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?

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