant sides, meaning he’s become accustomed to being constantly involved in the build-up and being press-resistant, something that has become a must for most Premier League defenders. His athleticism adds a huge amount to his game defensively, he can cover ground more quickly than the majority of attackers he comes up against and he’s immovable once he gets his body in front of the ball.
Fulham will look to iron out a few technical lapses in the defender’s game. Positional issues have been occasionally evident at both Rangers and Ajax, particularly when his team put on a high press. Bassey’s ability in one on one duels means that he is prone to sometimes unnecessarily seeking them out, leaving his team exposed when he does rarely lose out. If Bassey is also going to be playing at centre back rather than left back he will also need to become more aerially dominant.
Overall, roughly 20 Million pounds for Bassey seems like a risk worth taking, especially given Silva’s record of reinstalling players’ confidence. If Fulham can get Bassey playing at the level he showed on Champions League nights with Ajax or on that famous European run with Rangers, then the Cottagers have landed a player tailor-made for Premier League football.
By: Wilf MacDonnell / @WilfMacDonnell
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Soccrates Images / Getty Images