Pre-seasons always bring panic. Thankfully for Fulham this summer there hasn’t been the feverish speculation about who the new manager might be, but there’s been plenty of angst about the nucleus of a successful side being disrupted. I’m not going to row back from what I’ve written previously about Danny Murphy, but Martin Jol has been given the freedom to freshen up what was an ageing and one-dimensional squad, and just because we might lose the rigid conventions and structure that has characterised the club’s steady progression since the Hodgson days doesn’t mean that things are destined to go horribly wrong.
The exits from Motspur Park – Murphy apart – are largely unexpected. We all admired Andy Johnson’s endeavour but the sober truth is that he was never the same after being ‘literally banjoed’ by Dmitry Belorukov just as he was striking up a strong partnership with his new QPR team-mate. If we’re being brutally honest that cynical bodycheck – and Fulham’s subsequent lack of strikers – forced Roy Hodgson to rethink his approach and afforded Zoltan Gera the chance to shine on the European stage. The cold statistics – 27 goals in 110 appearances over four years – suggest Johnson failed to justify either the considerable initial outlay or his reported £40,000-a-week wages.
Orlando Sa was a low-risk purchase and, unfortunately, he’ll always be remembered for his part in that shambles against Odense. The Portuguese forward was let go by Jose Mourinho because of concerns about his fitness and pace and, although Sa scored a smart goal at Carrow Road last Christmas, his failure to convert a much more presentable chance moments later hinted at his unpredictability. Pavel Pogrebnyak’s wage demands were extortionate – despite his lightning start – although the Russian’s reaction to his winner at QPR will live long in the memory. Bjorn Helge Riise was on the fringes of the first-team even before Mark Hughes’ brief tenure at the Cottage, although some of the midfielder’s critics should recall the quality of those crosses that contributed to our brilliant win in Basel.
Jol’s additions have been eminently sensible. Mladen Petric can play in a number of positions across the forward line and could even be thrown in as a lone striker should the need arise. But the straight replacement for Pogrebnyak is clearly Hugo Rodallega, who has shown glimpses of real quality during his rather fitful spell in English football. He scored ten league goals in 2009-10, one of which was the header at Stoke that kept Wigan up, despite being used as a winger for much of that campaign by Roberto Martinez. Rodallega’s far more mobile and will link the play better than Pogrebnyak – while the prospect of Bryan Ruiz, Moussa Dembele and Kerim Frei buzzing around behind him sets the pulse racing a little.
The signing of Sascha Riether seems to follow the Mahamadou Diarra template from last season. Simply securing Diarra on a short-term deal was a big coup for Fulham and the confident nature of his performances, despite not having played a great deal of football over the past few seasons, might have been a contributory factor in Jol’s decision not to offer Murphy a longer contract. Riether is versatile – able to fill in at right back where there are still concerns over Zdenek Grygera’s fitness as well as right midfield – and experienced. Technically sound, with a couple of caps for Germany and a Bundesliga title to his name, having been a crucial part of Wolfsburg’s ten straight wins on the way to their first championship under Felix Magath.
The final pieces in Jol’s jisgaw might not be known until January but Fulham fans won’t rest easy until the transfer window shuts. The chatter suggests that Clint Dempsey might be off, although if he makes his final big career move now he might well regret it. Rumours have linked the Texan midfielder with a move to Liverpool, who are in the midst of a massive rebuilding project under Brendan Rodgers, and currently well below the Champions’ League level that Dempsey has set himself as a target. The departure of Moussa Dembele would be a much bigger blow, not least because the last time Fulham sacrificed a gifted Belgian playmaker it signified their descent from a team of artisans to a group of grafters and nearly cost the club their top flight status.
Second seasons are usually when foreign imports struggle but in Bryan Ruiz’s case it might be the making of him. Injuries and the task of adapting to a far more physical style of football made last summer’s big acquisition looked laboured at times last year, but moments of quality still shone through. The chipped finishes against Everton and Bolton were sublime, while his passes went through the tightest gaps to set up Dempsey against both Chelsea and West Brom. Ruiz looked far more comfortable as a classical ‘number ten’ than out wide but the fluidity of Fulham’s approach means that Jol will not be worrying too frantically about assigning definitive positions to his creative players.
The big advantage that Jol has already established over his immediate predecessors comes in his ability to promote the best thing young talent. Matthew Briggs looked at home in the early weeks of Jol’s tenure, although the England under-21 full-back might need to head out on loan given how well John Arne Riise finished the season. Jol was quick to spot the potential in both Kerim Frei and Alex Kacaniklic and should be credit for giving them early exposure to first-team football to quick the pair’s development. This season could see the emergence of Pajtim Kasami but the introduction of younger players creates an exciting team two or three years down the line.
Jol’s immediate priority will be replicating – or perhaps bettering – last season’s top half finish but there’s certainly no need for Fulham fans to let the silly season drive them insane.