Fulham wanted to improve their squad during this transfer window — no overhaul, just quality additions.
In typical fashion, their work was not completed until darkness had long descended but they achieved what they set out to do. Marco Silva wanted two signings, which were a central midfielder and a right back, and he got them.
The arrival of Sasa Lukic, a target first revealed by The Athletic last week, filled a much needed void. Concern had persisted from the summer transfer window that Fulham did not have the strength in depth to cope should Harrison Reed or Joao Palhinha pick up an injury or suspension. Nathaniel Chalobah had failed to impress in his brief cameos, sealing his fate with a rash challenge against Newcastle United that led to a red card, so this issue felt the most pressing heading into January.
Step forward, Torino’s Lukic.
The Serbia international, 26, seems perfectly equipped to fill the midfield hole. He is a well-rounded central midfielder, one who can play as a No 6, at the base of midfield, and as a No 8, shuttling between both boxes.
A message from our latest recruit. 💬#LuksIn 🇷🇸 | #FFC pic.twitter.com/7Afbrsho7f
— Fulham Football Club (@FulhamFC) January 31, 2023
In Silva’s system, the latter role has been occupied by Reed, whose game has evolved impressively, and it requires the player to cover plenty of ground. Lukic is capable of doing that, while having the technical ability to step into a more advanced role too, and the tenacity to feature as a holding midfielder, where he has played the majority of his minutes. He can cover all of Fulham’s midfield positions.
After six and a half years at Torino, his time in Italy appeared to be at a crossroads after a dispute in the summer. He had become the leader of the team, the captain, but was stripped of that role after a contract dispute. But on the field, he remained a consistent performer. He patched up relations and made 16 appearances in Serie A, contributing two goals.
It is no surprise that Lukic featured in all three of Serbia’s group stage matches at the World Cup in Qatar. He knows Aleksandar Mitrovic, and the two players came through the academy at Partizan Belgrade. Mitrovic left the club for Anderlecht the day before Lukic signed his first professional deal, in August 2013.
Lukic was one of several targets. Abdoulaye Doucoure was Silva’s initial preferred first choice. The Everton midfielder had fallen out of favour under Frank Lampard but his high salary proved off putting, while the appointment of Sean Dyche changed the landscape at Goodison Park.
Fulham then made an offer for Andre, the 21-year-old from Fluminense midfielder, but he had only recently signed a new contract in Brazil and they were reluctant to let him go in this window. They then contacted Sheffield United about Sander Berge. The Championship high-fliers are under a transfer embargo due to cash flow issues, and that made a deal possible. However, Sheffield United owner Prince Abdullah vetoed any potential sale on deadline day, with the aim to preserve the club’s promotion charge. Fulham were keeping their options open, but there was little doubt that Lukic was a good choice.
Chalobah departed for West Bromwich Albion permanently and once his deal entered the home straight, the green light came for the signing of Lukic, for a fee worth up to £8 million.
Josh Onomah agreed to mutually terminate his contract, meaning he sacrificed salary in order to get out and play football, and has signed for Preston North End. He was expected to leave in the summer anyway — only for that transfer (to West Brom) to break down after a paperwork issue on the deadline. Fulham have Tyrese Francois back in the squad after his loan at Gorica, although he has a hamstring injury.
This left right-back as the area of the squad they wished to strengthen, which proved more problematic.
Fulham were eager to provide cover for Kenny Tete this month. The Dutch international has been in fine form but he has picked up injuries in the past while his competition, Kevin Mbabu, has fallen out of favour.
The former Wolfsburg player was expected to go out on loan, as he has not featured in a matchday squad since the World Cup break but no club could agree a deal. There was interest from sides across Europe, however the Swiss international will now stay — unless a deal emerges from a club in a country where the transfer window remains open (the Portuguese window shuts on February 2, in Turkey that is on February 8, for instance).
First choice was Arsenal’s Cedric Soares. Like Doucoure during his time at Watford, he had worked with Silva before — at Sporting Lisbon in 2014-15. This meant he was a player who would need limited time to adapt to Silva’s methods, and having played for Southampton and Arsenal over the past eight years, would be no stranger to the rigours of the Premier League.
Signing him would not be straightforward with a loan move the most viable option but two key issues remained to solve. Fulham were wary of committing to cover all of Cedric’s high salary in its entirety, and they also had a loan dilemma. They had filled their quota of Premier League loans — two players from top flight clubs clubs in one season — and had no intention of curtailing Dan James or Shane Duffy’s agreements.
The new man on the block. 😏#AcédIt ♠️ | #FFC pic.twitter.com/yw5Hx2FiAb
— Fulham Football Club (@FulhamFC) February 1, 2023
Added into all this was an initial reluctance from Mikel Arteta to let Cedric leave, until they had adequate cover.
Fulham explored alternative options, including Joshua Brenet, at FC Twente. On deadline day, Fulham were in discussions with Brenet about the possibility of a late transfer. Those talks ended though as soon as a breakthrough was made with Cedric.
That breakthrough meant Duffy turned the remaining months of his loan into a permanent agreement, ending his association with Brighton & Hove Albion after nearly seven years. He had six months left on his contract on the south coast and his deal with Fulham will run until the summer.
Cedric is a player who has not featured regularly for Arsenal this season, making only two appearances from the bench for the Premier League leaders. The 31-year-old’s lack of involvement conveys doubts, but he may fit the same category as Willian, who arrived amid scepticism at Craven Cottage but has thrived.
He is a Portugal international, with 34 caps, and he fits the criteria that has served the club well this season with recruitment: Premier League experience. If anyone can get the best out of a player who has fallen out favour, it is Silva.
The club’s recruitment has elevated the team this season, with Andreas Pereira, Palhinha, Willian and Bernd Leno among those to have helped alter expectations. Many mid-to-lower-end top-flight clubs have invested heavily but Fulham have worked shrewdly.
Whether fans’ dreams on the terraces can be realised after a breathless first half of the season, only time will tell. But if the question is whether Fulham’s squad is strong enough to finally end their yo-yo existence, then the answer is surely a yes.
(Photos: Getty Images)