Rather like every other August arrival not named Dimitar Berbatov, Ashkan Dejagah’s move to Fulham didn’t raise too many eyebrows. For a while, the Craven Cottage faithful were treated to fleeting glimpses of the Iranian international, who didn’t exactly steel the show in his pair of substitutes’ appearances for Wolfsburg during Roy Hodgson’s side’s European run. Indeed, injuries restricted Dejagah’s first team opportunities at Fulham until the middle of October, when he stepped off the bench for the final twenty minutes of the last gasp victory over Aston Villa.
Unlike the centre of the park, wide midfield isn’t exactly a problem position for Martin Jol. Damien Duff’s sparkling form this season – scoring three goals and making eight more in the league – has been enough to earn him another contract extension and the evergreen Irishman shows little sign of slowing down, even if he was effectively nullified by Stoke City yesterday afternoon. Jol has also overseen the development of two of the most exciting young talents to break into the first team in recent years. Kerim Frei’s season has been regularly interrupted by injury, but he terrified enough full-backs during his debut top flight season to suggest that he’s got a big future in the game. Alex Kacaniklic’s progress has been just as swift – with his impact on Sweden’s sensational comeback against Germany this summer showing just how effective the winger can be.
Dejagah’s opportunites came initially in a flurry of cameos. There were high octane and energetic, with his direct running and pace, often adding a little bit of impetus late in the proceedings. The Iranian struggled to displace Duff from the side – and his decision-making in the final third was criticised as Fulham went on the miserable winter run that threatened to drag Jol’s team deep into a relegation dogfight. It was perhaps unfair to lay the blame for Fulham’s failure to find a cutting edge on the shoulders of a new signing still adjusting to the unique challenges of the Premier League, but as the past few months have proved, there’s little escape from scapegoating when things are going badly.
In Dejagah’s case, the brickbats always felt like a rush to judgement. In his angst to impress, the 26 year-old often appeared rushed and over eager, but there was clearly quality there. He demonstrated this in Fulham’s fine away win at in-form West Brom on New Year’s Day. Jol’s continental-style system had lacked wide players willing to attack their full-backs, but Dejagah tormented Billy Jones all afternoon – and made Fulham’s opening goal with a run of purpose, pace and power, racing onto a through ball from Giorgos Karagounis and providing the perfect cut-back for Dimitar Berbatov to finish a flowing counter-attack.
He’s not had the luxury of a run in the side – but that may change after the accomplished display during yesterday’s win over Stoke, which gave Fulham a little bit of breathing space and the first sight of mid table for the best part of a month. Dejagah’s purposeful running and interchanging with his former Wolfsburg team-mate Sascha Riether, made an impression from the get go. He cut inside with real intent – allowing the full-back to race forward on the overlap – and, even when he swapped wings with Duff, still popped up in promising positions.
No analysis of Dejagah’s performance would be complete without a look at the defensive side of his game. The Iranian covered plenty of ground, working back for his side just as impressively as Duff – who by comparison was much less of an attacking outlet – managed on the other flank. Whilst his detractors would choose to focus on the unfortunate penalty decision when Dejagah blocked a Brek Shea shot with his hand, for me the more telling contribution came in stoppage time. With the play over on the right wing, Dejagah made a concerted effort – despite his earlier concession of the penalty – to track back deep into the Fulham box and his anticipation – and recognition of the subsequent danger – allowed him to occupy a vital position between the back post and Peter Crouch to head away a dangerous cross. In it’s own way, that diligent defensive work was just as vital as Berbatov’s brilliant volley or Schwarzer’s penalty save.
There are signs that Dejagah could become a useful weapon closing months of the season. He’s far from an automatic pick – but if Jol wants pace to carry an attacking threat, something he highlighted in his very first press conference as Fulham back, then his best option might be Dejagah. For sure, he’ll have to continue to work on his crossing and shooting – the spurning of two glorious chances against Swansea will only be excised when the winger finds the net for his new club – but you can’t fault the winger’s all-round contribution. If he continues in a similar vein, he’ll have plenty of chances to break his Fulham duck.