19th Century American philosopher and pragmatist William James wrote that “there is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision”. One might use this logic to surmise that dinner parties at the Magath’s are hardly a barrel of laughs.
For there is no greater shuffler of packs than Felix Magath. In our first three Championship matches, Fulham have used 20 different players despite 6 of those starting all three games. Several others have featured on the substitutes bench but are yet to make an appearance meaning there are more debuts to come. Felix Bingo, the game of guessing Fulham’s starting line-up, has progressed from a humorous sideshow to a sad indictment of present times. Indeed Sean Kavanagh has said he was only told of his selection for his professional debut two hour before kick off on Wednesday. Presumably the likes of George Williams and Emerson Hyndman were told of their apparent dropping on equally short notice.
Following Saturday’s defeat to Millwall in which we dominated possession and had double the number of shots, Felix’s call for patience seemed a perfectly legitimate request. Wednesday’s loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers however, was quite the different story.
For many fans the game marked something of an epiphany. There was no plan, or at least not one that showed any signs of working. After Saturday, our first win looked only a matter of time. After Wednesday, our first win is significantly harder to visualise.
The Constant Unpredictability
Change for the sake of change. Are Felix’s rotations the result of a man with a plan or a man searching for answers?
At this stage that looks a hard question to answer. With a squad filled almost entirely with new signings and academy products, knowing the ideal team straight away would be a challenge to any manager. However, there is an over-riding sense that Felix has been treating the opening few games as something of an extended pre-season. In three games, we have lined up with three different formations at kick off – there was a narrow 4-4-2 diamond at Ipswich, a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 hybrid against Millwall and a flat 4-4-2 against Wolves.
In two of the three games there has been a substitution at half time, while it took until 49 minutes for the opening change on Wednesday. Indeed it was Wednesday’s substitutions that sent out warning signals to our manager’s sensibilities. Over the course of three second half substitutions, the left back that was playing in left midfield went to central midfield with a centre forward going to left wing followed by the actual left back being subbed off with the left back playing in central midfield then moved back to defence only for the incoming player, Ryan Williams – a right winger by trade, to play out of position at centre mid. All while Thomas Eisfeld, a central midfielder, was sat on the bench doing nothing.
Hopefully that section was as confusing to read as it was to watch?
The Dearth of Experience
Of the 20 players that have featured for Fulham so far this season, only 4 (McCormack, Parker, Fotheringham and Rodallega) have more than one full season of experience in English league football. 4 players (Joronen, Kavanagh, Burgess and Hyndman) have made their professional club debut’s this season, while 6 more (George Williams, Christensen, Roberts, Dembele, Eisfeld and David) can count on one hand their senior appearances before this month.
What puts this all into stark contrast is the downright bizarre ostricisation of some of last season’s squad that are still on the books. You can almost understand why the remaining high earners are being sidelined before they depart. I don’t think anyone really expected to see Amorebieta, Mitroglou and Ruiz. However, to have players who have not expressed a desire to leave and who have Championship experience, such as Dan Burn and Alex Kacaniklic, sat in exile is little short of madness.
Of the two senior players that survived the cull, Hugo can at least outrun most people in our squad, but aside from athleticism he is not what we need up front. He may well end up as fourth choice striker and that’s ignoring the fact Adam Taggart is yet to feature. As a squad player, Hugo is a fair survivor, he is unlikely to fire us to promotion but he’ll provide reasonable support for the young guns and a willing runner for McCormack.
In all of this though, it is not the young players who are underperforming. Indeed Burgess, Roberts, Williams, David and Hydnman have been bright spots amongst the pointless fortnight just gone. Cauley Woodrow showed his technical ability on Wednesday night while Moussa Dembele had our only shot on target.
The area that is costing us more than any at the moment is central midfield, and in particular Scott Parker. The veteran midfielder has started in all three of Felix’s selections so far and has seen far too much of the ball. That we are seemingly building our team around him fills me with dread. For a team supposedly wishing to develop fast, attacking football, the pirouetting ponderousness of Parker is significantly out of place. Our young midfielders need space to play, not an obligation to pass it to Parker every two seconds.
The Championship is a physical league and against Wolves on Wednesday it was noticeable that we lack in physical stature. Parker’s lack of size and power mean our midfield is getting over-run. We have technically gifted youngsters who will eventually learn to pass round teams, but until then, they need some protection, and that is something we are sorely lacking at present.
I asked a friend of mine who’s a season ticket holder at Birmingham City for his thoughts on us starting Parker and Fotheringham leading to tendency to play long balls over the top:
“[This] is a hallmark of playing dirty – there is no point of doing that if you don’t have the personnel – it is a waste. Blues now have the personnel for that and literally have been peppering balls over the top – we have two big, powerful (fast!) strikers who can run in behind and hold it up or win flick on headers. Fulham seem (from the outside) like a technically gifted side that need to get the ball down and move it quickly and smartly, running at defences when they can. Parker and Fotheringham do not facilitate this.”
On Wednesday night, Parker led the team in passes completed with 61, yet for the second game in a row, it was young centre half Cameron Burgess who led the team in forward passes with 34. Playing Fotheringham is in itself the sort of decision to question a man’s legitimacy as decision maker, but to play him next to Parker is sheer tactical tomfoolery. Interestingly, Fotheringham was nicknamed the crab during his time at Norwich for his tendency to pass the ball sideways. Alongside Parker was there really ever any chance of the ball getting to our attacking players, let alone at speed?
The selection of Fotheringham was undeniably the straw that broke a few camel’s backs. However, his arrival at the club in itself should have raised red flags. Transfer policy is an area Felix is famous for. Those Bundesliga aficionado’s amongst you will be well aware of his wheeler deeler reputation. Again not entirely problematic if the players being wheeled and dealt are the right ones. However, instead of a Championship midfielder of sensible age, experience and quality, we get a man released by a team struggling in League One. More pennyball than moneyball.
Indeed there is no real problem with our summer transfer strategy to date. Veteran players like Hoogland and Bodurov could prove shrewd additions over the course of the long season, while Stafylidis has already shown potential and one suspects Shaun Hutchinson would do the same if he were allowed to play again. The arrival this morning of Tiago Casasola from Boca Juniors is something to lighten the spirits, it’s not every day your club signs a 19 year old from one of South America’s most famous clubs.
However, without a bit more ready-to-play quality, our squad is not complete. Our young players need some help, they need a central midfielder who can take control of a game by the scruff of its neck. Counter attack goals and a set piece aside we’ve defended pretty well this season, it is the transition from defence to attack that is once again proving our Achilles heel. Mr Mackintosh and Mr Khan need to open their chequebook at least once more before September rolls around. We are heading for a roughly break-even summer when you take into account player sales and the dramatically reduced wage bill, it might now be just the time to spend a fraction of those infamous parachute payments.
I wouldn’t advocate changing the regime just yet. I think we need to see where Felix is going with this. We all support the project. We want the kids to play and develop, they are the future of our club after all, but its time for the incoherent chopping and changing to stop. How will this team ever learn to play together if it’s one game on two games off for those but a chosen few?
We comfortably outpassed Ipswich and Millwall and outshot the latter 2 to 1. Were we to continue on that path, then the results would undoubtedly come. Let’s hope Wednesday was the anomaly from within Felix’s research and development phase, though I fear it may not be. The next two games will be tough, Derby and Cardiff are amongst the league’s favourites for promotion, but the beauty of the Championship is that any team can beat any other on any given day. I, for one, just hope Felix’s random generator isn’t actually as random as it appears and lands on the winning numbers sometime soon. Losing habits are hard to shake.