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Hughes makes his point

Manchester City’s slim Premier League title hopes suffered another setback as they were held to a draw by Fulham.

City, badly missing the creativity of the injured David Silva, went ahead when Mario Balotelli rifled in a superb right-foot shot from outside the area.

Aleksandar Kolarov wasted a fine chance before Fulham, managed by former City boss Mark Hughes, levelled when Damien Duff converted Andrew Johnson’s cross.

Carlos Tevez and Kolarov went close, but City could not find a winner.

The draw leaves City 10 points behind Premier League leaders Manchester United having played a game more than their local rivals.

And it was a result that will mean a lot to Hughes, who was sacked as City manager in 2009 as the club appointed Roberto Mancini as his replacement.

It appeared as though there is little love lost between Hughes and Mancini, who came together in angry fashion after the final whistle. They walked towards each other without looking and barely shook hands, both men withdrawing their grasp and disappearing down the tunnel.

But Hughes will be by far the happier of the two bosses having seen his side accumulate another crucial point in their battle to stay in the top flight and they thoroughly deserved it for another determined display.

City, fresh from easing into the last 16 of the Europa League in midweek, were never at their best and they must now focus on gathering enough points to ensure they stay in the top four and qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Balotelli, Tevez and Edin Dzeko once again formed a three-man attack but they were impressively shackled by the visitors’ rearguard and missed the prompting and probing of Silva, who was sidelined by an ankle injury.

City’s best early chance was a Balotelli volley from a corner that flew over but the visitors quickly replied with two of their own as they began to enjoy themselves. First Danny Murphy fired narrowly over and then Moussa Dembele forced the home side’s goalkeeper Joe Hart into action, both shots coming from outside the area.

Just as Mancini’s men seemed to be struggling, a moment of magic broke the deadlock in their favour. Balotelli played a one-two with Tevez outside the Fulham box on the left and after holding off Murphy, he bulleted a right-foot shot into the bottom corner of Schwarzer’s net.

The Londoners’ heads briefly went down and the visitors could have been 2-0 behind when their defenders inexplicably let the ball run into their penalty area to Kolarov on the left, the Serb selfishly shooting into the side-netting instead of squaring to Tevez or Dzeko.

But gradually the Cottagers worked their way back into it and, after Dembele had an effort bravely blocked, they got the reward their endeavour deserved soon after the restart.

It was a beautifully worked goal too. Brede Hangeland fed a pass to Johnson down the right and he fizzed over a cross to the back post where Duff, hurtling forward, met the ball eight yards out and directed it past a flat-footed Hart.

Fulham were suitably buoyed and striker Johnson fired low at Hart as the Eastlands crowd began to show signs of their frustration with City struggling.

Slowly but surely City did begin to create some chances of their own and Balotelli mis-kicked eight yards out after great work down the right from Pablo Zabaleta, before Patrick Vieira came on for the ineffective Dzeko and gave Mancini’s side a lift.

Balotelli played Tevez through and his left-foot shot was superbly tipped around his post by Cottagers keeper Mark Schwarzer, before Kolarov’s awkwardly dipping volley from fully 30 yards was pushed over the bar.

But the home side continued to labour and in the end they can have few complaints about Fulham heading back to London with a point.

Fulham 1 – 1 Aston Villa: A quick breakdown

Some tactical notes from the 1-1 draw vs. Villa.

Starting lineups, with both teams in 4-4-1-1 set ups. This set the stage for a tactical battle of defensive schemes, which would not come into full effect until the entry of Cieran Clark.

Dickson Etuhu was back in the squad but didn’t feature. Hopefully this is more a question of his health and not of who should be in, because while Greening has filled in well, he’s not the player Etuhu is.
Other than that, no surprises. It was essentially 4-4-1-1 against 4-4-1-1, and this actually made for quite the tactical battle in regards to those players in the hole. More on that in a bit.

The game got off to a pretty eventful start, with Brad Friedel denying several Fulham opportunities. Both teams canceled each other out for the first half hour.

However, once Reo Corker went off, Villa were willing to concede possession to us, particularly in wide areas, keeping their wide midfielders narrow in defense and daring our fullbacks to get forward and create. Their plan was to defend compactly in the back, as they have all season, pressure through their young, quick midfield, and hit on the counter or quick ball.

That’s exactly how they scored, with Barry Bannon lofting a brilliant ball over the top to Mark Albrighton, who took an equally brilliant first touch past Salcido and slotted home nicely with the left.

This wasn’t the first mistake by Salcido, who had some trouble with the defensive scheme Fulham implemented in dealing with Ashley Young, as did the rest of the Fulham back four.

Villa were content to keep their back four rigid and use their central midfield, usually converted defender Cieran Clark, to mark the deep dropping of Dempsey. Fulham, on the other hand, used their centerbacks to mark Young’s runs, in order to keep our central midfielders higher up the pitch and spraying around passes.

The result was that Fulham had more of the ball (57 percent possession on the night) but Villa created more chances when in possession. Had Villa been more solid finishing, Fulham may have dropped all three points, as Young’s presence opened up tons of space and created several chances.

A couple plays come to mind. Check my video analysis below (forgive the shoddy quality, I used some pretty crude software).

We were lucky not to get burned on these two plays, and there are a few more like them. Because we were lacking a true box-to-box presence, our centerbacks had to mark the drops of Young, and it pulled us out of position every single time. The addition of Etuhu should fix some of this.

As Villa simply wouldn’t let the ball through the middle, and coupled with the absence of a true ball winner up top, Fulham were forced to either play into their hands and move wide, play over the top, or force the action down the middle.

We tried the first option and failed. With Salcido off his game, Baird not much of a roaming fullback, and both going off with injuries, it was going to be a tough night scoring for Fulham regardless, but our fullbacks provided no attacking width, and neither Gera nor Davies is great going wide.

We tried the second option and again failed. Richard Dunne dominated our forwards in the air, winning header after header. None of Dempsey, Dembele, or Johnson are ball-winners. Boy, do we miss Bobby.

Fulham's look after Hughes' adjustment. It was effective, as we began to dominate the ball and create more chances. Perhaps Davies should get more runs centrally.

Hughes saw this, decided to go route three, and made the right call tactically, moving Davies to the middle and putting Johnson on for Greening. Many expected Dickson Etuhu to come on, but that wouldn’t have changed the way Fulham were playing, which was the needed call.

After that, Fulham were able to mount some attacks down the center, which could have given us an earlier equalizer if not for some poor finishing and good defending from Villa.

The equalizer was similar to the goal that put us down, as it was a long diagonal ball. Ours, however, was a free kick, and Hangeland met it strongly to get his second late equalizer and yet another draw.

Positives: The link up play of Gera, Davies, and Dempsey. With Dempsey acting as a pivot between the two wings, the three connected often and created some great opportunities.

Negatives: Lack of quality in final third and lack of inventiveness from fullbacks. Zamora is sorely missed, as is the finishing form of Gera. Salcido had his worst night for Fulham, and Baird didn’t offer much either. Again Hughes turns to Kelly and not Pantsil. It’s a shame to sit that much talent, but it looks as if he’s in Hughes’ doghouse for good.

Looking forward: Duff is back healthy, which gives us another option wide. I think he’ll get the nod over Dembele, who has been all of mediocre since returning from his own injury. His pace is off, and he’s too predictable, always cutting back to his left. Etuhu also needs to step in centrally, and if Salcido’s ankle is bad, I’d like to see Baird on the left and Panstil on the right, although Kelly and Baird are a more likely option.

Let’s Talk Tactics: 1/4 Season Review, Villa Preview

Welp, folks, it’s been a while.

Whether it’s because my head’s been buried in textbooks, or I just simply wasn’t able to catch the first few matches until replay, I’ve been out of the loop.

My dearest apologies.

Now back to business.

The first 10 games of the season, roughly a quarter of the Premier League campaign, have passed, and we are sitting in a solid 10th, with 12 points to show for.

With all the injuries we’ve endured (Zamora, Duff, Dembele for a bit, Murphy for a bit, Etuhu, etc), I’d say we’re doing alright.

Mark Hughes hasn’t really done anything surprising tactically. Just about every side he’s put out has been of the 4-4-2 variety, usually a 4-4-1-1-ish looking side. And really, injuries considered, it’s amazing he’s put out such a consistent formation weak in and out.

The key loss tactically was Zamora. His hold up play can’t be replaced by anyone in the side, so we’ve had to mix and match a bit. We’ve had rough patches (West Bromwich comes to mind) and sweet spots (Saturday’s trouncing of Wigan is still fresh in my mind), but our style of play has been very interesting.

Some key points:

  • 4-4-2, or some variation, is the formation that works best for our boys, for several reasons. First, without Duff, we lack a true winger, and even he is a step off the pace and not really an out-and-out winger. Gera, Davies, and Dempsey are all wide midfielders — crafty on the ball, good defenders, and good down the byline or in the center — but none are true wingers in the mold of an Antonio Valenica or Florent Malouda who look to cut inside and take on defenders. Dempsey is closest but doesn’t qualify. As our central midfield is slower and older and can’t cover wide areas all too well, our wide players can’t really press high up the pitch, which means flat four is the best option.
  • Right now, Hughes needs to stick to his guns and continue the 4-4-2 used against Wigan. Our depth in wide players is our greatest asset, and right now Dempsey, Gera, and Davies seem to be on the same page. All three were fantastic Saturday, with Gera unlucky not to score (again), Davies dominating the left side of the field with Salcido, and Dempsey netting two excellent goals. If anyone comes off for Andy Johnson, it should be Dembele, who still seems to be hampered by that earlier injury.

Murphy v Greening

Granted they are different players, but in the same position, notice how much higher up the field and how much more of the ball Murphy (top) had against Wigan than Greening (bottom) had against West Brom. Different games and different players, but it's one visual that shows how vital Murphy is to the Fulham attack (click to enlarge).

  • If there was ever any doubt about Danny Murphy’s value to this team, it’s been eradicated. Just place the West Brom and Wigan games side by side to see his impact on this team. No? Allow me. The graphic on the left shows all you need to see in terms of Murphy’s importance. The question now is who to put beside him. Dickson Etuhu will get his spot back when he returns from injury, but for now I think Baird is our best option. Greening is too slow of a partner for the equally velocity-challenged Murphy, and Baird is a super passer, a great aerial defender, and a pest on the turf.
  • This also opens up space for John Pantsil to return to the lineup. While his form earlier in the season was shocking, I think he’s ready for another run out. He offers a more attacking option than Baird, and with Ashley Young waiting this weekend, I think we’ll need his speed in defense.
  • As an American, this is difficult to say, but I’ll be damned if Carlos Salcido isn’t the most impressive summer signing in all of London (van der Vaart excluded). The Mexican international is forming a very nice left-sided attack with Davies. They seem to be connecting telepathically, as their cover for each other and attack has been quite impressive. The return of Etuhu will only free up that left side even more, as Dickson provides physical intimidation and cover from midfield that no one else in the side really offers.

I’ll end with a final formation for Villa on Saturday.
Football Fans Know Better

You could see Davies on the right to help out with the threat of Ashley Young, but I wouldn’t make the change, personally. I think Baird will stay at right back and Greening in the midfield, but I’d lean toward Pantsil. Villa are a talented side and will be a tough outfit, but if Murphy can dictate the tempo of the game and Gera, Demebele, and Dempsey can continue to link up, I think we’ll pull out the full three points.

On some personal news, I hope to be getting a video blog started on some of these games, barring I get my software working properly and find some time between classes. Until next time.

Fulham Transfer News: 8-25-10

A brief summary and analysis of the transfer rumors floating about regarding Fulham players and targets:

  • Paul Konchesky to Liverpool is back in the papers today. SkySports and are both reporting he is interested in talking with Roy Hodgson about a possible move to his old boss’s new club. This seems a likely scenario, as Liverpool both need a left back and Hodgson’s relationship with Konchesky is solid. It’s likely Konchesky will move on, but I think it’s a mutually beneficial move for both sides. Stephen Kelly, Chris Baird, or even Aaron Hughes can cover on the left (making room for Rafik Halliche, possibly), and Konchesky can be sold for a profit (see below)
  • Carlos Salcido is being linked to Fulham as Konchesky’s potential replacement. Salcido has been linked to Liverpool prior, but Dutch publication Eindhovens Dagblad is reporting a €2 million agreement between the clubs. If Konchesky leaves, this is a likely move—and a good one. With fees for Konchesky to Liverpool rumored at €3.5 million, it’s a nice profit from a lateral move talent-wise. Honestly, considering Konchesky is our weakest of the back four and Salcido is an experienced international coming off a very good World Cup, this is probably a better move for Fulham than for Liverpool. I just hope Salcido and Dempsey can reconcile their CONCACAF differences.

Dempsey tackling Salcido

  • More reports of Zoltan Gera moving on are emerging. I have a difficult time believing these to be anything more than late transfer window page-fillers, but the more they appear, the more doubt creeps into my mind. The Daily Mail is the culprit this time, saying that Fulham’s emerging depth up front—thanks to the Moussa Dembele acquisition, a nearing return-date for Andy Johnson, and competition from Clint Dempsey—is giving Gera second thoughts about staying on with new manager Mark Hughes. I still don’t buy it, and letting go of Gera would be a poor move both in terms of personnel and public relations for Hughes. Of the rumors mentioned, however, put the least stock in this one.
  • Jimmy Bullard is being linked with a return to Fulham…not really, just making sure you are paying attention. But I for one (and literally probably the only one) would welcome Jimmy back with open arms—only if he came home with this look on his face:

Jimmy Bullard's beauty and grace

How can you hate this man?

  • Still no central midfielders seriously linked to Fulham. I wonder if this is a sign of a) confidence in Danny Murphy, Dickson Etuhu, and Baird/Jonathan Greening/someone else or b) a possible experimentation with Simon Davies or Dempsey in a central role. Probably a), but b) would be fun to see.

If anything else floats my way, I’ll be sure to edit and keep you all updated on where things stand in the transfer market at Craven Cottage.

Centre Midfield: Who Replaces Danny Murphy?

In the past year observing both Fulham’s games on the pitch and its fans off of it, I’ve noticed that the biggest personnel complaint seems to be the aging (and as a result, diminishing) Danny Murphy.

While Murphy has enjoyed a successful stay at the Cottage (no one will ever forget Portsmouth 2008), many feel that the game is passing him up; others feel it already has. His pace is gone, and what he provides in terms of passing and possession he equally lacks in defensive pressure and scoring threat.

If you’ve been watching Fulham for at least the last year or so, you’ll likely agree that Murphy’s days are numbered. The strenuous 2009-10 campaign saw Murphy wear down with an increased work load, and his form dipped directly with more minutes.

The captain has served admirably during a fine run of form in Fulham, but it’s time to begin the search to find the next player to fill his role.

Disclaimer: I’m not advocating the benching of Murphy. He still has value, and this side lacks the central depth and leadership to drop its captain. On the contrary, I’m talking about either a) promoting from within a player who can learn from Murphy before he leaves or b) finding a player from the transfer market to play beside Murphy until his stay is done.

The problem with a) is that Fulham don’t really have a number of promising central midfield prospects. The problem with b), at the same time, is that the transfer window is closing daily, and Fulham have not been seriously linked with a central midfielder since the Steve Sidwell scenario was shot down.

Regardless, there are some candidates, both from the outside and in. Let’s begin with the latter.

Chris Baird

Fulham’s very own utility man seems to be a fan favorite to see more minutes in the centre of midfield

The Northern Irish international was a revelation in the 2009-10 squad, which due to injury required the defender to slide into a midfield role. He was superb there, breaking up attacks left and right with an unmatched work rate and a knack for anticipation. His defensive skills translated sublimely higher up the pitch.

Baird is also a dependable passer. His play at right back before the 2009-10 season proved that, even if he lacked for pace, he could play a pass and hold possession. His passing range is well above average, and he doesn’t lose the ball with reckless attacks or absurd decision-making.

However, Baird’s passing lacks the vision and creativity of Murphy’s. While he is safe and sturdy, rarely will he pick out a pass like this one that very literally creates something out of nothing.

He also fails to make up for Murphy’s lack of pace or scoring threat. He’s not the distance-shooter that Murphy is, and he has been caught out on pace more than a few times for the Whites.

In all truth, Baird is at his best in a central role as a complement to a creative midfielder. He’s a classic holder to be put beside a penetrator, and unless his game has evolved during the offseason, I’m not convinced he’s the heir-apparent to Murphy.

Simon Davies/Clint Dempsey

Both are natural wide midfielders (or even second strikers), but both are fully capable of handling creative duties in the centre.

For Davies, his skill set matches excellently with a creative role in the center. His technique on the ball is top-notch, he’s a superb passer, and his work rate is as good as they come. He’s played this role for Tottenham and Everton extensively in the past, and he’s done it a bit for Fulham the last few seasons.

The only real downside to moving Davies centrally is losing his vision for cuts. He’s not the quickest player, but he’s crafty at beating fullbacks down the line or cutting right inside of them. He’s also a fine crosser of the ball, a skill lost for the most part when moved to the centre. Also, at 30 years old, he doesn’t provide much cover long term, though I imagine he’s got another three good seasons in him at top form, especially considering his international retirement.

Still, I could see Davies making a real impact here. He has the creativity of Murphy and the work rate of a holding mid, and his skill matches perfectly in this role.

Dempsey, on the other hand, developed him game in MLS as a central attacking midfielder. He has played the top of the diamond before in college as well as with the New England Revolution prior to joining Fulham. With a strong holding mid like Baird or Etuhu behind him, he could lead a midfield attack with Davies and Duff flanked wide.

In fact, much of Dempsey’s international work is done centrally. Granted, he begins games out wide, but he and Landon Donovan often switch sides in the middle of play for the US National Team, bringing both into central creative roles. It’s not an out-and-out centre midfield position by any means, but don’t think that Dempsey couldn’t be comfortable in the middle of the pitch.

Again, with Dempsey in the centre, Fulham would lose his greatest strength: his ability to run at and take on defenders. He would still be able to do this, but from a median area it would take away shooting angles he loves to exploit.

Of the two, I’d prefer Davies in the center of a flat four midfield. Alongside a holding mid and with Dempsey and Damien Duff wide, Fulham would have a particularly effective midfield going forward.

The advantage with Davies or Dempsey in a central role is that it gets the best Fulham attackers on the pitch in the stead of the declining Murphy, but I can’t say with anything but speculation that either would be a better option in the centre than the captain.

The other central options like Jonathan Greening, Kashigo Dickagoi, and Etuhu are too defensive minded to replace Murphy’s offensive play, so they aren’t worth considering right now. The other central options like Jonathan Greening, Kashigo Dickagoi, and Etuhu are too defensive minded to replace Murphy’s offensive play, so they aren’t worth considering right now.

With that said, the best option is to look elsewhere. One of the strengths of the squad this season is depth wide (Duff, Dempsey, Davies, and Gera), and it should make for a fresh attack every week. It would be foolish to forfeit that depth just to play players out of position.

Why not look to the market for solutions? Here are some possible names with brief mentions of why they might be options as creative central midfielders for Fulham

Gylfi Sigurdsson 

Just 20 years old, the Icelandic international is overflowing with talent. He’s probably the least familiar name on the list, but he’s put on some fantastic displays for Reading. With 18 goals in 41 appearances for Reading, he provides a true scoring threat in an attacking midfield role. How many players at his age are capable of this?

The good news is that he has expressed interest in coming to Craven Cottage before. The bad news is that he is in the first year of three remaining on his contract and would be an expensive purchase, relatively speaking.

Rumors from Icelandic media are linking him to Fulham, but take that for what very little it is worth.

Jamie O’Hara

Neither O’Hara nor the rest of the names on this list have been directly linked to Fulham, but they all provide the skill we need and are relatively accessible. O’Hara impressed on loan at Portsmouth last season, earning club player of the year honors.

Back at Tottenham, he might be available for transfer due to an excess of depth in centre midfield for Spurs and a rocky relationship with Harry Redknapp. Redknapp publically criticized the 23-year-old last season when O’Hara expressed a desire for Fulham to beat Tottenham in the FA Cup so he could play at Wembley (as a loanee from Spurs, he was ineligible to compete against his club.

If he really is on his way out at Tottenham, he would be a cheap buy and a ready replacement. His youth also makes him a long-term solution, and he could spend the next year or two learning under Murphy.

Jermaine Jenas

This is a buy only based on skill and availability. Jenas is not getting the minutes he wants at Spurs, and he would get them for the Whites. He didn’t even travel for their Champions League matchup with Young Bhoys.

That said, his personality excites very few teams, and throwing him in the mix under a new manager might be a catastrophe for team chemistry.

Could Mark Hughes get the talent out of Jenas that he’s never seemed to express fully? I’m wary about this one, as I’m not sure he would add anything to an already cohesive dressing room. He’s also the oldest of the suggested targets, so unless management can get him for cheap and manage his ego, it’s probably best to keep this one on the backburner.

Michael Johnson

Johnson’s injury and drug issues have been well-documented, and he wouldn’t be available until midseason.

Still, he has a good history with Mark Hughes, who constantly invested confidence into the lad at City. He could be on the off if he’s not needed to meet the homegrown players quota, and Craven Cottage could be a place of redemption for him.

Mark Noble

West Ham’s financial woes make Noble a likely sale. Though he’s the longest serving Hammer in the first team, he may be the odd man out in a competitive West Ham midfield.

He’s young, talented, and should mix in well with the squad. His chemistry with Scott Parker could reflect on a possible match with Murphy, giving Fulham two industrious, crafty players in the middle.

Of the buys, he could be the most likely to join if pursued.

What do you think? Who would you like to see join? Comment below.