It’s not fashionable to praise Martin Jol these days. If you believe what you read on the messageboards, he’s utterly clueless.
Walking into Stamford Bridge yesterday, it was a popular opinion. With no Zamora or Johnson, playing Orlando Sa alone up front looked to be asking for trouble. Closer inspection of the teamsheet had Fulham hearts trembling further. The midfield looked ridiculously adventurous: just Danny Murphy as a conventional central midfielder, with three players who could have filled the holding role alongside the skipper on the bench. Cue much chuntering and gnashing of teeth. But, what do you know? It worked flawlessly.
Jol admitted afterwards it was something of a gamble. His decision to ‘do something different,’ prompted apparently by a lack of forward options, also gave us a first glimpse of the Dutch-style system that could become commonplace at Craven Cottage should the manager complete his project of overhauling Fulham’s ageing squad. In his first press conference after his appointment, Jol had talked about wanting to play with two wingers, but this was the first time we’d really seen his side line up that offensively. And at Chelsea of all places.
Kerim Frei would have been full of confidence having ran rings around Chelsea in the League Cup game three months ago. His first league start was an encouraging one, even if he didn’t have quite as devastating an impact. But there’s more than enough about Frei to excite you. He provides genuine pace down the flanks, something Fulham have been lacking since Luis Boa Morte, and is bold enough to run at the full-back. There was one burst across the Chelsea defence in the first half and another slalom run that brought a booking for a bemused Jose Bosignwa in the second half – plus a few signs that his fitness is improving. Whether he had been fading at the end of games, Frei was a willing runner well into the closing minutes and showed laudable discipline in tracking back too.
Even if the gentleman – and I use the term loosely – sitting next yesterday to me didn’t agree, Bryan Ruiz is gradually becoming an integral part of Jol’s side. Once again there were flashes of absolute brilliance. The 70-yard pass he pinged in front of Sa in the first half was majestic as was the ball-juggling in a congested part of the field that helped him squeeze past two Chelsea defenders. The clever turn away from Ashley Cole conjured the equaliser from where there shouldn’t have been space for a cross. Ruiz exudes confidence and, if he continues to improve, could turn out to be the fulcrum of an exciting, attacking side.
I’ve remarked on Clint Dempsey’s display elsewhere – and his performances over recent years make him a key member of our side. The American’s improvement is highlighted by the fact that Jol is the first Fulham manager not to have benched Dempsey, who was superb in a slightly different role to normal yesterday. Equally excellent in an unfamiliar position was Moussa Dembele, whose defensive diligence and tackling (he won ten of his twelve tackles yesterday) was a key part of how Jol’s side effectively stifled Chelsea. Frank Lampard cut a frustrated figure when he was withdrawn early by Andre Vilas-Boas but the ageing midfielder barely hinted at the kind of influence he usually enjoys against us.
Both Dembele and Dempsey got forward to good effect – and the pair might have scored in the first half. Their runs from advanced midfield positions certainly unsettled a Chelsea defence that never really handled the movement behind Sa, who put in a real shift without a great deal of luck up front. Behind them, Murphy might have given the ball away a little too often but his was an organised and reassuring display, guarding the splendid back four.
This system might be retired after a single outing but it’s success hints at the variety of options at Jol’s disposal. It also might point to a slightly more nuanced picture of our manager than the one I was afforded by Tottenham fans upon his arrival. Put simply, it amounted to: ‘great guy, but tactically naive’. Not yesterday, against all expectations.