In the first of his ‘Letters from America’, the host of Cottage Talk Russ Goldman explains why he backs Martin Jol’s judgement and believes the Dutch coach can take Fulham even higher
I wasn’t the only one who raised a few eyebrows at Martin Jol’s early decisions when he took over from Mark Hughes last summer. He broke up the Hangeland-Hughes axis, shifting the Northern Irish skipper to right back to accommodate Philippe Senderos, who had an excellent first full season at Fulham. I liked the way he wasn’t sticking to the established formula and wasn’t afraid to make changes.
There were some noticeable disappointments in the early weeks as the Whites continued to look worryingly toothless on the road and the early end to our European advantage still rankles, but it became clear that Jol was trying to change the footballing philosophy at Motspur Park, a big project that was last begun when Roy Hodgson joined a sinking ship back in 2008. Since that period, Fulham have always improved in the second half of the season – and getting us out of the blocks quickly is Jol’s main task come August.
The switch from a staid 4-4-2 to the fluidity of the continent (is it a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3?) represented radical change. Everyone at Stamford Bridge dismissed our chances when we saw that he’d left out Zamora and Johnson, preferring young Orlando Sa up front on his own and shifting Moussa Dembele to midfield. In the first instance, he laid down a marker ahead of the upcoming transfer window and Dembele’s redeployment proved a masterstroke.
Jol’s promotion of some of our burgeoning talent is perhaps the most exciting aspect of his reign. Fulham haven’t really bought through young talent since Jean Tigana nurtured the likes of Sean Davis and Zat Knight but, under Jol, Fulham have invested heavily in their academy set-up – bolstering their under-18 squad with a number of impressive signings – and the emergence of Kerim Frei, who frightened the life out of Chelsea the League Cup derby, was followed by Alex Kacaniklic, who took the confidence of a loan spell at Watford, straight into the first team.
Jol’s not averse to playing ‘horses for courses’ and tweaking the tactics based on how the opposition will play. It’s less programmed and more proactive, which his side far less predictable. That’s tricky for the manager in the other dugout but it means there’s a real excitement about what the boss could do every weekend.
Jol’s transfer activity has been a debating point throughout the season but it is clear that he’s planning meticulously. Fulham shipped out an unhappy Bobby Zamora and found a ready-made replacement in Pavel Pogrebnyak. That didn’t look likely when you looked at it in January – and obviously Jol will have enter the market for a striker again. But doubting Jol’s eye for a player is exceptionally harsh when you see the talent he’s identified during his time in football.
He’s clearly able to get the most out of his players. Clint Dempsey had a remarkable season – the numbers just blow you away – but even those who had a slow start were able to flourish. John Arne Riise, who began the campaign looking like a pale imitation of the energetic sibling determined to get one over on his brother when Roma visited the Cottage a couple of seasons ago, looked back to his very best by the end of the season.
Most importantly, Jol’s got a plan for the future. He wants to offer young talent a chance to shine, which is so encouraging for those on the fringes of the first-team squad. Take Pajtim Kasami as an example. He’s not made the sort of impact his early Europa League displays hinted at but since Christmas he’s been in superb shape for the reserves. Jol’s promotion of Briggs, Frei, Kacaniklic and Sa must have helped the Swiss teenager snub a swift return to Italy in January. That’s got to be the first time a Fulham player has rebuffed advances from Juventus – and that’s why Jol’s plan is worth watching.