Fulham’s second promotion in three seasons has been accompanied with an avowed desire to avoid the mistakes of their last misadventure.
Promoted with a canter in 2018/19, the Cottagers proceeded on a transfer spending spree for the ages. On top of a squad that had romped the Championship, nine first-team signings were added on a permanent basis, in addition to six loans. This much churn completely undermined what had served the London side so well the season prior, and contributed to a calamitous campaign that culminated in relegation.
So far this year, there have been only five new additions to the team. The approach appears to be more considered, albeit working from a weaker base. However, aside the reality of highly plausible relegation yet again, another thing seems fairly obvious: in much the same way as two seasons ago, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa is much too good for Fulham’s level.
The Cameroon international was a part of that initial recruitment drive, joining Slavisa Jokanovic’s project for €25 million from Ligue 1 side Marseille. Having played an integral role in the French club’s run to the Europa League final in 2018 – where Rudi Garcia’s side lost 3-0 in Lyon – Anguissa came with a sizeable reputation as a dominant presence in the heart of midfield, capable of carrying the ball forward against pressure.
Nevertheless, he was helpless to stave off Fulham’s slide toward the bottom.
For one thing, it was simply too much too quickly in terms of incomings, and three managers during the course of the campaign did little to address the ensuing lack of cohesion.
On a personal level as well, Anguissa was unable to display his best qualities, hobbled as he was with an ankle injury that put him out of commission for over two months either side of Christmas.
He would return in February, and was an important cog as Fulham put together a three-game winning run in April that ultimately proved too little, too late.
As an acknowledgement of his abilities, while Craven Cottage once more opened its doors to Championship opposition, Anguissa went off on loan to perennial European campaigners Villarreal. This tacit endorsement was justified emphatically by an excellent season for the Yellow Submarine, in which the 24-year-old was instrumental in their league finish within the Europa League places.
Anguissa finished the season with just two goals and two assists in 36 matches, but to consider his season in these terms would be to miss his brilliance.
His 2.4 successful dribbles per 90 placed his top for central midfielders in La Liga, and fourth overall (behind Fabian Orellana, Nabil Fekir and a little-known upstart going by the name Lionel Messi), and he was joint-ninth in the division for tackles per game at 2.1. Generally leaving the task of ball retention and circulation to midfield partner Vicente Iborra, the on-loan dynamo concentrated on retrieving the ball, before dragging his team up the pitch.
Fulham’s immediate return to the Premier League has nevertheless given him an opportunity to make a more wholesome impact in England, where theoretically his all-action style should be a good fit. However, the manner in which Scott Parker’s side have begun the campaign leaves little scope for optimism; once more, it seems Anguissa might find himself tainted by association.
If a hapless 3-0 home reverse against Arsenal on the opening day presaged a difficult season in store, the Cottagers’ 4-3 defeat at the hands of Leeds United at Elland Road did nothing to allay fears of calamity. For the opening hour, the hosts were firmly in the ascendancy, and looked to be running away with it at 4-1, before Fulham rallied, scoring twice in the space of five minutes to make the scoreline somewhat respectable.
Key to their belated defiance was Anguissa, who came into the side following the meek acquiescence of the previous weekend. In a side adrift, swept up by wave upon jarring wave of Leeds attack, the Cameroon midfielder was the sole bulwark. It was his ability to wriggle away from the suffocating Whites’ press that helped the visitors pull one back, as he stepped past highly-rated England international Kalvin Philips, before slipping a through ball inside the full-back for Bobby Decordova-Reid to sweep inside the far corner.
As a performance, it seemed oddly microcosmic. This, it seems, is the very best Anguissa can hope to expect: a tragedy with himself cast as the protagonist, doomed to certain defeat but bravely making a solo fist of it as his craven colleagues lie supine, both unwilling and unable to resist the inevitable.
The question, then, is whether this is the best use of his gifts, whether his appetite for the fight might not be better employed in a more cohesive, defiant squadron.
Recent reports have seen Anguissa linked with moves away, most notably to AC Milan. Fulham also reportedly turned down an offer from Villarreal to make his loan deal permanent, so clearly there is no shortage of interest in his abilities on the continent.
However, even in England, dynamic defensive midfielders of his ilk are in demand.
At some point during their chastening defeat at the hands of Liverpool at the weekend, Chelsea will no doubt have wished they had a commanding presence in the middle of the park capable of holding his own amid the maelstrom of passing and movement from the reigning champions.
Arsenal have spent the summer chasing Thomas Partey, and Manchester United cannot continue to rely on a creaking Nemanja Matic for much longer.
The specific set of skills Anguissa possesses would certainly find better use in a European challenge than it would vainly toiling away in yet another ill-starred relegation battle.