Fulham became the first club to spend more than £100m in their first summer after promotion to the Premier League, but the player many regard as their most valuable asset cost nothing.
Ryan Sessegnon has spent the past 12 months being linked with leading Premier League clubs and being touted as a great hope for English football, to the extent his club manager thought he should have been part of Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad this summer.
The 18-year-old started 45 of Fulham’s 46 league games in their promotion campaign. He was Championship player of the year, young player of the year and apprentice of the year.
It was something of a surprise, then, that Cottagers boss Slavisa Jokanovic left him out of his starting XI twice in four games last month, although he was back for Saturday’s 3-0 loss to Manchester City.
So how did he do? And what should we expect from Sessegnon as he adapts to life at a higher level?
Has he made much of an impact so far?
After such stellar performances last season, it was something of a jolt that Sessegnon lost his place after two games this term.
As those matches ended in defeat – by Crystal Palace and Tottenham – the obvious conclusion was he had been dropped.
The words they are using at Craven Cottage are not so harsh. The view inside the Fulham camp is Jokanovic wants to nurse Sessegnon along the steep learning curve he has to navigate.
The only player younger than Sessegnon to feature in the Premier League this season is Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden, whose total contribution is eight minutes and who remained on the bench against Fulham as Sessegnon completed the whole game to take his tally to 287 minutes.
The difference against City was that after playing in an advanced role in those opening matches, he reverted to left-back, where he first broke into the Fulham side in 2016, and where he played during pre-season.
There was an obvious reason for Jokanovic’s use of the youngster.
Within minutes he was involved in a foot race with Raheem Sterling. Very soon, there was another with Kyle Walker. Both are rapid. Sessegnon matched them.
“It’s my opinion he should have been part of the national team for the World Cup,” said Jokanovic after the game. “He has handled games in the Championship, and now it is time to play games in this type of place.”
What kind of player is he?
Sessegnon made his Fulham debut in August 2016 – aged 16 years and 81 days – at left-back.
But his attacking prowess has seen him pushed further forward – and the conversion from left-back to goalscoring wide attacker prompts comparisons with Real Madrid and Wales forward Gareth Bale.
Sessegnon scored 15 goals during the regular Championship campaign last season. A November hat-trick in a 5-4 win at Sheffield United offered a glimpse of his attacking instinct, and the arrival of left-back Matt Targett in the January transfer window freed him up to play on the left of a front three for the remainder of the season.
From Boxing Day, he went on a run of 10 goals in 12 league games, ultimately finishing as the seventh highest-scorer in the second tier. Not bad for half a season in attack.
But the Bale comparisons are misleading.
Unlike the Welshman, Sessegnon is not a player who catches the eye with moments of magic. Jinking runs and 30-yard screamers are rare – only one of his 15 goals last season came from outside the box, and 35 players completed more dribbles than him in the Championship.
What he does have is an unerring knack of finding space in the 18-yard box, where he rarely misses, converting 73% of the Opta-defined ‘big chances’ he had in 2017-18. His overall shot conversion rate of 26.8% was the third highest in the league.
If we do have to compare, perhaps the focus should be on Ashley Cole – one of the greatest full-backs England has ever had, and now putting his attacking abilities to good use as a wing-back for Los Angeles Galaxy.
Has he come close to leaving? What does the future hold?
Young players of Sessegnon’s quality attract attention.
Most of the big clubs are monitoring him. Tottenham were willing to buy him but did not make a bid. Despite overtures, there was no indication from the player, or anyone around him, that he was keen to move. Spurs, Manchester United, and everyone else for that matter, must wait.
A local boy from Roehampton, Sessegnon honed his talent on the streets, specifically on the concrete of a football cage where he would go with friends to play five-a-side. It made him feel comfortable with the ball at his feet and at ease trying to play out of areas where there is limited space.
He has been at Fulham since he was eight, his attachment strengthened by having three brothers at the club. That includes twin Steven, who has also played for the Cottagers’ first team and to whom Sessegnon is exceptionally close.
Even the club’s supporters, who deep down accept one day he will move to a bigger club, were not given any reason to feel anxious during the summer.
Sessegnon knows he has plenty of work ahead of him, particularly in defence if he is to be a regular at left-back, The signs are that he is willing to do the work required to smooth off those rough edges.
A naturally left-footed player, it was instructive to watch his warm-up at Etihad Stadium, where he struck a succession of 40-yard passes with his right foot. Most found their target.
His speed is a clear asset. There are not many defenders anywhere who can match Sterling for pace, and in one first-half penalty-area challenge on the England international, Sessegnon also had the strength to win a duel.
However, at the highest level comes the greatest scrutiny. Only an excellent low save from Marcus Bettinelli prevented Sterling from exploiting a rash tackle from the youngster, who dived in to win the ball when he had limited chance of success. Such moments can prove very costly against the best players.
“It’s not the Championship any more,” he said after the game. “We are playing against some of the best players in the world and we need to learn quickly.
“It was a good battle against Raheem and I can only learn from playing against players like him.”