Moving it on from the midfield, I thought I’d take a moment to acknowledge our defensive strength. Much was made of it last season – when we only conceded 34 league goals in 38 games (the fourth best record in the division) – but Fulham remain solid at the back this season. At the time of writing, we’ve let in only 16 goals in 14 league matches and conceded just six in eight European fixtures.
The reasons for this would strike you as obvious. Hangeland and Hughes have gelled us a defensive partnership and very rarely looked rattled by their opponents (Saturday was a rare exception for Hangeland). But it goes deeper than our spine. There’s a commitment and a work ethic about this Fulham side that was first in evidence for me at West Ham this season. It might seem strange to pick out a game where we conceded a late equaliser as an example of defensive durability, but the number of shots we blocked in that game showed the value of midfielders tracking back, defensive shape and positioning. Take a look at the chalkboard:
It isn’t just a matter of throwing your body in the way. Under the cosh, clearing your lines is just as important. It’s not something Fulham have historically been particularly strong at. Plenty of goals were scored in the Sanchez era from miscued clearances or missed opportunities to clear. At Wigan, when were under the cosh, a remarkable percentage of our clearances did the job.
Finally, of course, the hallmark of Hodgson’s Fulham has been his insistence that midfielders and attackers get through their far share of defensive work. At times, this has left our forwards unable to create as many chances as they might have otherwise done – but it’s made us a lot more solid. Take a look at our chalkboard from the Liverpool game. Notice how many tackles (at the top) were made by midfielders and attackers and, in the second one, how high up the pitch were able to pinch the ball. Baird was particularly effective.
Good managers build from the back. The story everybody tells about George Graham sorting out Arsenal’s defence before anything else rings true today. Hangeland was Hodgson’s first signing – the dominant centre back we’d been in need of since Chris Coleman’s car crash. The beauty of it is that Hodgson hasn’t stopped there.