Our midfield is an interesting proposition this year. Under Roy we played with two inverted wingers and two sitting central midfielders, whereas Hughes gives the centre mids more freedom to go forward, and we’ve seen Duff and Davies play on their more ‘natural’ sides (they played so well last season though that it’s hard to tell where they’re more effective now, but Duff and Davies have played almost all their career on the left and right respectively). There’s been alot of focus on our lack of options upfront, but in midfield that certainly isn’t the case, we have 10 or so competing for those four positions. Let’s start with the first choice.
Danny Murphy – Originally an attacking midfielder he’s moved further back as he’s gotten older, he was never blessed with pace but you can be as fit as you want, you will deteriorate physically over time so we see many players naturally turn from attackers to midfielders to defensive players. This certainly applies to Murphy as we see from him this season, very very rarely does he break forward, playing a hybrid of playmaker and defensive midfielder. He doesn’t hit too many long passes so I don’t think you can compare him with, say, Scholes, but he keeps the ball moving and is key to our attacking play.
It is a strange role, for a ball player to be the deepest midfielder when we have the ball, but if he ventures up then his lack of pace threatens our midfield shape when we lose it, and when you’re 33 you’re never going to be able to maintain running from box to box. He uses his very astute footballing brain to rely on getting the ball back too, although shoulder to shoulder he’s not going to win out too often. Still a very good, and underrated player.
He makes the odd glaring mistake but consider how many times he touches the ball a game, it’s inevitable, so to critisise him for losing the ball too often is unfair. I think, however, this is the last season he’ll have to be first choice at Fulham and with his contract running out in 2011 it will be interesting to see what happens. You can see already that he can get heavy legged towards the end of games (and quite often actually he’s subbed in the last 10 minutes) and as I mention, his lack of pace and strength is a fairly big drawback, but you won’t find many more intelligent players than Danny, nor are there too many influential players in the Fulham team, so for now I’m happy with him.
Dickson Etuhu – Etuhu’s a strange one. He can be really impressive one moment and do something really stupid the next. Mind you, I like him. With Hughes playing natural wide players instead of inverted ones there’s more space in the middle of the pitch which we can expose. As I’ve mentioned before, Murphy doesn’t make many forward runs but Etuhu’s been given a new lease of life as an all action box to box midfielder, compared to the ball winner he was under Roy.
Physically he is a specimen, so you can see Mark Hughes’ reasoning and he does seem to be relishing it. He was my September player of the month and scored his second league goal for us against Blackpool with just one of those forward runs. He’s a good tackler too, although I don’t think he throws his weight around enough which might be ironic considering the whole dirty tackle debate we’ve been involved with lately, but when you are the size of Etuhu you really should be exploiting it more. He made one superb tackle against West ham but didn’t make another one in the game and you have to ask yourself why.
He’s also not a great passer of the ball. Whether it’s down to lack of technique or not being able to see the right pass (a fair few times you’ll see him pass a simple ball to the opposition, very frustrating) I dunno, I suspect it’s a combination of the both. Infact, in general his technique is quite poor which means that short quick passing around opposition boxes breaks down if he’s the centre of it, but in the role he’s playing this season he hasn’t done too badly. Undoubtedly though him and Murphy are our first choice central midfielders and they compliment each other well. I don’t think either of their positions is under too much threat.
Damien Duff – Duff is another player whose career was revived under Roy, I never predicted he’s be as good for us as he was last season. He’s quick, agile, two footed, clever, good on the ball, although not quite as brilliant as he was for Chelsea and he’s not as quick as he was. This season however he’s been in pretty poor form, I don’t think he’s playing as well as he could do. He is a very good player no doubt about it but he hasn’t quite clicked so far and personally I’d play Dempsey on the left over him. He’s another Fulham player the wrong side of 30 but he’s still got another couple of years in him.
Simon Davies – Signed a three year contract earlier this season which was a suprise to me considering the injury problems he had last season. Very intelligent player and capable technically too. He’s not too quick though which is an obvious drawback to a wide man, nor does he have many tricks in his locker, which is why I prefer him on the left because then he doesn’t rely on going round the outside of a man and crossing from the by line. He seems to keep himself fit though and he works bloody hard, on the ball he’s capable of a good cross and his movement off it is really good which is why I like him. If he can keep himself injury free I’m sure he’ll stay in the team for another couple of years.
So that’s our first choice midfield quartet, so who’s challenging them? On the wings which is very intereting to look at, Gera, Dempsey, Riise, Davies and Duff who are all similarly talented players. Tough for Hughes then…
Clint Dempsey – Really good player. Strong, technically gifted, puts himself about. One of our best, I think, with Hangeland, Zamora, Dembele and Schwarzer. It’s funny though, he’s been here 2 and a half years yet still no one knows where his best position is. Upfront? Second striker? Left or right wing? Well, when he nailed down a position under Roy it was on the left (with Davies on the right) and I’d agree with that. Upfront he has too little space to do what he wants to do, and he flops down alot up there anyway. He’s too attack minded to be a central midielder, and his qualities aren’t in pace or crossing (although he’s not bad at either), so on the left is where he should play. Not only that but when he comes in to the middle it frees up space for Salcido to go around the outside, so they’ll compliment each other well.
Dempsey’s all round play is generally pretty good, although his passing could be improved. When he cuts on on that right foot and he has space in the channels he doesn’t find the killer ball well enough. He also has an annoying habit of shooting from long distances when in reality he hasn’t scored too many from outside the box. Amkar Perm, Juventus, Stoke, all nice goals but the vast majority are from less than 18 yards, he’s fairly clinical when he finds himself in the box. His strength in the air is another reason why he’d benefit playing out wide because he can dangerously attack the far post when crosses come into the box. It’s a shame he’s missing a burst of acceleration because with that he’d be absolute class, already he’s pretty tricky but the lack of burst over 10 yards means that he can’t use a trick to get the ball past the opposition.
Zoltan Gera – Last year’s man of the season, pretty fortunately in my opinion because I thought Bobby was absolute class but few can argue with his form in the Europe. He relished in that second forward role last season, and that is his best position no doubt, but he, like Clint (and Dembele but almost no chance he’ll play on the wing with Zamora out), is also competing for a place on the wing. In his first season Gera wasn’t very impressive, he showed glimpses of what made Benfica and Galatasary equally interested in we were, but never showed it and lost his place to Dempsey. However, the game which turned around the Fulham fan’s opinions was at home against Arsenal, where he was exceptional on the right wing. He’s suprised Hughes too, after his great hat trick against Werder Bremen Hughes admitted he didn’t realise how good Gera was.
Gera’s similar to Dempsey in many ways, although perhaps with a better touch, less dynamism, less flair and with less pace. However, unlike Dempsey he seems very uncomfortable on the left (which is where he played before he first got dropped), which is strange. He’s good in the air, intelligent , hard worker, very adept technically so if given freedom to roam from the wing and into the pockets of space in the channels he can be pretty dangerous. Unlike Dempsey he’s a good passer and he can find through balls much better, so give him time on the ball and he’ll hurt you. Thing is I don’t know how he’s going to hold down a place so I won’t be suprised to see him go, maybe even in January. Forgive me if I’m wrong but I think his contract runs out on 2011, so let’s see what happens. Like what happened with Nevland, it’ll be a shame to see him go but you wouldn’t blame him.
Bjorn Helge-Riise – Probably our most natural wide player of the lot. He has a brilliant cross on him, he gets about the pitch alot and he’s a hard worker but other than that he doesn’t have too much quality really. Typical of a Scandinavian he’s physically pretty decent, not too quick or strong but quick and strong enough. I don’t think he’s as good as the other 4 players we have competing for places, although he does have something which the others don’t in that he can play the central midfield role quite well so maybe he can compete with Etuhu for the box to box man. However, I think he’s a bit too headless chicken for it. I really wouldn’t be suprised to see him leave which would be a shame because I actually like him and I’m sure he’d be a good asset for a team in the lower half of the league, but with the quality infront of him he has almost no chance of getting a game.
In the middle of the pitch we perhaps aren’t quite so blessed, with Dikagcoi and Greening competing with Murphy and Etuhu
Jonathan Greening – What a strange player. Appears to do nothing but does it well. I really don’t understand him. He’s not great on the ball, he’s not a good tackler, but he’s still a decent player. I doubt that makes sense but that’s the only way I can really describe him. He is, to his credit, another hard working clever player but he seems to have not too much quality, maybe he appreciates this and so keeps things simple and affecting the game that way. Definately competing with Murphy for a place instead of Etuhu because he’s not too quick or strong, although he is versatile, being able to play as a playmaker, slightly deeper or on the right or left, where he played against Basel and Portsmouth last season.
Kagisho Digakcoi – ‘KG’ is a potentially exciting player. We plucked him for a million or two from the South African league, and at 24 he’s probably a late bloomer, but every time I’ve seen him he’s impressed me. He’s strong, although not too quick or tall, but also really good on the ball, suprisingly good actually considering the level of football he’d been playing before, and strikes me as a natural Danny Murphy replacement. He has the best of both worlds because if he plays deep like Danny does then he’ll have more time to make those long passes (and his ball for Shabalala’s goal against Mexico still stands in the memory, what a fantastic pass that was) but unlike him KG is athletic enough to impose himself on other players. Definately one to watch out for, so far every time he’s threatened to make a mark on the first time he’s got himself sent off or got injured which means this season is key to what he does in the future.
Chris Baird – Baird has proven himself in a number of roles with us since overcoming his shakey start. At right back, centre half or in the middle of the pitch, he’s proven to be a very adept utility player. Even at left back he’s done a job, I remember him coming on against Arsenal a couple of years ago with 10 minutes to go replacing Kallio to play his part in a memorable win. After injuries he won a place in the middle of the pitch, although he’s most comfortable as a centre back he applied himself very well in this position.
For a defender Baird’s suprisingly comfortable on the ball with a decent range of passing, and of course being a defender means that he’s a good tackler, positionally adept, strong and disciplined. So, like Dikagcoi, he could be effective in the role that Murphy does right now. The reason why I wouldn’t play him there ahead of those two, although it is tight between him and KG because of the experience of the two players, is because of his first touch and his vision aren’t great and he’s pretty slow. However, a player doesn’t play in two cup finals if he’s two bob and he certainly has done well for us when given a chance. Really pleased to have such a versatile player on our books.
Note: forgot Baird the first time round, edited him in, apologies Chris!