Friday, 13 April 2012

‘Second Coming of Diarra’ gives Fulham fans Easter cheer

The post-January transfer window sigh of relief is probably the one emotion that is universally shared by football fans of all clubs across the country. Whether or not you landed that prized continental striker moments before the deadline, or begrudgingly lost the battle to cling on to a young academy prospect, everyone is simply glad of one thing; that it’s all over.

The constant turning of the ‘rumour mill’ (often a modern day euphemism for ‘journalist’s imagination’) can stop, the column inches no longer need to be filled, and everyone can, for four months at least, concentrate on the actual bloody football.

Trust Fulham, then, to be the ones to break this footballing modus operandi with the sudden announcement on the 27th February of a new signing. Not just any old signing either; as a former Real Madrid (signed for €26m) and Lyon player with multiple league championship medals on his C.V., Mahamadou Diarra has undoubtedly the richest pedigree of any of the current squad.

The immediate questions that sprung to mind were ‘how’ and ‘why’? The undoubtedly long and winding path from the Bernabeu to Stevenage Road certainly cannot be described as ‘well-trodden’, and the immediate assumption is that anyone who has walked down it must be carrying a considerable amount of baggage. In truth, Diarra’s career in recent years has seen a serious decline; having fallen out of favour at Real, he joined AS Monaco in January 2011 in a bid to revive his career. The move was disastrous for both parties; Monaco were relegated and Diarra was released with less-than-glowing reviews on both his performance and fitness levels. A trial at Doncaster in October which amounted to nothing suggested that Diarra was off the football radar for good.

With his arrival at Fulham met with a healthy if diverse mixture of intrigue, surprise and scepticism, Diarra was given a final opportunity to prove his talent – after all, how many times have we seen players apparently on the decline join us and completely revitalise their careers. And on the evidence of his contributions so far, you can add Diarra’s name to a list already containing the likes of Murphy and Duff. His confidence was evident from the moment he stepped on to the field against (an admittedly hapless) Wolves, helping himself to an assist, and several generally steady performances followed. As the weeks have passed his fitness has noticeably improved, and with it his performance level, and suddenly we seem to have a top quality defensive midfielder on our hands having not paid a single penny for him.

What is striking about the way Diarra plays the game is his astounding composure on the ball. He is almost metronomic in the way he receives the ball, looks up and moves it swiftly on, and the benefits to the fluid functioning of the midfield are huge. Another impressive aspect of his game is the way he always seems to have time on the ball, and this is of course no coincidence. His reading of the game, no doubt aided by years of experience, means he knows where the space is going to open up in midfield and is able to find comfortable pockets in which to receive the ball. His defensive game is all about positioning and timing of his tackles (again a consequence of his experience); he doesn’t go hunting the ball and charging into ferocious tackles, but is still very effective in regaining possession for the team.

All these attributes make for a pretty formidable player, and it is no surprise that he has forced his way into the starting eleven of late. In particular his recent performances against Bolton (in which he scored his first goal for the club) and Chelsea were highly impressive and also evidence of his flexibility. Having performed superbly with Dembélé in a midfield pairing against Bolton, he was used in a three-man midfield against Chelsea. Alongside Murphy, a combination that many thought would be either-or rather than both playing at the same time, were a joy to behold, outclassing the Chelsea midfield for large parts of the game. It was an interesting combination that we could be seeing more of in future, particularly away from home; having two players with such strong distribution should help us keep more possession and get a sturdier foothold in games when too often we are pushed on to the back foot.

Obviously, Diarra is not the perfect player; he is nothing like the physical specimen he was in his heyday at Madrid and, whilst he is certainly not ancient at 30, age is not on his side. Nevertheless, his addition to the squad has proved to be a very shrewd acquisition by Jol, who must be given great credit for spotting an opportunity where others did not. Diarra has an option to stay with us for next season, a clause that will surely be taken up, and when you look at how Murphy is still going strong at 35, there is no reason why Diarra can’t be an important player for the club for years to come. To think even five years ago that a player of such class would one day be donning the white shirt shows what incredible progress as a club we have made over recent seasons. 

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Jol’s stuttering Fulham on the brink of lift-off

The 2011-12 campaign has thus far been a jarringly frustrating campaign for all those associated with FFC, a season defined by wild inconsistency as the team’s performances range from sublime to ridiculous, often flitting between the two several times in the course of one game. It is hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu harking back to Mark Hughes’ season in charge; whilst the extremes are somewhat less broad (the team have never really looked as hopelessly inept as they did at times during the first few months of Hughes’ reign, equally never as ruthlessly dominant as they did towards the end), it is impossible to escape the notion that the season has been undermined from the beginning by yet another summer of managerial upheaval.

It is not a ground-breaking revelation that stability breeds success, a theory evidenced by countless examples throughout the football world (actually you only need to look at that club down the road). Three years of lurching from Roy Hodgson’s defensive pragmatism, to Hughes’ high tempo directness and finally to Jol’s strive for attacking elegance haven’t exactly helped our progress, but at the same time we’ve done pretty well to comfortably remain a solid mid-table side. Thankfully for Fulham fans, another summer of change appears very unlikely; Jol won’t be sacked, won’t resign and is very unlikely to be poached by another club.

And so Fulham will continue to travel down the path along which Jol is leading them, a path that has not always been smooth throughout the season. Uppermost in the list of grievances harboured by supporters is the way the team limped through the Europa League, a competition holding a special place in our hearts for obvious reasons of sentiment, before taking an ignominious leave thanks to a farcically tepid 45 minutes against Odense. In truth it was difficult to believe that the side we saw cowering and disintegrating before our eyes at the first hint of pressure from European minnows was the same one that so gloriously dispatched the likes of Shakhtar and Juventus two years ago, and the bitterness of the fans, primarily at the nature of elimination, has taken a while to subside.

Jol’s man-management has also come under the microscope; rumoured fall-outs with senior players really amount to nothing more than speculation and conjecture owing to a lack of evidence, save for the quite obvious clash with Bobby Zamora. Mysteriously dropped on the eve of away fixtures to Wolves and Swansea, Zamora’s return to the lowly depths of crowd pariah, from which he so ruthlessly propelled himself with that magnificent 09/10 season, was painful and brief. A series of languid and lazy performances, reports of disruptive behaviour on the training ground and the return of those oh-so-popular ear-cupping celebrations pushed him to the brink. A stoppage time winner against Arsenal turned out to be a parting gift rather than a bid for redemption, with a move to Q.P.R. closing the curtain on a Fulham career which is possibly best described as ‘turbulent’. Whilst he will be fondly remembered for his titanic performances in the Europa League (and indeed many remain convinced that we would have won the trophy had Zamora been fit for the final), the reception he received during our reunion at Loftus Road recently is probably more reflective of the light in which he is currently appreciated.  

Whilst most fans applaud Jol for the way in which he dealt with Zamora’s petulance and childishness, questions have been raised about the way in which he has treated other players. The stalwarts of Aaron Hughes and, most recently, Danny Murphy have experienced time out of the team to the mystification of many fans. Philippe Senderos is a perfectly capable defender and arguably a superior player to Hughes, but does not gel with Brede Hangeland nearly as well, and, whilst Murphy’s powers are starting to wane with age, he is still vital to the smooth functioning of the midfield. The fact that both have forced their way back into the team can perhaps be viewed a reticent admission of haste on Jol’s part; whilst his attempts to bring younger players into the team are one of the strengths of his reign so far, some players are too important to be phased out just yet. Questions have also been asked regarding the worth of signing players such as Pajtim Kasami (and fining him for taking a penalty against Chelsea) and Marcel Gecov and then refusing to play them. By all accounts both have looked reasonably impressive in their short cameos to date, making their continued absence seem all the more odd.

But whilst Gecov, Kasami and Orlando Sa have somewhat floundered so far, the emergence of Kerim Frei and Alex Kacaniklic as two genuinely exciting young wingers has been a positive. Jol deserves great credit for the way in which each has been managed (Frei through short substitute appearances and Europa League starts, Kacaniklic through a loan spell at Watford) and subsequently being brave enough to give them run-outs in important Premier League matches, something that didn’t happen particularly often under his predecessors. Frei and Kacaniklic are the first products of the new academy strategy adopted several years ago placing heavy emphasis on youth recruitment, and, with numerous young players with exciting potential now attached to the club, it will be very intriguing to see how many more can follow in their footsteps and make it in to the first team squad.

The rest of Jol’s additions can be deemed as solid if unspectacular; Grygera looked good at right back before sustaining a horrible injury, Riise has been decent enough, although nowhere near the player he was at Liverpool, Diarra was a shrewd acquisition providing us with another option in midfield and Pogrebnyak gives us presence up front in the absence of Zamora. Of course the biggest signing, and one which continues to split Fulham fans’ opinions, was that of Bryan Ruiz. Highly rated and arriving with a large price tag (although perhaps not quite as large as many media outlets reported if you listen to Jol), he has needed time to adjust and, in truth, still does. There have been glimpses of sheer genius – the chipped finishes for his goals against Everton and Bolton, the disguised through ball for Dempsey against West Brom, and his eye for a killer pass is probably the best in the squad. However he has struggled to cope with the physicality of the league, often being muscled out of games by brutish defenders, and is defensive work is, quite frankly, tragically bad. What hasn’t helped him has been Jol constantly moving him around, trying him in positions away from what appears to be his strongest role on the right flank, culminating in the laughable decision to deploy him in central midfield against Newcastle; he was promptly hauled off at half time. Whilst a few Fulham fans have been (perhaps justifiably) frustrated with some of his performances, the sensible majority can see that there is a potentially great player in there – indeed the declarations of some that he is the ‘new Marlet’ are plain stupid. With a bit more patience, time to adapt and a whole pre-season behind him, the likelihood is that he could be a very important player for us next season.

The hope that Ruiz will yet come good is added considerable credibility given the style of play Jol is striving to integrate, a style centred on individual skill, technical aptitude and free-flowing football that should suit such a gifted player perfectly. Again, the cogs haven’t always fallen into place this season, but when they have, the crowd have more than got their money’s worth. Highlights have included high-scoring home wins against QPR, Newcastle and Wolves, as well as well-deserved wins over Liverpool and Arsenal. Two players in particular that have flourished this season are Clint Dempsey and Mousa Dembélé. Dempsey has long been an important player for the side with his goalscoring ability, but this season seems to have reached another level altogether; his work around the box creating opportunities for both himself and others is often superb, barring the occasional error in decision-making, whilst his gritty determination means he can always be relied on to get on the end of balls into the box. It is actually quite worrying to consider where we would have been without his goals over the past few seasons.

Whilst Dempsey will almost certainly take the player of the season award, Dembélé would surely be just as deserving. Ever since his debut as a substitute at home to Manchester United last season, his talent with the ball at his feet has been obvious; however the end product was never quite there, with Dembélé possessing a frustrating habit of dribbling down dead ends and often releasing the ball at the wrong time. To his great credit he has almost totally eradicated these from his game, in no small part down to what this writer considers to be Jol’s biggest masterstroke to date, converting him from a winger/second striker to central midfield. Watching him play there is enough to make one wonder why he wasn’t deployed there sooner; his lightning quick feet, superb balance and agility and powerful upper body strength allows him to effortlessly carry the ball forward and shrug off opposition defenders, driving the whole team towards the goal. Coming from deep means that he is able to find pockets of space in front of defences and gives him more time to play the correct pass, a stark contrast to the way he used to be instantly funnelled across the pitch when he received the ball in advanced positions. All this is topped off by moments of individual genius, the back-heel through ball to Pogrebnyak at Loftus Road perhaps being the most prominent example. You would expect big clubs to be interested in both Dembélé and Dempsey in the summer, and whether or not we can hold on to them could well shape our ambitions for next season.

Jol’s first season at the helm has been mixed; a slow start, inconsistent performances and a frustratingly negative attitude to away games means that he does not yet have the complete backing of the fanbase as Roy Hodgson and, to an extent towards the end of his tenure, Mark Hughes did. At least two, if not all three, of these elements can be put down to that most despised of football buzzwords, a season of ‘transition’.  Having had a year to adapt to Jol’s training methods and style of play and a pre-season minus the unsettling managerial uncertainty of recent years, it is reasonable to hope the players will be far less disadvantaged from the outset next season. Equally important is that Jol has had plenty of time to learn about the squad, knows which players he can rely on to perform and is aware of areas in the squad requiring improvement in the summer. The overall signs are positive; the squad is blessed with players of great talent, the youth academy is as strong as it has ever been with several genuine prospects and the brand of football played by the team is at times exquisite. Whilst we have stumbled at times this season, the foundations are in place for us to really take off next year.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

As the dust settles...

For all the transfer window’s problems, the panic-buying, the extortionate transfer fees and the way it favours big clubs with large amounts of disposable capital, it has to be said that deadline day itself has become something of a spectacle, a date that football supporters up and down the country both anticipate and dread in equal measure. There is something quite enchanting about watching Jim White swell to the point of self-combustion on Sky Sports News as he screams about ‘BIG NEWS COMING OUT OF ALDERSHOT’, the sudden rush of exaggerated excitement as an anonymous ‘ITK’ posts on your club messageboard that that full back you’ve been linked with all summer is having a medical, and the terror that hits as you notice your top goalscorer is trending on Twitter; you frantically try and ascertain why, praying to God that he hasn’t been poached by your rivals.

A week ago, ‘By The River’ said that the final week of the transfer window would be a hugely important period for Fulham; with an ageing squad reduced to threadbare status thanks to a host of departures, activity in the market was essential, not just to appease supporters but also to prevent the excellent work of the previous three seasons from being unravelled. In the end, as is often the case for clubs outside of the top 6, it came down to the final day, but it has to be said that it was probably worth the wait. The £10.6m signing of Bryan Ruiz from FC Twente was without doubt the highlight, proving that the club is still able to wield some financial might when the need arises. The Costa Rican comes highly rated having been linked with both Spurs and Liverpool in recent times, and so to land him (fighting off a late poaching attempt by Newcastle) is something of a coup. His versatility means he can be used on the wing, behind the striker or up front, and his goal scoring record in the Eredivisie is phenomenal with 36 goals in 61 games for Twente. Of course, the usual reservations about signing players from Holland still apply, with the much-heralded example of Afonso Alves becoming something of a footballing cliché nowadays, but when you read comments from respected Dutch journalists ranking him alongside Luis Suarez as the two stars of the Eredivisie in recent years, it’s impossible not to get excited.

Other deadline day deals came in the form of Zdenek Grygera, the full back from Juventus, and Orlando Sa, a 23 year old Portuguese striker. Grygera is hardly the most inspiring signing of the summer, arriving with a terrible injury record over the previous two seasons and endorsements from Juve fans that were hardly ringing. In fact, a reported late bid for Alan Hutton suggests Jol has brought him in to be back up rather than a first choice for the right back spot. Nevertheless, it represents a low risk move given the lack of a transfer fee, and the club’s need for reinforcements in the right back spot were well known. It seems from the last two matches that Chris Baird has been given back the right back spot, and so I would expect Grygera to serve as back up for him. Orlando Sa is a particularly intriguing transfer that came from out of the blue in the final few hours of the transfer window. It seems that this, another free transfer, got the green light after discussions to take Andre-Pierre Gignac on loan from Marseille broke down. Sa is a target man striker and will doubtless provide the back-up for Bobby Zamora that has been lacking for as long as anyone cares to remember. Interestingly, Chelsea were interested in signing him back when Scolari was in charge, whilst his impressive scoring record for Portugal U21s (7 in 7) suggests that he’s no David Elm. In recent seasons he seems to have gone off the rails a bit, but we have seen in the past how countless players have rejuvenated their careers down at the Cottage, so this move represents a lifeline which you would hope he would be desperate to grasp. And if he doesn’t, the lack of transfer fee again means the club is unlikely to really lose out, representing another shrewd piece of business.

Looking at the squad now, it suddenly seems a whole lot stronger than a week ago, of course helped no end by managing to retain players such as Dempsey, Baird and Andy Johnson, three players who were all linked with moves towards the end of August. Two players cover every position, which is of course a bare minimum requirement for a squad trying to compete on both domestic and European fronts. What will be interesting now is how the side lines up, and how Ruiz is used; we could continue to line up in a 4-4-2 with Ruiz up alongside Zamora, but perhaps more interestingly would be a 4-2-3-1; Zamora as the spearhead target man with the three of Dempsey, Dembele and Ruiz interchanging behind. The most encouraging thing is the number of options now open to Jol; so far he’s managed to get it right off the pitch, now it’s just a question of getting it right on it.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

FFC at a crossroads?

Despite the fact that the new season is very much at an embryonic stage, concerns about the direction Fulham FC are moving in are starting to arise amongst supporters. In fact, were you to log on to a messageboard on Sunday evening after the abject performance and defeat by Wolverhampton Wanderers and you would think the team had just lost a end-of-season relegation decider, that our fate was sealed and the doomsday scenario of relegation lay before us.

Whilst this is perhaps indicative of the highly exaggerated and over-emotional reactions found on almost any football forum, the fact is there is certainly some grounding in the worries of some supporters. It is not so much down to the team’s on-pitch performances; although it is true that we have hardly been impressive in any of our matches so far, most fans understand that Martin Jol will need time to familiarise himself with the squad and work out its strengths and weaknesses, and vice versa the players need to acclimatise themselves with the way he wants his team to play. Indeed, our previous two managers both had difficult starts, and very few would convincingly argue that either was anything but a success.

So whilst Jol’s somewhat baffling decisions to play Aaron Hughes at right back and to start the increasingly laboured-looking Dickson Etuhu over the Steve Sidwell can be tolerated with a small dose of the benefit of the doubt, what is abundantly obvious is that the squad needs investment. Most notable are the limitations of Jol’s frontline options; Zamora seems to really be struggling with fitness, Johnson is hard-working and useful when playing off a partner but is totally ineffective on his own, and Moussa Dembele, whilst listed on the squad page as a striker, isn’t really one at all. Despite being linked with a whole host of centre forwards over the past few weeks (Jerome, Cole, Ruiz, Cisse, Borriello), nothing has materialised and time is beginning to run out. It would be crazy to go into the season with our current striking options, particularly considering the rigours the Europa League will likely place on the squad. Whilst Dempsey managed to step up and fill the goalscoring void left by Zamora’s absence last season, it is risky to expect him to do it again. Quite simply, at least one striker is needed before the window closes in a week’s time.

The frustration inspired by the squad’s perceived thinness is heightened by the club’s apparently frugal spending policy. Reports of ‘half-bids’, from FC Twente referring to an offer for winger Nacer Chadli, are likely to provoke much eye-rolling and sighing from supporters who, since being bank-rolled to the Premier League by Al-Fayed’s millions, have been forced to accept that the expenditure has had to be reined in. There is no arguing with the logic; after all, the club has a noose of £150-200m debt around its neck, a fact that most seem to deal with by simply ignoring it and assuming it will all work out ok, but one day the club will have to move onwards without Al-Fayed’s financial backing propping it up. Attempts to make the club self-sufficient will no doubt be applauded by supporters, but nevertheless the club cannot afford to be negligent in terms of player recruitment. From the outside, it seems that there must be more money available; the club haven’t really granted significant spending on players since Hodgson’s first summer in charge in 2008 (when Andy Johnson was signed for circa £8m), around £10m was received for Chris Smalling from Man United in 2010, plus there’s the money earned from getting to the Europa League final. Added to the usual incomes budgeted for, such as Sky money and gate receipts, and fans’ frustrations at the unwillingness to pay the necessary transfer fees to attract quality players become more understandable. Mark Hughes walked out on the club because he didn’t feel they would sufficiently back him in the transfer market, and the lack of significant arrivals have perhaps vindicated his decision somewhat.

It certainly feels that Fulham are currently standing at a crossroads. Three years of almost unprecedented success under the guidance of Roy Hodgson and Mark Hughes have left the club in a healthier position than ever – comfortably established in the Premier League, recognised throughout Europe for the incredible Europa League run, a highly-reputed manager and, of course, European football. All this has been done on a relatively meagre investment, but the consequences are starting to come home to roost; key players are all getting old together and, whilst Jol has begun the process of bringing in young players to eventually replace the old guard, the process is unlikely to be easy or cheap. The club can either invest more to consolidate and further build upon the strong position in which we find ourselves, or continue with their prudency and jeopardise the good work that has been done so far. The distinct impression gained is that the next seven days will be very revealing as to the extent of the club’s ambitions.

Friday, 12 August 2011


Non-footballing summers are always the most painful times for football fans across the country. Without the comforting bookends of weekend fixtures, the weeks blur into one very long, very dark tunnel, with the light at its end seeming very far away. But thankfully we’ve all survived the summer tedium of rehashed and baseless transfer links, pre-season ‘tournaments’ on the other side of the planet against teams with names seriously deficient in vowels and cricket; the first day of the new Premier League season is almost here.

Remarkably, Fulham are at home on the opening day for the first time since 2005; Premier League officials are still frantically working to find the fault in the fixture computer which stopped it from assigning Chelsea the usual comfortable home tie against a newly promoted team (instead giving them a tricky test away to Stoke), but rest assured they will have remedied the error for next season. So tomorrow will be a rare opportunity to savour the comfortably naive optimism that the opening day brings whilst trotting through Bishop’s Park, with Aston Villa the visitors. It is a fixture that often produces an entertaining game of football, with two teams that look to play attractive football and win games. One (relatively) recent fixture that particularly sticks in the memory was the thrilling 3-3 draw in December 2005; three times Fulham led and three times Villa drew level, with the game’s highlight being a magnificent looping header from Brian McBride. There was the 3-1 win under Roy Hodgson in 2009 with two goals from Diomansy Kamara, and in last season’s encounter Villa dominated only to be robbed of victory at the very death by a towering Brede Hangeland header in a 1-1 draw.

Tomorrow’s game is something of a milestone for both clubs, as both teams take to the field in domestic competition for the first time under their new managers. Martin Jol’s appointment was discussed in some depth in last Sunday’s season preview and so doesn’t really need to be covered in too much detail here, but Alex McLeish’s arrival at Villa was one of the shocks of the summer for a number of reasons. Firstly and perhaps most pertinently is the fact that he was taken from Villa’s arch-rivals, recently relegated Birmingham City. The rivalry isn’t usually considered one of Britain’s most hateful, but the anger and spite incited by McLeish’s choice to walk the rarely-trodden route to Villa Park shows that strong emotions are buried deep. Secondly, Villa fans were particularly underwhelmed at the calibre of the appointment; McLeish’s CV at Birmingham contains a Carling Cup, two relegations, and a reputation for playing solid if depressingly turgid football, precipitating a remarkable protest outside the gates of Villa Park as rumours of his appointment gradually congealed into reality. It is clear that if McLeish’s reign at Villa is to be a success then he is going to have to get off to a good start; he can be certain that fans aren’t going to remain patient for very long in the face of poor results.

This all adds an extra level of intrigue to tomorrow’s game, as well as a pinch of the unknown. The biggest question mark in terms of Fulham’s team selection is who will play in defence; will it be Hughes or Baird at right back, the outcome of which will determine whether or not the impressive Senderos will be deployed alongside Hangeland in defence. The safest solution seems to be to stick with the back four that served the Whites so well last season, with Baird at right back and Hughes continuing his formidable partnership with Hangeland at the heart of the backline. However, Jol seems to be a big Senderos fan given the number of starts he has given him in pre-season, and the big Swiss hasn’t put a foot wrong so far in Fulham colours. What is surprising and in fact slightly baffling is that he has preferred to start Hughes at right back, a position in which he looks decidedly uncomfortable and which brings his limited distribution to the fore, over Baird, who has developed into an accomplished performer and an integral part of the back four over the past 12 months. In fact, given the lack of pre-season time that Baird has been given, it would be somewhat astonishing if Jol performs a u-turn now and plays him at right back, and would raise questions about why he persisted with testing out Hughes at right back in so many games this summer. So whilst I would prefer to see Baird there, I expect to see Hughes at right back with Hangeland and Senderos in the centre and Riise at left back.

In midfield, Jol will have to decide whether to partner Danny Murphy with Steve Sidwell or Dickson Etuhu; Sidwell is the more exciting option but Jol may well favour Etuhu’s power against a Villa side that is likely play three in the centre of midfield. Duff will start on the right, whilst I expect Dempsey to start on the left, with Dembele probably not yet up to full match fitness having missed a lot of pre-season through injury. Up front will be Zamora and Johnson, who have both looked lively in pre-season and will hope to establish a partnership that has always had promise but been held back over the past couple of seasons with the injuries the pair have suffered. New signings Gecov and Kasami will be on the bench; depending on how the match is going, I hope we are given another chance to see Kasami in action towards the end of the game to see if he can build on his promising cameo against Split.

As for Villa’s line up, it seems that Darren Bent has been passed fit to play and so naturally he would be expected to start; Hangeland and Hughes have actually done a good job of keeping him quiet over the years whenever we have faced his teams, but his goalscoring prowess is undoubted and so will have to be watched closely on Saturday. Their major outfield summer signing was Charles N’Zogbia, who has the pace and the ability to cause us problems on either flank (particularly if coming up against an out of position Aaron Hughes) and is the player I would be most worried about going into the game. Their midfield will probably be a central three with Makoun and Petrov providing a defensive base with Stephen Ireland, who has been given another chance at Villa by McLeish, apparently likely to start. He will push high up the pitch at every opportunity and can be an effective player if his mind is in the game and will need to be shackled by our midfield. When assessing Villa’s side I can’t help but feel that their defence is vulnerable; whilst Dunne and Collins are powerful in the air they aren’t especially mobile, and whilst AJ doesn’t have blistering pace anymore he is always making runs in, behind and around defenders, moving them around and opening up space for others, exactly what Dunne and Collins will not want. Coupled with Zamora’s power and the tendency for Duff and Dempsey to cut in from the flanks and arrive in central positions, the centre of their defence is an area that can be exploited. Also in goal for Villa is Shay Given, a renowned shot stopper but quite small for a goalkeeper; this, coupled with the fact that he has spent the past year slowly rusting on Man City’s bench, mean that it will be interesting to see how he deals with the first few crosses and corners of the game. 

The first fixture of the season is always the hardest to predict simply because there is no form to go on. However, in my (admittedly slightly biased) view I believe that Fulham have the players to take advantage of Villa’s weaknesses, which, coupled with the backing of the home crowd and the extra fitness gained from having already played competitive fixtures, will see them to an entertaining 2-1 win.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Season Preview 11/12 - A leap into the unknown

Just over a year on from the messy debacle that was Roy Hodgson’s departure and the equally messy appointment process of Mark Hughes as successor, Fulham fans could be forgiven for cursing in exasperated frustration when the news broke on June 2nd that Mark Hughes had walked out on the club. A year on from one of the most frustrating off-season periods in recent memory and we were back to square one.

It is still unclear as to exactly why Mark Hughes chose to leave a post to which he had repeatedly expressed his commitment towards the end of last season when speculation over his future began to mount. Whether he thought he would walk into the vacant Villa job or was unhappy with the transfer budget allocated for the summer, this observer was disappointed to see him go. Whilst some may not necessarily have warmed to Hughes as a person, his performance as a football manager was admirable as he steered us from a position that looked nothing short of perilous at Christmas to our second highest ever placing of 8th, playing some superb football along the way and even mustering a string of away wins. 

But the reality is that Mr. Hughes is now nothing more than a short footnote in the long history of FFC, with the club doing itself credit by swiftly moving to appoint Martin Jol in his place, ironically the man who we so desperately tried to prise from Ajax’s clutches prior to Hughes’ appointment. Jol was probably the stand-out name from the list of candidates available and so it isn’t really possible to lament his appointment; there is no denying the quality of his work in leading Spurs to two successive 5th positions, before admittedly going somewhat off the rails after losing the trust of the board. Interestingly, the perceptions of Jol in England and in continental Europe don’t really match up; popular and highly rated on these shores, doubts persist over his managerial abilities on the mainland, no doubt fuelled by two unspectacular and somewhat under-whelming spells in charge of Hamburg and Ajax. Jol has a point to prove and a reputation to re-invigorate, and this can only be to Fulham’s benefit.

So what can the Fulham faithful expect from their team this coming season? Well, in all honesty it’s very difficult to know. In terms of playing style, Jol has a reputation for forward-thinking, positive play but is also known to use traditional wingers, a strategy at odds with our preference for inverted wide midfielders in the shape of Duff and Dempsey over the past couple of seasons. With the transfer budget unlikely to stretch to two additions in this department, it will be interesting to see whether Jol will stick with the tried-and-tested system or perhaps use Mousa Dembele, whose pace and dribbling prowess are undoubted, in a wider berth compared to the more central positions in which he was often deployed by Hughes. 

At this point in time it looks likely that Zamora will partner Andy Johnson up front, the latter of whom has impressed in pre-season. AJ gets his fair share of stick from time to time, particularly over his goalscoring record, but his return when playing alongside Zamora in a straightforward 4-4-2, the role which he was originally bought to play, has always been good. 10 goals in his first season, the only season in which him and Zamora have been able to play as a regular pairing, is a respectable record and he has looked sharp in the pre-season Europa League games. Worryingly, there is a serious lack of depth up front, with Zamora and Johnson the only two recognised strikers in the squad, assuming that it is generally accepted that Dembele and Dempsey are far more comfortable in attacking midfield roles. It is well known that a bid for Cameron Jerome was rejected by Birmingham, so it is clear that Jol has recognised this shortcoming and will hopefully move to bring in another forward in the next few weeks.

The back four, the bedrock of our success over the last few seasons, is another area of the pitch in which it is difficult to ascertain Jol’s intentions. Hangeland is a certain starter in the centre of defence, whilst the shrewd acquisition of John Arne Riise at left back looks to have considerably strengthened a position that posed the team a few problems at times last season as Carlos Salcido struggled to adapt to the Premier League. What is intriguing is Jol’s plans for the other centre half spot; occupied immaculately by Aaron Hughes for the past three seasons, it seems that Jol is strongly considering playing Philippe Senderos, judging from his team selections in the Europa League so far. Senderos has looked impressive every time he has played for us, but to break up a partnership as reliable as Hughes and Hangeland is a risky move. What is more, Jol appears to favour Hughes over Chris Baird, many people’s player of last season, at right back. This would be disappointing for two reasons; firstly Baird, popular amongst the crowd for his commitment and professionalism, has developed into a reliable and consistent performer and worked very hard into making that position his own over the past 12 months. Secondly, Hughes, calm and composed in the centre of defence, doesn’t look anywhere near as comfortable on the right, and in fact reminds this observer of the Sanchez-era Baird. Personally I believe that the most sensible policy is the age-old ‘if it isn’t broke don’t fix it’ mantra and simply stick with Hughes and Hangeland in the centre, with Baird and Riise at full back. Senderos has shown what he can do and has proven himself a more than worthy alternative at centre half, however unfortunately for him he is competing with one of the best central defensive partnerships in the country and may have to be patient for a bit longer.

Along with Riise, Jol has moved swiftly to bring in two young midfielders to freshen up an area of the pitch in the form of Marcel Gecov and Pajtim Kasami, signings that will hopefully quell the perennial fears about what our fate will be when Murphy finally ‘loses his legs’. In truth, very little is known about these two. Gecov, signed for around £700k, featured in the Euro Under-21 Championship, notably contributing two assists against England, and is apparently a more defensively minded midfielder. Kasami, formerly on the books of Liverpool, on the face of it seems the slightly more exciting prospect at £3.5m; mustering 24 appearances in all competitions at the age of 19 in a team featuring the likes of Javier Pastore is more than impressive. A more attacking player, Kasami put in an impressive cameo against RNK Split, sending a free kick just over the bar, getting stuck into several meaty challenges and linking up well around the box all in the space of 5 minutes. As for departures, the loan move of David Stockdale to Ipswich coinciding with his signing a new 4 year contract seems beneficial for all parties involved, whilst the club has also allowed a number of first team squad players go, most notably John Pantsil (to Leicester), Jonathan Greening (to Forest) and Europa League hero Zoltan Gera (to West Brom). Jol’s next moves will hopefully be to plug the gaps that these departures have left and to bring in another striker; if he is able to do this then the squad will be looking strong.

Of course, a strong squad will be even more vital than usual this season as we once again find ourselves in the Europa League, the competition in which some of the finest moments ever to take place inside Craven Cottage occurred. Qualifying via the less exulted and somewhat derided fair play back door won’t bother our fans who simply yearn for more unforgettable nights against Europe’s glitterati under the floodlights by the Thames, despite the resulting consumption of the traditional pre-season friendly programme by qualifying games beginning, absurdly enough, in June. Progression so far has been relatively untroubled, however we appear to have drawn the short straw by being paired with Dnipro of Ukraine in the next round, a club flush with cash and led by Juande Ramos, the man who poached Jol’s job from him at Spurs. No doubt this will be the ‘angle’ spun on the game by the headline-hungry media, but the reality is that the club has to focus on the game itself because this team are a genuine banana skin, the passage around which will not be aided by UEFA’s bizarre decision to switch the ties due to Spurs being due to play at home in the second leg. After the dizzying highs we experienced in the 2009-10 campaign it would be a disaster for us to be knocked out so early, so it is vital that we get a good lead at home on the 18th to take to what will undoubtedly be a hostile environment in Ukraine for the second leg.

What would a successful season entail for Fulham then? Well, given that we have just gone through another summer of unsettling transition, a position of comfort in the league will be welcome. In reality, our league form will depend on how far we progress in the Europa League; we finished 12th when we reached the final last time, a position that definitely have been much higher without that most welcome of distractions. As always, the cup competitions are the opportunity for the club to gain some silverware which would top off a marvellous few seasons. Can we repeat our Europa League run? Perhaps not, but at the same time there won’t be many teams wanting to draw us at any stage after the scalps we claimed two years ago. And it’s been 36 years and counting since the Whites walked out at Wembley; we must be due another appearance by now, surely?