Before Saturday’s win over QPR, Fulham had mustered just 27 away wins from 200 Premier League games. That poor return that prompted conservatism to be the order of the day on the road. Roy Hodgson was the master at setting his side up not to be beaten, recognising that the task of turning the team into dominant away performers was beyond even him. The wily old fox’s method was effective but functional: no frills, rather than thrilling.
To his credit, Mark Hughes had provoked something of a step change by the time he relinquished the reins at the Cottage last summer. By the end of his tenure, Fulham were something approaching sparkling on the road, playing with far more freedom than under any manager since Jean Tigana. Some of our performances at the tail end of that season were sublime: Fulham completely dismantled Sunderland and pulled Birmingham apart with some incisive football.
Martin Jol came in with a remit to reshape Fulham’s squad. That he has done – gradually, rather than with a great fanfare – and he’s been tinkering with the tactics since day one. The 4-2-3-1 system didn’t seem to suit or please Bobby Zamora but any lingering doubts about whether his sanctioning his departure to Rangers was a good idea must have been extinguished by Saturday’s derby. Pavel Pogrebnyak seems a far better fit for the marauding striker’s role than Zamora as demonstrated by his physicality, eagerness and ability to run in behind defences.
Jol’s got several combinations he can try in midfield. When he requires steel, he can turn to the combative Dickson Etuhu but, if guile is required, the decision to drop Moussa Dembele into a deeper role seems inspired. I’ve pondered where the Belgian should play at length before – because he’s not a natural striker or wide player, but since being asked to play in central midfield at Chelsea, Dembele has shone in that position. His ability to drift past opponents comes to fore when he can carry the ball forward and, for an essentially offensive player, Dembele’s deceptively strong in the tackle.
Bryan Ruiz is now also showing signs of adapting to the English game. There’s no point in denying that he had a slow start – with his debut against Blackburn being almost painful. But the Costa Rican shown demonstrated his class with two terrific finishes at home to Everton and Bolton and he’s also made two goals with cleverly crafted passes – at home to West Brom and again on Saturday. The link-up play between Ruiz and Dembele is sublime at times, as it was for the goal at Loftus Road.
It was in the build up to the match-settling strike that Fulham’s new found fluidity earned its reward. Dembele, receiving a quickly taken free-kick from Danny Murphy, glided away from the attentions of Samba Diakite and slipped a low pass into Ruiz. The Belgian ran forwards into space, adhering to the old principles of pass and move, and was found by a cleverly disguised return ball from Ruiz. The rapid nature of the one-two disorientated the QPR defence allowing Dembele to carry the ball towards the penalty area. Then came the moment of awe-inspiring skill, an incredible back-heel that released Pogrebnyak as three Rangers players converged on Dembele, and the Russian made the finish look remarkably easy.
The interplay between Fulham’s front five – with Dempsey often darting into dangerous areas and Andy Johnson deployed almost as a right winger as match drifted on – meant Rangers had great difficulty in tracking our forward runners. It is a method that Jol has obviously run through on the training ground and the movement is certainly more unpredictable than under pressure managers. It hints at a greater expansiveness to Fulham’s away displays in future, particularly if the team are allowed the team and space in which to operate as they were in the first half by QPR.
There’s still a troubling tendency to sit deeper in the second half – or when Fulham are protecting a lead but this should be ironed out over time. Jol has talked about needing to score 60 goals to be able to challenge for a top eight spot so increasing our attacking potency should be on his mind come the summer. The team already looks far more threatening going forward as his alterations began to take effect so imagine would sort of impact the introduction of the promising Kerim Frei as a first team regular may have.
For now, though, we should smile at the progress during what is clearly a transitional season. It could be awful lot worse (just ask Andreas Vilas-Boas) and there are more than a few glimpses of an exciting future ahead.