When I was at university, I went to one of those guest lecturers by ‘a leading American businessman’. Although I considered myself reasonably well informed (alright – I had a subscription to the FT and the Economist for a while), I’d never heard of him. What I took away from the hour was that this guy was hard. He reminded us that business was tough – and said that to get ahead you had to crush your competitors, something he emphasised by squeezing a paper cup until it broke. I remember thinking that if such a dracanion approach was necessary, then I probably wasn’t cut out for business. I just couldn’t see myself being a headbanger, although some of my current work colleagues might disagree.
Why I am bringing this up? Well, Fulham have had a solid start to the season. But there’s a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that it could of been better. Nothing new about that – my generation is apparently always dissatisfied with our lot. But we might have nicked a few more points and been ahead of Liverpool, rather than been one of the sides journalists are mentioning disdainfully when they speak of Liverpool’s lowly league position, had been more ruthless.
There have been countless times this season when we’ve not been able to press home our superiority. Burnley at the weekend was just the latest example. Though Owen Coyle’s side improved in the second half, the game should have been beyond them by half time. I don’t blame Erik Nevland or Damien Duff – both were denied by smart saves from Brian Jensen – but it is a worry that we can’t take more of our chances. That’s what seperates a mid-table side from one that treats European competition as the norm rather than an exciting adventure.
So, how do we become a bit more ruthless? My American businessman said you had to play to your strengths and identify and improve areas where you weren’t up to scratch. In Fulham terms, does that mean a change of strategy? Not necessarily. Roy Hodgson’s become more adventurous away from home as time has gone on and we were a lot more progressive at Turf Moor than we might have been a year ago. We might need to abandon the central midfield screen – and ask our two in the middle to make a few more threatening runs.
It probably means upgrades in personnel. That might sound harsh on Bobby Zamora, who has had a fair better season that his first at Craven Cottage. He’s scoring goals with regualarity now and is on course to reach the 10 league goal mark that Brian McBride, who Zamora has been compared unfavourably to in the past, surprisingly never managed to break. I’d be inclined to keep Bobby but be looking to add extra attacking options. Andy Johnson’s very good on his day, but injuries have curtailed his Fulham career so far. Erik Nevland’s intelligent and a good finisher but lacks the pace to carry him past defenders or the stamina to last 90 minutes. You get the sense he can’t go on for ever either. Diomansy Kamara’s got an operation to recover from – and he may not see his long-term future as being in London.
The answer is probably a mixture of three things. A slightly more aggressive strategy, which might mean reducing some of the defensive responsibilities of our front pairing. I’m convinced that all that tracking back means our forwards don’t create or score as many chances as they should. This isn’t an option that the ever cautious Roy is likely to be too keen on.
Some hard work on the training ground might be called for. It was the methodical Motspur Park sessions that drilled Hodgson’s desired defensive shape into the players. It might have driven them to distraction but it got results. Surely, something similar can be done at the other end of the pitch? There’s got to be a bit more science to it than a few more hours shooting practice.
Finally, there’s dipping into the transfer market, which is always exciting, as you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. Buying in January is not as reliable as in the summer as the high-quality talent isn’t as readily available; more often than not you have to make do with somebody else’s cast-offs. But Hodgson’s fashioned a smashing little team that way. Whatever he decides to do, Roy will have to add ruthless to our DNA if Fulham are to progress. And that’s fine – just so long as we don’t become as loathsome as my American businessman.