In 2014, I travelled to Brazil to work alongside a group of missionaries on a sports project. The aim was to have a group of us come out from the UK but in the end, it was just me and one other girl. I remember in the training for the trip we did a lot of team bonding activities but, much to my horror, I realised that me and my team mate were nothing alike- complete chalk and cheese. I had no idea how well we were going to work together as a team! But after the 4 weeks in Brazil, in the debrief with the people who we had been working with, it was put to me how well we worked together. Despite the fact that we were nothing alike and would probably never turn into best buds, we actually worked pretty much flawlessly. What I was good at, she wasn’t and vice versa, which meant that most areas were covered. Yes, there were times when we did each other’s heads in but when it came to the actual work that we were doing everything that needed to be done was done.
When reflecting on this experience, I realised what had made the team work so well. Firstly, we had the correct balance of skills and abilities and, secondly, we had a mutual respect for each other’s role on the team. That doesn’t mean to say that there weren’t any friction points, but overall, we were able to get past these and the team was successful.
Why am I talking about this? Well, I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what is wrong with Fulham at the minute. We clearly have a strong team in terms of the quality of players and we have a manager who has experience in getting a team promoted from this division, so what is the problem? For me it comes down to the fact that we do not have the right balance at the minute, and we actually probably haven’t had it since Roy Hodgson’s team of 2009/10. Back then the balance in our team was the reason that it was so successful. Hodgson built a team around a defensive philosophy that ensured that we didn’t need world beaters in every position to do well, we just needed players to completely take in what the manager wanted from them. The resoluteness of our defence was the foundation upon which we launched our attacks. We also had attacking players who would contribute defensively first, but who would take their chances when they did come their way. The ten outfield players would work together as a unit whether that was in attack or defence and because of this we punched well above our weight, and it was a joy to watch. In that particular 2009/10 season in the Premier League, we only scored 39 goals in 38 games, but we also conceded just 46, which was least of anyone outside the top 7 teams that year. While we weren’t prolific, we were solid defensively so it balanced out in the end. We were like this throughout most of Hodgson’s era but since then things have been different. OK, under Hughes we had one very good season, finishing ninth. But even that year we started to concede a lot more goals (51) which shows that the balance was beginning to disappear. Under Martin Jol in 2012/13 is when we can really start to see the lack of balance in the team, resulting in a significantly lower league position than in 2011/12 (9th to 12th in one season). That year we conceded 60 goals, scoring 50, showing that with the lack of balance, comes more goals conceded. We still had the players in attack who could hurt teams like Dimitar Berbatov and Bryan Ruiz, but defensively, our players weren’t as effective as they had been three years before.
Ultimately, the lack of balance that started in the years after Hodgson left led to relegation from the Premier League and two seasons of just about surviving the same fate from the Championship. In 2015/16, despite finishing 20th, we scored more goals than most of the league, including Middlesbrough who won promotion after finishing second. But we also conceded a pathetic 79 goals, a figure beaten only by Charlton and Bolton who both got relegated. We had a lot of problems that year, but the complete and utter lack of balance in the team was a huge factor in how poor we were.
Even last year we didn’t have balance. We had a much better team in terms of attack, scoring a joint-top 85 goals, but we also conceded the same amount as Wigan who were relegated. Simply put, the balance wasn’t right. And this season we can see the same problems. Too often we have conceded goals that we really shouldn’t have conceded, down to our poor play rather than the brilliance of the opposition. How can this be fixed? How do we get true balance back in our team? What we had in 2009/10 that we haven’t truly had since is simply a solid spine to the team. Back then we had a commanding goalkeeper (Mark Schwarzer), a water tight central defensive partnership (Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes), a leader in centre midfield (Danny Murphy) and a few players who could put the ball in the back of the net. The spine of the team was strong enough to maintain balance in the side. This year we have a few of the elements required, but not all of them. I am still confident that Kalas and Ream can improve in central defence, but I do think that we need a more commanding keeper than Button, although admittedly he has kept us in a few games this season. Tom Cairney, who was our Danny Murphy equivalent in terms of importance last year, has been injured so we have been missing our middle man, while still haven’t replaced the goals of Moussa Dembele and Ross McCormack. The spine of our team isn’t strong, so we don’t have the right foundation to maintain balance.
It must be incredibly tough to be a football manager these days, and Jokanovic does seem to be having a tough time finding his best team this season. Injuries haven’t helped, but at least our squad depth is much better than it was last season. I am confident that things will start to improve when Cairney is back 100% fit, but as to whether it will be enough to find the right balance in our team, that remains to be seen. Hopefully we can make some smart moves in the January transfer window because right now I still think that the balance is badly lacking.