When Mark Hughes took over the reigns at Craven Cottage last month, much was made of the difficulty of his task. Building on the success Roy Hodgson enjoyed over the past couple of years is much easier said than done and even establishing Fulham as a top-ten side is a tall order given that sheer spending power looks set to entrench the top seven. The most intriguing questions hung over just how Hughes might tweak Hodgson’s tactics and we got our first glimpse of that against Manchester United yesterday afternoon.
As I mentioned in the match preview yesterday, curbing United’s ball players in midfield was essential to getting a result. At first, it seemed as if the Fulham players hadn’t read the memo. They left Paul Scholes alarmingly free at a corner to lash home the first goal and sat off the visitors’ marauding midfield runners. The result was predictable. United enjoyed comfortably more of the ball and played with a freedom that suggested Scholes’ strike would be the first of many.
To their credit, Fulham stuck at their task and, as Dickson Etuhu grabbed the game by the scruff of the next, we saw the first of Hughes’ changes take effect. When he first arrived at Hodgson, Etuhu replaced the ebullient Jimmy Bullard and was a much more disciplined central midfield. He had a very definite role in midfield, playing as an orthodox holding midfielder, offering himself as an out ball for the defence, protecting the box four and using his physical power to break up the opposition’s attacks. It was very rare to see him in attacking positions: instead, he was the shield that allowed Danny Murphy to drive forward.
In this fixture, the Hodgson balance was reversed. Perhaps it is a realisation that Murphy’s legs can only carry him so far nowadays, but the Fuham captain sat in a much deeper, screening role yesterday, giving Etuhu the license to drive forward. This new-found freedom saw the Nigerian emerge as a goal threat – and besides should have scored with one of the shots that forced a double save from Edwin van der Sar in the first half – and supporting the attacks, time and time again, he was making a late run into the box to offer an option as the wide players prepared to send over a cross.
The heatmaps below show that he spent a greater percentage of the time in a more advanced bit of the field and his influence spread wider than the narrow central positions he was occupying in the 2008-09 win over United.
Etuhu’s use of the ball was sharper and more successful too. The Guardian chalkboards show that he all of the 33 passes he attempted found a team-mate and these were no longer the simple, square balls to Murphy that punctuated his early spells at the club. Whereas the Nigerian was sometimes ponderous in possession under Hodgson, there seemed to be an urgency to his play under Hughes. This gives Fulham a different dynamic and might help Etuhu grow as a player as well. Should he develop any more than he has already during his short stay at the Cottage, Fulham could have one hell of a player on their hands.