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.