Much of the post-Villa discussion has focused around the midfield. The central midfield choices of a manager aren’t exactly a new dilemma. Bullard and Murphy was seen as too lightweight at the start of the 2008/09 season and Dickson Etuhu has divided opinion almost since his arrival. For my money, Etuhu offers something that we didn’t have before. He’s a tireless worker, an added layer of protection as he shields the back four and can break the opposition’s play up very effectively. But, as we’ve noted before, his range of passing can be very limited.
With Danny Murphy often dropping into deeper positions than in previous years, there’s a need for more adfventurous work from his partner in central midfield. With the opposition regularly seeking to quell the threat posed by Murphy, who remains Fulham’s creative hub, Etuhu will naturally see more of the ball. Unfortunately, on Saturday, the regularity with which he gave it away (sometimes dangerously in our own half), highlighted the real flaw in his game. On the occasions when he was pressed by the opposition and attempted something greater than the simple ball, things often went awry, as the Chalkboard below shows:
Gradually, Fulham saw more of the ball as Saturday’s game went on, particularly in midfield. The stats show that Etuhu was the poorest passer of our four midfielders. Eighteen of his 59 passes went astray, leaving him with a success rate of 69.5%. Damien Duff was the most productive, with 21 successful out of 24 attempted (87.5%), followed by Murphy (44 of 55, 80%) and then Clint Dempsey (31 out of 40, 77.5%). Clearly numbers don’t tell us the full story, but they do offer an indication of how successfully a player performs.
The solution for many is simple. Replace Etuhu with Steve Sidwell, who had an impressive run in the side towards the end of last season. Sidwell’s not seen too much action under Martin Jol yet – and there’s no doubt that he offers more than the Nigerian. He’s certainly more of a box-to-box player and poses a greater goal threat. But by picking Sidwell, you dramatically alter the combativeness of the Fulham midfield. Murphy might have made more tackles than any other Fulham midfielder last year – and attained a healthy success rate – but you feel the back door’s more firmly shut with Etuhu alongside him.
I suspect that Jol may adopt something of a rotation policy. Etuhu could be used in the more physical matches, where his tenacious qualities will be required. You’d think that Wolves on Sunday would be the sort of game made for him. It was noticeable that when Etuhu dropped deeper in the second half on Saturday and started challenging the likes of Heskey, Delph and Petrov for high balls, he became a lot more effective. But when guile and greater penetration are required, it might be time for Sidwell. It will interesting to see who starts against Dnipro on Thursday.
There’s no doubt Etuhu is still a crucial part of this Fulham side. It would also be churlish not to recognise that he’s made great strides since signing for the club. But he’ll need to keep the ball a better if Fulham are to kick on this season.