In the past year observing both Fulham’s games on the pitch and its fans off of it, I’ve noticed that the biggest personnel complaint seems to be the aging (and as a result, diminishing) Danny Murphy.
While Murphy has enjoyed a successful stay at the Cottage (no one will ever forget Portsmouth 2008), many feel that the game is passing him up; others feel it already has. His pace is gone, and what he provides in terms of passing and possession he equally lacks in defensive pressure and scoring threat.
If you’ve been watching Fulham for at least the last year or so, you’ll likely agree that Murphy’s days are numbered. The strenuous 2009-10 campaign saw Murphy wear down with an increased work load, and his form dipped directly with more minutes.
The captain has served admirably during a fine run of form in Fulham, but it’s time to begin the search to find the next player to fill his role.
Disclaimer: I’m not advocating the benching of Murphy. He still has value, and this side lacks the central depth and leadership to drop its captain. On the contrary, I’m talking about either a) promoting from within a player who can learn from Murphy before he leaves or b) finding a player from the transfer market to play beside Murphy until his stay is done.
The problem with a) is that Fulham don’t really have a number of promising central midfield prospects. The problem with b), at the same time, is that the transfer window is closing daily, and Fulham have not been seriously linked with a central midfielder since the Steve Sidwell scenario was shot down.
Regardless, there are some candidates, both from the outside and in. Let’s begin with the latter.
Fulham’s very own utility man seems to be a fan favorite to see more minutes in the centre of midfield
The Northern Irish international was a revelation in the 2009-10 squad, which due to injury required the defender to slide into a midfield role. He was superb there, breaking up attacks left and right with an unmatched work rate and a knack for anticipation. His defensive skills translated sublimely higher up the pitch.
Baird is also a dependable passer. His play at right back before the 2009-10 season proved that, even if he lacked for pace, he could play a pass and hold possession. His passing range is well above average, and he doesn’t lose the ball with reckless attacks or absurd decision-making.
However, Baird’s passing lacks the vision and creativity of Murphy’s. While he is safe and sturdy, rarely will he pick out a pass like this one that very literally creates something out of nothing.
He also fails to make up for Murphy’s lack of pace or scoring threat. He’s not the distance-shooter that Murphy is, and he has been caught out on pace more than a few times for the Whites.
In all truth, Baird is at his best in a central role as a complement to a creative midfielder. He’s a classic holder to be put beside a penetrator, and unless his game has evolved during the offseason, I’m not convinced he’s the heir-apparent to Murphy.
Simon Davies/Clint Dempsey
Both are natural wide midfielders (or even second strikers), but both are fully capable of handling creative duties in the centre.
For Davies, his skill set matches excellently with a creative role in the center. His technique on the ball is top-notch, he’s a superb passer, and his work rate is as good as they come. He’s played this role for Tottenham and Everton extensively in the past, and he’s done it a bit for Fulham the last few seasons.
The only real downside to moving Davies centrally is losing his vision for cuts. He’s not the quickest player, but he’s crafty at beating fullbacks down the line or cutting right inside of them. He’s also a fine crosser of the ball, a skill lost for the most part when moved to the centre. Also, at 30 years old, he doesn’t provide much cover long term, though I imagine he’s got another three good seasons in him at top form, especially considering his international retirement.
Still, I could see Davies making a real impact here. He has the creativity of Murphy and the work rate of a holding mid, and his skill matches perfectly in this role.
Dempsey, on the other hand, developed him game in MLS as a central attacking midfielder. He has played the top of the diamond before in college as well as with the New England Revolution prior to joining Fulham. With a strong holding mid like Baird or Etuhu behind him, he could lead a midfield attack with Davies and Duff flanked wide.
In fact, much of Dempsey’s international work is done centrally. Granted, he begins games out wide, but he and Landon Donovan often switch sides in the middle of play for the US National Team, bringing both into central creative roles. It’s not an out-and-out centre midfield position by any means, but don’t think that Dempsey couldn’t be comfortable in the middle of the pitch.
Again, with Dempsey in the centre, Fulham would lose his greatest strength: his ability to run at and take on defenders. He would still be able to do this, but from a median area it would take away shooting angles he loves to exploit.
Of the two, I’d prefer Davies in the center of a flat four midfield. Alongside a holding mid and with Dempsey and Damien Duff wide, Fulham would have a particularly effective midfield going forward.
The advantage with Davies or Dempsey in a central role is that it gets the best Fulham attackers on the pitch in the stead of the declining Murphy, but I can’t say with anything but speculation that either would be a better option in the centre than the captain.
The other central options like Jonathan Greening, Kashigo Dickagoi, and Etuhu are too defensive minded to replace Murphy’s offensive play, so they aren’t worth considering right now. The other central options like Jonathan Greening, Kashigo Dickagoi, and Etuhu are too defensive minded to replace Murphy’s offensive play, so they aren’t worth considering right now.
With that said, the best option is to look elsewhere. One of the strengths of the squad this season is depth wide (Duff, Dempsey, Davies, and Gera), and it should make for a fresh attack every week. It would be foolish to forfeit that depth just to play players out of position.
Why not look to the market for solutions? Here are some possible names with brief mentions of why they might be options as creative central midfielders for Fulham
Just 20 years old, the Icelandic international is overflowing with talent. He’s probably the least familiar name on the list, but he’s put on some fantastic displays for Reading. With 18 goals in 41 appearances for Reading, he provides a true scoring threat in an attacking midfield role. How many players at his age are capable of this?
The good news is that he has expressed interest in coming to Craven Cottage before. The bad news is that he is in the first year of three remaining on his contract and would be an expensive purchase, relatively speaking.
Rumors from Icelandic media are linking him to Fulham, but take that for what very little it is worth.
Neither O’Hara nor the rest of the names on this list have been directly linked to Fulham, but they all provide the skill we need and are relatively accessible. O’Hara impressed on loan at Portsmouth last season, earning club player of the year honors.
Back at Tottenham, he might be available for transfer due to an excess of depth in centre midfield for Spurs and a rocky relationship with Harry Redknapp. Redknapp publically criticized the 23-year-old last season when O’Hara expressed a desire for Fulham to beat Tottenham in the FA Cup so he could play at Wembley (as a loanee from Spurs, he was ineligible to compete against his club.
If he really is on his way out at Tottenham, he would be a cheap buy and a ready replacement. His youth also makes him a long-term solution, and he could spend the next year or two learning under Murphy.
This is a buy only based on skill and availability. Jenas is not getting the minutes he wants at Spurs, and he would get them for the Whites. He didn’t even travel for their Champions League matchup with Young Bhoys.
That said, his personality excites very few teams, and throwing him in the mix under a new manager might be a catastrophe for team chemistry.
Could Mark Hughes get the talent out of Jenas that he’s never seemed to express fully? I’m wary about this one, as I’m not sure he would add anything to an already cohesive dressing room. He’s also the oldest of the suggested targets, so unless management can get him for cheap and manage his ego, it’s probably best to keep this one on the backburner.
Johnson’s injury and drug issues have been well-documented, and he wouldn’t be available until midseason.
Still, he has a good history with Mark Hughes, who constantly invested confidence into the lad at City. He could be on the off if he’s not needed to meet the homegrown players quota, and Craven Cottage could be a place of redemption for him.
West Ham’s financial woes make Noble a likely sale. Though he’s the longest serving Hammer in the first team, he may be the odd man out in a competitive West Ham midfield.
He’s young, talented, and should mix in well with the squad. His chemistry with Scott Parker could reflect on a possible match with Murphy, giving Fulham two industrious, crafty players in the middle.
Of the buys, he could be the most likely to join if pursued.
What do you think? Who would you like to see join? Comment below.