Martin Jol’s use of his substitutes at Sunderland was a source of major irritation last weekend. In a game that was gradually opening up, the Fulham boss waited until well into the last ten minutes to play his trump card: Bryan Ruiz. In fairness, the Costa Rican had been waiting for a few minutes for the ball to go out, but his brief cameo offered little opportunity for our £10.5m signing to influence the game. Indeed, his most notable contribution was a crucial tackle on Phil Bardsley in his own penalty area.
The debate about how to use Ruiz has focused on helping him acclimatise to English football. His only start for the club, against Blackburn back in September, resulted in a half-time substitution. Since then, he’s been solely used as a substitute, helping to stretch the play – usually with Fulham chasing a goal – to great effect. He has been a willing worker for the team, dropping deep to pick up possession, and often finding a killer pass to release a team-mate. But Fulham are lacking something in the offensive third at the moment and it seems counter-intuitive to leave a man who we signed to add flair and creativity on the bench.
There are also signs that Ruiz is getting to grips to the pace of the Premier League. His performance against Everton – not just the terrifically taken equaliser, but his harrying of the visiting defence – and the pace and power he showed as Fulham nearly clawed their way back into the game against Spurs suggest that he’s no longer overawed by the physicality of the English game. The worry in past weeks was that fielding him against some of the more physical sides could result in him being cynically nullified or, worse, pick up a serious injury.
Sooner or later, Jol will have to find a place for him in a side that is still misfiring. Tomorrow’s trip to Arsenal seems like the perfect opportunity. Match fitness isn’t a problem – Ruiz captained Costa Rica in their entertaining 2-2 draw with Spain ten days ago and comfortably lasted the whole 90 minutes. Nor are Arsenal the sort of side who will kick him out of the contest. Indeed, Ruiz might flourish by highlighting some of Arsenal’s defensive deficiencies and with the likes of Zamora and Dembele able to profit from a few more through balls, could be an assist if we are to end our awful run at Arsenal.
The obvious place to use him would be wide on the right, but if Jol opts against keeping much of his familiar line-up, he could play just behind Bobby Zamora. That might mean sacrificing Andy Johnson, but Jol has made much of his desire to have his side playing more football away from home. The resultant displays have been encouraging – and far more open than much of what we witnessed under Roy Hodgson – but this would be a bold statement of attacking intent. Ruiz certainly won’t be able to influence the game from the Emirates bench, after all.