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Why no subs?

An enigma from Sunderland v Fulham 19.11.2011
I have to admit I was somewhat mystified by manager Martin Jol’s policy in making (or rather in not making) tactically appropriate substitutions in last Saturday’s away fixture against Sunderland. During the course of the game Fulham made the following four substitutions: Andy Johnson for Bobby Zamora at 68 minutes; Bryan Ruiz for Damien Duff at 87 minutes; and Mathew Briggs for Clint Dempsey at 90 minutes. It is not easy to understand the rational for the timings of these changes, or why earlier tactical substitutions were not made.

I outline below the changes which should have been considered.

1. As Dan points out in his excellent succinct report of the match, (Makeshift defence stifles Sunderland – posted November 19,) Fulham’s back four for this game comprised three central defenders (Messrs Hangeland, Senderos, and Hughes,) plus a central defender / right back (Chris Baird) positioned at left back. Although this scratch unit operated reasonably well defensively, it quickly became evident that neither of the makeshift fullbacks had the ability and/or the inclination to get forward in an endeavour to provide the width which was conspicuously lacking in Fulham’s attacking play. A strategic change could have been made at half time by subbing off Senderos, moving Baird to central defence, and bringing on Mathew Briggs to play at left back with a remit to get forward and provide crosses. Fulham’s Under 21 international is genuinely quick and would have added an important attacking dimension.

2. It is questionable whether Damien Duff should have started this game at all, given that during the previous week he had been involved in two strenuous and vitally important international games for the Republic of Ireland. A bold and imaginative strategy would have been to field in his place that most exciting young prospect Kerim Frei. However Frei was left at home; Duff started and had a subdued game throughout. Given that his slight contribution to the game, surely the opportunity should have been taken to sub him for Pajtim Kasami at half time. Kasami is another exciting young prospect who’s all out commitment and energy could well have lifted the team’s performance.

3.Why was Bryan Ruiz not introduced until the 87th minute, – and indeed what positive purpose was there in bringing him on for Duff at this very late point? A creative move would have been to substitute Bryan, (a naturally left sided player with an eye for goal,) for Dempsey early in the second half. (As anyone who viewed the France v USA in the week will know, Dempsey had a very tough time playing up-front in that game, with the French players taking turns to thump into him.) If not then, why not put on Bryan when it was 20 minutes from time with the scores level and the chance of three points if he could poach a goal?

4.Why was A.J.’s substitution for Bobby Zamora delayed until the 68th minute, when it was clear by half time that Bobby was off the pace?

5.Why wasn’t Danny Murphy subbed for the last 20 minutes, by when it was becoming apparent that he was beginning to fade?

The spine to the Fulham squad remains a number of relatively old players who are approaching the final stages of their respective careers. At the same time Fulham have some truly outstanding young prospects both within,(Marcel Gecov, Kasami, Sa, and Ruiz,) and also on the fringes of the squad, (for example Kerim Frei and Dan Burn). It is vitally important if they are to achieve their potential, that these young players gain playing experience at the highest level.

In the Cup games earlier this season it was encouraging to see that Martin Jol was introducing a few new young players. However this practice has not yet been carried forward to any extent in Premiership games, and seems also to have ceased in the Europa cup if the last home game against Wisla Krakow is anything to go by. It is now a matter of real concern that Martin Jol has used fewer players (20 in total) than any other manager of a premier league side. It is not as if Fulham were a settled side which is doing particularly well at present.

Should the manager have been less cautious and made timely substitutions in this game? This is an issue which I pondered over long and hard during the tedious coach journey home from Sunderland. (The trip this time seemed so much longer than that back from Sunderland late last season following our splendid nil-three victory.) I do appreciate that whether or not to sub is often a difficult judgement call. However it does seem to me, on balance, that subs giving greater width and variation in attack might just have done it, and most importantly that a point against Sunderland is not really ‘a result’. If Fulham are to aspire to be a contender in the top half of the Premiership then, this is the sort of game we need to win.

Pointless against Spurs

As we streamed out into Stevenage Road after this match, the pathetic consensus amongst my close companions, shared by me, was that Fulham had deserved at least a point. Our simplistic reading of the arc of this game was that Spurs had the better first half, though they were decidedly flattered by their two goal lead at the interval. Thereafter that Fulham were by far the superior team, but were denied a farer result by virtue of the combination of: some superb saves by Brad Friedal; desperate goal line clearances by both Ledley King and Luca Modric; and the iniquitous failure of the referee to spot Karl Walker grounding his low two handed catch of the ball in the six yard box, with ten minutes left of the game – when this penalty denied might well have given Fulham goal parity and potential ascendancy.

Having now reflected on this match, and with the benefit of having studied a recording of the live TV screening, I am not now so sure that Fulham truly merited a better result. Not that I would for a moment deny that Brad Friedel was correctly awarded ‘Man of the Match’. (It was a vintage display from Spurs’ veteran keeper. In particular, his brilliant reaction-save to Steve Sidwell’s header in the second minute, and his safe-handed clutch to hold onto Chris Baird’s pile-driver hit strike in the seventieth minute were crucial events in preventing Fulham from succeeding.) Nor does the recording fail to bear-out the impression, formed by spectators at the match, of Fulham having much more of the play. (This indeed is confirmed by the match stats, see below.) However my present, more considered view is that a subtle combination of the factors outlined and discussed below, each of which arguably comprises a tactical error, may well have made the vital contribution to Fulham’s failure.

Quiet extraordinarily for the first week in November, Fulham have already this season played a total of 24 competitive games in all competitions. This is therefore an opportune time to take stock of what new manager Martin Jol has brought to the team’s performance, and what possibly may be lacking, as exemplified in this game. On the very positive side, Fulham have much greater flexibility going forward, as well as being a more attack-minded side. In this game the team’s starting set-up of 4-4-1-1, (with Zamora out front and Dembel positioned centrally as a ‘false number 9’,) morphed at times almost seamlessly in and out of a 4-3-3, (with at the front Dempsey working left, Zamora right, and Dembele centrally,) and on occasions late in the second half to a 4-2-4, (with the subbed on Bryan Ruiz working to the right up front.) As well as this new more flexible deployment, there is a marked increase in rapidity of the build up, with Fulham at last showing some capability to move with speed through midfield without any need to resort to long-ball passes. These very real improvements can, and certainly did in this game against Spurs, produce more good scoring opportunities. Rarely in the Premiership does a side lose who have had 13 shots on target, as did Fulham.

On the deficit side, it is becoming clear that Fulham are not now so markedly good at preventing penetration into the their penalty area, as they were in recent seasons under the management of Hughes and Roy Hodgson respectively. It is of particular concern that in the games since the draw at home against Manchester City back in September this year, the characteristic tightness and effective defensive shape that were the Hodgson hallmarks, have been consistently dissipated. In this game, both of Spurs’ first half goals stemmed from avoidable errors in defending technique. The first goal followed a move by the Spurs fullback Kyle Walker who, whilst on a right overlap, was allowed to accelerate into the penalty area past a late arriving and hapless J.A. Riise. For the second goal the Fulham defence was caught out by Aaron Lennon, who having switched wings with Gareth Bale, avoided Zdenek Grygera and then sped on, turning the retreating Chris Baird before slotting his shot home close to the left post.

Also directly associated with this game were the following important judgement calls upon the manager, where possibly Marin Jol may have erred. First, was it prudent to field so many ‘first team players’ in the Euro Cup game on the preceding Thursday evening? Eight of the Fulham players who started the game against Spurs played in the Euro cup game, as also had all the subs that Fulham subsequently used. (In marked contrast none of Spurs’ starting eleven played in their Euro game.)

Secondly, why has Martin Jol persisted with J.A. Riise at left back despite his poor performances in recent games? Riise seems at present a muscle-bound shadow of his Liverpool days, lacking positional sense and timing in the performance of his defensive duties, and no longer really effective when he (over)commits to his endeavours forward. Surely it is over time now to give the outstanding young player Mathew Briggs a good run as first choice left back?

Thirdly, although Martin Jol is correct in realising, (as did Hughes,) that Danny Murphy does need to be substituted before he may fade in the last quarter of the game, the choice of sub made in this game is questionable. Was it appropriate at the time when Fulham needed to force the game forward to bring on Dickson Etuhu, who operates best as a defensive/holding midfielder? Would not Kasami, an attacking midfielder with an eye for goal, have been the better option?

Fourthly, was the introduction of Bryan Ruiz, some twenty minutes before end, left too late? Bryan (I use his own preferred choice of name,) was subbed as a direct replacement for Duff, to be another naturally left sided player also working in from the right, and taking on Duff’s right-corner taking responsibility. He gave a good cameo performance, consistently giving the slip to his would be marker Modric, whose influence on the game was eclipsed following Bryan’s introduction. However as a potentially very sharp finisher, (as is indicated by all his goals last year in the Dutch league, plus ‘BBC Goal of the Month’ for October,) could he not have been more effectively used earlier and more centrally, possibly as a replacement for Zamora or Dembele?

Martin Jol is a progressive manager whom I trust will consider these matters. His endeavours to add to Fulham’s attractive passing game a more effective attacking emphasis should be applauded. It remains encouraging that there were times during the second half when Fulham were more fluid in their built –up and quicker in their passing movement then in any previous game this season. The really important thing must be that Fulham learn from this disappointing home defeat.

 

Match Stats

Goals

Fulham: Kaboul own goal 55;

Spurs: Bale 10, Lennon 45, Defoe 90

Attempts on goal

Fulham 23 (13 on target); Spurs 6 (6 on target)

Corners: Fulham 11; Spurs1

Possession: Fulham 53%, Spurs 47%

Yellow Cards: Fulham: none. Spurs: Kaboul.

Fulham: Schwartzer;Grygera (Kelly 45 mins); Baird; Hangeland; J.Riise; Dempsey; Murphy (Ethu 76 min); Sidwell; Duff (Bryan Ruiz 71 mins); Zamora; Dembele

Spurs: Friedel; Assou-Ekotto; King; Kaboul; Walker; Bale; Modric; Parker; Lennon; Van Der Vaart (Defoe 66); Adebayor

Referee: P.Walton

Attendance: 25,698

 

“We are winning away…”

Wry wit is a field in which Fulham supporters excel. Take for example a mate of mine who’s T-shirt has the proud announcement: “I saw Fulham win away! This of course is hyperbole, for last season we were relatively successful away, (compared that is with the abysmal away form of the preceding two years,) clocking up all of three premier league away wins. Even so, Fulham away victories remain a somewhat rare vintage to be savoured. However for those stalwart Fulham supporters present at this game our enjoyment at the victory was tempered with very considerable relief and some continuing concern.

Fulham’s set-up was again retuned by manager Martin Jol for this game. The team started with a 4-5-1 deployment, which quickly settled into a 4-2-3-1, with Bobby Zamora as the man up-front, and immediately behind him Andy Johnson positioned over to the right -playing much more like an orthodox right winger than in his recent games, Clint Dempsey favouring the left side, and Mousa Dembele working more centrally. Danny Murphy and Steve Sidwell, (as the “2”), both operated as midfielders with a ‘hold and supply’ brief. J. Riise (left back in the back 4) continually made ineffectual attempts to supplement their efforts in midfield with his unsuccessful sorties down the left wing.

No doubt Martin Jol’s laudable intention with this adjusted set-up was to produce the more creative and attacking approach required to end Fulham’s propensity to draw games. However, most regrettably, it quickly became evident that this strategy was just not working. Throughout the game Fulham were unable to effectively retain possession, and failed to facilitate the creation of scoring chances. In contrast Wigan’s anticipated 4-3-3 operated functionally, in as much as it gave them much more of the play, and also produced greater opportunities for them to win. (The match stats are very revealing. Wigan enjoyed 62% of possession, to Fulham’s 38%; had 18 goal attempts on goal of which 9 were on target, to Fulham’s 7 attempts with 2 on target; and had 9 corners, to Fulham’s nil).

Fulham’s victory, secured despite an apparently flawed strategy and wholly against the run of play, can be put down to the following three vital factors. First, thankfully Wigan’s forwards were generally imprecise and wasteful finishers. (One of my abiding memories of the game is that of Gary Caldwell punching the ground with frustration, after heading over the bar from three yards out.) Secondly, Mark Schwarzer in goal was faultless throughout, and made three particularly accomplished saves. Thirdly, although Fulham had only a couple of goal scoring attempts on target in this game, both of these resulted in goals, and each was at a telling point in the game. Fulham’s goals were due to brilliant opportunism, and the skill of the players involved, but they also resulted from clear errors on the part of Wigan the defence.

Fulham’s first goal was scored just under five minutes from half time. Danny Murphy placed a long through pass to Bobby Zamora who had drifted unmarked into space on the left hand side of the Wigan penalty area. In a flash Zamora received, turned, took the ball forward three paces to the dead-ball line, and then pulled back a short reverse pass to Clint Dempsey who had cut in from the left to close in front of goal. Dempsey tapped-in past the helpless Wigan keeper Al Habsi. This whole exercise must have taken a minute, possibly less, to execute from the moment Danny Murphy spotted the unmarked Zamora and picked his pass.

The second goal came five minutes for the end of normal time, which in the event was ten minutes from the final whistle. Mousa Dembele received the ball from Danny Murphy and made a jinking run, which took him from the centre circle to the edge of the penalty box. The Wigan defenders stood off, seemingly waiting for Dembele to either pass, or attempt to dribble his way past them. Instead he slotted a calculated slow low strike past the goalkeeper, just like an expert billiards player placing a long shot into the far pocket.

Martin Jol is too perceptive a manager not to realise that fortune undoubtedly favoured Fulham in this game. It is to be hoped he will have learned important lessons which will help in his continuing endeavours to improve the team’s performance. Not least I trust he will have noted the following. First, an in-form Andy Johnson is wasted on the right wing, and should be used more centrally. Secondly that Riise, although he remains a consummate professional, has lost a yard in pace since the days of his peak with Liverpool. Surely Briggs (now age 20, and who is naturally left-sided and really quick,) deserves his chance as starting left back/wingback in Premiership games. Thirdly, that Kasami (aged 19 and another outstanding prospect) could contribute both much needed dynamism and help balance the midfield, augmenting the excellent work of Danny Murphy and Steve Sidwell. Fourthly, that reverting to 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 might well be a jolly good idea for our forthcoming home game against Spurs.

All in all it was a very good weekend. Chelsea lost; QPR lost; and Fulham won away, and maybe we have learnt some important lessons for the future. This away win ends a run of 5 draws by Fulham at Wigan in previous seasons – a habit which had it continued any longer might well have become a time honoured tradition. Clint Dempsey’s goal now makes him the highest scoring American in the history of the premiership, (surpassing Brian McBride). Reflecting on all these feats and on the manner of the victory, I am reminded of the catch phrase of the popular comedian and late Fulham Chairman Tommy Trinder: “You Lucky People”.

Goals

Dempsey 41

Dembele 87

Yellow Cards

Wigan: Caldwell. Fulham: Gygera, Hangeland, Etuhu, Dembele.

Attendance: 15,796. (Wigan’s estimate of away supporters 450.)

Wigan: Al Habsi; Boyce (Stam 71min); Alcaraz; Caldwell; Figueroa; Watson; Diame (McAuthur 13 min); Moses; Jones; Crusat; Santo; Rodallega.

Fulham: Schwarzer; Grygera; Baird; Hangeland; Riise; Johnson; Murphy (Etuhu 70 min); Sidwell; Dembele (Duff 90 min); Dempsey; Zamora (Ruiz 81 min).

By Josephus at D W Stadium

Fulham 1 Everton 3 on Sunday 23 October 2011

Football can be the cruellest of games. In no other sport can the margin between the achieving of what would be a cheering victory, or of suffering a deeply disappointing defeat be so cigarette-paper thin. Thus was it in this closely contested game, which Fulham could have won if only………………

To the uncommitted soccer aficionado this would have been a super game to watch, full of incident, played at considerable pace between two teams who aspire towards the passing & pressing game, and where the result was in doubt up to almost the expiry of normal time. Despite their early lead Everton were never able to establish dominance. Twenty minutes into the second half and with Fulham still one-nil down, Martin Jol initiated a brave tactical ploy. Danny Murphy was withdrawn and Bryan Ruiz brought on. Quiet extraordinarily the Fulham set-up went to a 4-2-4 (with Bryan on the left of Steve Sidwell in midfield), which morphed in and out of a 4-1-5 as Bryan took on a ‘roam and get forward’ role.

Although in no way reminiscent of Brazil of the early 1970’s, who are usually associated with such a deployment, Fulham adapted well to this rare, attacking mode and even appeared to be gaining the upper hand. First, within a few minutes of the introduction of this new system, Bryan scored with a delicately calculated chip into the top right hand corner of the goal, executed from just outside the left-hand side of the penalty area. With the scores level Fulham appeared to be the more likely to prevail. Bryan had a second good effort from inside the penalty area saved. Then with a minute to go of normal time Bobby Zamora in possession close in front of goal, clear and with the keeper dummied, managed (goodness knows how,) to miss. So Fulham could and possibly should have won, though of course in the event our team didn’t, with Everton scoring twice in extra time.

An unbiased appreciator of the game would also have enjoyed the opportunity to see both Everton and Fulham each respectively field a young talented footballer, both at the beginning of their Premier league careers. Everton had on from the start Royston Drenthe, a young Dutch player who has been with Real Madrid. It was he who scored Everton’s first goal in third minute of the game, (a powerful 20 yard strike,) as well as playing a part in both their late goals. A stocky powerfully built player with a characteristic crouching stride and impressive short burst acceleration, he was for me Everton’s most effective player. Possibly in the making what the Italians term a ‘fantista,’ (a player who by the application of a rare and special individual skill or ability can turn a game).

Fulham fielded Bryan for a good part of the second half. (I use the name he has stated he would prefer to be know by, as ‘Ruiz’ is associated with his father who abandoned him.) From this game we now know just a bit more about his talents. Although a left footed player, he is not predominately left sided in his play. This was marked by his fluid mobility off the ball, and by his quick and precise short passing which included a couple of neatly executed give-and-goes. He clearly has an eye for goal, readily getting forward into goal scoring positions, and most importantly his goal was evidence of very good technique. Although the extent and full potential of his talent is yet to be established, what we saw in this game is encouraging.

With the result of this game it is now clear that Fulham have made a poor start to the season. Unless there is an early improvement in fortune with the accumulation of significant additional points between now and Christmas, the club could well face the unhappy prospect of a prolonged struggle against relegation. It is however an allusion that safety can now be achieved by a conservative approach. Martin Jol should continue to give opportunities to the young and promising players in his squad for Premiership games. (Mathew Briggs is now an outstanding prospect. The unstinting work-rate and all out commitment of Pajtim Kasani is truly impressive. Players like these and Bryan need the experience of regularly playing with top opposition if they are to develop and fulfil their full potential for the club.) Martin Jol should be supported in his endeavours to introduce greater flexibility and a more attacking approach to play, as well as encouraged to bring-on and integrate new talented players.

 

Stoke City 2 – Fulham FC 0

“There is only one Danny Murphy”
Danny BoyIt was a poor game and one any discerning soccer enthusiast would surely rather forget. For once the BBC’s seemingly invariable editorial policy of showing any game involving Fulham and a Premier league team other than the ‘top four’, last or next to last on Match of the Day seemed wholly justified. Not that the BBC’s screening of selected incidents from the game, which lasted barely four minutes and went totally without comment, gave any impression of what us fortunate few Fulham supporters actually present saw and suffered.

True to our expectations, Stoke endeavoured to play to their physical strengths. All the ploys we anticipated were there, including: Delap’s exceptionally long, low trajectory, throws; lots of crosses unsuccessfully directed towards the far-post for the elongated expectant Crouch; and a general endeavour to boss the play in a manner appropriate to their abundance of large and combative players. Fulham’s response was also as expected, with the team for the most part retaining their shape, whilst not so successfully attempting to build a passing game. Only the referee Martin Atkinson acted throughout contrary to stereotype, appearing to be in his rare ‘consistent permissive mode’, (last seen in our cup game last year against Bolton Wanderers.) So as in the Bolton game it was again open season on Bobby Zamora, who was persistently clambered over whilst off-the-ball.

In the end Stoke got fortunate and Fulham fairly late on paid dearly for errors by conceding two goals. (The first goal came seconds after the injured Danny Murphy was subbed, when the area he would have marked was left uncovered.) From this game it is difficult to cite specific positives, though I would mention that the re-united central defender pairing of Hughes and Hangeland worked very well despite a severe testing. Also that Andrew Johnson never stopped chasing and harrying, to the continual disquiet of the Stoke defence. His acceleration and his reaction time now seem quicker than ever.

My abiding impression from the game was of the regrettable conduct of many most vocal Stoke fans who jeered Danny Murphy. He was loudly booed whenever he came into possession of the ball, and subjected to abusive chanting throughout the game. I understand the purported justification for the heated animosity displayed towards the Fulham captain throughout this game was the articles he wrote about a year ago, in which he put forward a reasoned and justifiable critique of teams, including Stoke, who at that time over-relied on physical aggression in their play.

The targeting of any player for abuse can never be justified whatever the perceived circumstances. The selection of Danny Murphy as a hate figure seems particularly perverse given that he personifies intelligence in football, both in the manner he plays with his focus on constructive passing and creative control, and from his perceptive comments on the game. As we always have at Fulham, players with such rare qualities should be cherished.

I spoke with Danny after the game. (It was very good of him to talk to me as he was then in process of applying two large ice packs to the knocks he had received, and was clearly still in some considerable discomfort.) I asked him whether he was, as has been rumoured, The Secret Footballer who writes a weekly column in The Guardian newspaper and who expressed similar views and the time. “I’m not the Secret Footballer” replied Danny. “I wouldn’t write anonymously. Anything I want to say goes out in my name………I think that is important.” Whilst we were speaking the atavistic faces of two Stoke (so called) fans appeared pressed up against the other side of the plate glass window, looking in and mouthing obscenities at Danny. This was a graphic reminder that not only is it important to be prepared to speak out and to be attributed for honest and intelligent opinions, but also that in soccer this can be a brave principal to live by. Sometimes our “beautiful game” has very ugly faces.

Josephus

18.10.2011