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Tactical Variety vs Wolves

Something at the Fulham-Wolves game really sprang to my attention. In contrast to the disciplined 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 that the team played under Hodgson, there was a fair deal of variety in the way the team lined up on Saturday. Watching the team’s set up during goal-kicks is always a fairly good indicator (if not a perfect one) of the formation in which they are being set up by their manager.

The flexibility really derived from the versatility of the three D’s – Davies, Dembele and Dempsey.

The game kicked off with a fairly basic 4-4-2, with Davies and Dembele on the wings, and Dempsey just off Bobby Zamora.

However, there was a variation that I hadn’t seen a recent Fulham side use. Having seen the way Manchester City played under Mark Hughes (and continue to do so now), it certainly appears that this slight change has his mark all over it.

Whilst the back four remained the same way as it was, the midfield turned into a three. Murphy dropped slightly deeper as the pivot. Whilst Etuhu remained alongside him (although in a slightly more advanced position), Simon Davies moved inside and did the same. Now, Fulham had three central midfielders.

Bobby Zamora remained the sole man up front, but now had two men supporting him on either side – Dembele just off his to his left, Dempsey to the right. Perhaps surprisingly, however, they were not stationed out wide, but in rather central positions, trying to get into the gap between the Wolves defence and midfield.

The team were lining up as a 4-3-2-1.

The arguments for this slight change seem to be that Hughes wanted more bodies in the middle of the pitch. It came at a time when Fulham were being hacked to pieces, and rather losing out in the midfield battle. Hughes wanted to make up more competitive in the midfield, and play two of our most creative/threatening players in areas where they could do the most damage if they received the ball. Dembele has already spoken of how he feels he is developing “an understanding” with Dempsey – if this can work in advanced positions just off Zamora, it could be very dangerous. Play the ball up to Zamora, and he immediately has the trickery Dempsey and Dembele supporting him.

However, a repercussion of this change was that the full-backs suddenly had more on their plate. As well as having to offer width themselves, they now had to deal with the opposing wingers with less help than they had previously. Whilst Kelly dealt well with the pacey Jarvis, Pantsil was clearly struggling, and this did little to help his performance.

Pantsil’s confidence levels are clearly low this season. Perhaps he’s struggling now that Hodgson is no longer at the club. Maybe the talk that Hughes was looking to replace him and ship him off to West Brom has affected him. Or he’s still shattered after the World Cup. Either way, he’s looked poor this season, and this slight change in formation did little to help him.

The 4-3-2-1 was short-lived. Zamora went off injured soon after, and one full-back was struggling and lucky to stay on the pitch. Seeing the game through to half-time became essential, so Fulham reverted to the hard-to-break-down 4-4-1-1 that Hodgson instilled.

In the second half, the full-backs were instrumental in our improved performance. Kelly charged forwards and offered an outlet on the left hand side – not in the same league as Konchesky, but with Davies cutting inside, it provided some vital width after a narrow first half, and led to the equaliser.

Baird’s introduction was always a key factor. Not only was he less error-prone than Pantsil (although Jarvis left him for dead at one stage), but his distribution was terrific, finding Gera, Murphy and Dembele with regularity. In addition, he provided an option on the overlap as Gera drove inwards with the ball.

Finally the addition of Eddie Johnson towards the end was a decent move. Dembele, Dempsey, Gera and (to an extent) Davies all like to play in similar positions. All, essentially, are attacking midfielders – none are out-and-out forwards. Johnson’s introduction meant that the side now had someone up top at all time, and injected some pace to the side at the expense of the tricky but rather sluggish Dempsey. Dempsey was being targeted by the Wolves players (he was the most fouled player on the pitch), and his control was not at the levels he would perhaps set himself.

Johnson’s introduction meant that the side had a pacey option up top, and a strong player who would work the channels. Whilst the Wolves centre-halfs were robust, neither had a good deal of pace – amply demonstrated by Berra’s body check when Johnson played the ball past him, and his immediate dismissal. In addition, it meant that Dembele could work just behind a front-man, rather than be the most advanced player on the pitch. Now, the side had someone whose role was to be “the” forward man, rather than one who likes to drop off into space and clutter the midfield further.

As a result of Zamora’s injury, adding to those of Andy Johnson and Diomansy Kamara, Eddie will find himself with quite a role to play for the rest of the season.

So. Mark Hughes, then?

Right, so Mark Hughes appears to be a done deal, if we are to believe the Guardian, Mail and Express (even if ESPN aren’t quite so sure). Oddly enough, when I heard the news, I was neither terribly excited nor filled with dread. Just filled with a strange sense of apathy. Anyways, my two cents for what they’re worth. (Well, two cents, obviously…..)

Yes, it could have been better. But at least the board have been ambitious in their pursuit for a new manager. Clearly Ottmar Hitzfeld was sounded out, but he turned the club down to finish the last two years of his career at international level with Switzerland. Martin Jol was always my personal choice, and was delighted to see that Fulham were trying so hard to get him, but in the end Ajax would not let him go. Reportedly, it would have taken some £8.4m to have persuaded Ajax to let go. I would have been happy with Sven Goran Eriksson too, and could see him being a good “fit” at Fulham for some reason. But Al Fayed clearly never really fancied him for the job.

Equally, however, it could have been a lot, lot worse. This is not the disaster that some fans are suggesting. Who else was available? Lee Clark – Fulham legend, but not proven in the Premier League. Same applies to Sean O’Driscoll. Whilst I believe that lower league managers should get their chance at the top level, clearly Al Fayed still has the reign of Lawrie Sanchez lodged firmly in mind, and is understandably determined not to go down that route again – perhaps why Dave Jones was discounted. Similarly, Jurgen Klinsmann and Slaven Bilic fell at a similar hurdle. Like Sanchez, they did pretty well at international level. At club level however, the former failed at Bayern whilst the latter has managed for only five games at club level, at Hajduk Spilt. Bob Bradley is a similar story – outside of the USA national team, he has managed Chicago Fire, MetroStars and Chivas USA. Rather a gamble to take.

Then there are the likes of Alan Curbishley – a good manager for a Fulham-level club, but one with some serious issues with numerous members of our playing staff; Stuart Baxter – a Hodgson-lite, it seems, with no experience of managing in England; Gianfranco Zola apparently expressed his interest, but was told thanks, but no thanks. Apart from that, who else was a viable option? Glenn Hoddle was mentioned in passing, but has been out of the game since 2006, and is concentrating on his academy. Would Manuel Pellegrini really have taken such a step down from the Bernabeu to Craven Cottage? It is clear that Fulham have taken their time to assess all the candidates, and to choose who they believe is the right man for the job.

What Fulham have got in Mark Hughes is a manager who has done well in the Premier League before, and has a point to prove that he can do so again. After doing well as the manager of Wales, he was a resounding success at Blackburn Rovers, leading them to three top-10 finishes in his four years there, including a 6th and a 7th. Deservedly so, he was hailed as being one of the best “up-and-coming” managers in the game, and all but a few years ago was heavily linked as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor at Old Trafford.

I’m not entirely sure where this belief that Hughes has his teams play Allardyce-esque football comes from. What what I’ve seen, his teams have been (mostly) solid in the centre, with emphasis placed on counter-attacking football down the wings. Admittedly, at Blackburn they came last in the disciplinary rankings for all of his four seasons there, but how much of that was already part of the footballing culture there before he arrived, I’m not sure. What is worrying, however, is that his teams aren’t great defensively. Hopefully retaining Ray Lewington will help us keep some of the positional organisation and discipline that was such an important part of our game under Roy Hodgson.

Hughes got his move to Manchester City, where he was not the disaster that some people would have us to believe. He was sacked with Manchester City a respectable 6th in the league, having only lost once in the league all season (and that in Fergie-time at Old Trafford). Another negative thrown at him is that he wasted millions on average players at Manchester City (£22m for Joleon Lescott, anyone?). However, it must be emphasised that Manchester City do not play with the same financial constraints as everybody else, and as a result other clubs with take advantage of this when City come after their players. Whoever is at Manchester City will have to spend millions to get even the most average of players, that’s just the way it is now. Perhaps Hughes is one of those managers who are far better at finding bargains than splashing wads of cash. The Manchester City and Blackburn fans I have spoken to say that he has a good eye for a bargain, as was amply demonstrated by his time at Ewood Park.

There’s inevitably going to be much speculation now on which players Hughes is going to sign, and who will leave the club. Mark Schwarzer, Paul Konchesky and Bobby Zamora have all been heavily linked with moves away at some stage this summer, with the first two looking the more likely. Will they stay or go now that Hughes has been appointed? A deal for Steve Sidwell has been agreed, pending whether Hughes approves the deal, and whether Sidwell is happy to work with Hughes. David James is said to fancy playing at Fulham, and has been holding out until Schwarzer’s future is resolved before committing himself to anything.

Much of the transfer speculation will doubtless focus on Manchester City players, such as Craig Bellamy, Roque Santa Cruz, Stephen Ireland and Nedum Onuoha. Personally, I cannot see these players making their way to ply their trade at Craven Cottage, at least, not all of them. For a start, Fulham only have £20m to spend – the club cannot afford to buy them. Secondly, their wages are quite simply out of our league. If Fulham were to get any of them, my guess would be that they would be loan signings. The new rules regarding 25-man squads will mean that City will be paying for players to literally do nothing. Whilst I’m sure they can afford it, it wouldn’t surprise me too much, for instance, if there was an offer to pay 50% of some players’ wages if they might come to the club on loan until January, or even the end of the season.

This is going to be an interesting couple of months for us Fulham fans. What changes will Hughes make to the management staff, playing staff and style of play? How well will Hughes and the players gel? And, perhaps most importantly of all, how will the start of the season pan out? ¬Sure, after waiting for what seems like ages, it would have been nice to have got a genuinely world-class manager. Hughes is probably as good as Fulham could possibly expect to get at this moment, with the possible exception of Jol. Personally, I am actually more interested than excited in how this appointment will develop. And I fear that is part of the problem people are having with this appointment.

What I gleaned from the Fulham reserves tonight

My take on the Fulham reserve player performances from tonights match against Birmingham:

Etheridge: Good saves when called upon, commanded his area well, and distribution was excellent. Impressed me when I last saw him against Kingstonian in a pre-season game some eighteen months ago; delighted to see that he has progressed further.

Stoor: Showed keenness to go forward and to attack, but looked uncomfortable when players were running at him. Made some bizarre (and very poor) decisions in dangerous areas. I can see why Hodgson prefers to play Kelly. Was really hoping that Stoor would impress me tonight. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

Toure: Certainly has all the raw attributes to be a good central defender. He’s a big lad, with a fair amount of pace. Good in the air, made some good tackles too, including one superb last ditch sliding tackle to deny Phillips. Apparently this was only his second start for the Reserves. Very impressive, certainly more so than Pierre when I saw him against Arsenal in November.

Briggs: Just class. Good in the air and on the ground; quick; shepherded the ball out of play well. Excellent on the ball – not only good distribution, but a couple of runs upfield too, one of which forced a smart save from Doyle. There was a man in the stands in a Chelsea tracksuit. I just hope he wasn’t there to try and poach Briggs. We won’t miss Smalling too much if Briggs continues his development.

Marsh-Brown: Started off at left-back, and didn’t really look too comfortable there. Much too right-footed to link up effectively with Buchtmann on the flank. Looked a lot better when switched to the right wing in the second half. Great pace and dribbling ability, frightening the life out of the Birmingham defence. I definitely think this boy has a future, but must be played on the right. Unless he was played there to try and improve his left-foot (which failed anyway, as he barely used it except for standing on).

Brown: Worked hard, didn’t waste the ball, and looked to attack. Reminds me a fair bit of a slower version of Riise actually, with the only other difference being that Riise like to go wide and cross the ball, whilst Brown likes to cut into more central areas and shoot. Frequently swapped positions with Hoesen and played behind Okaka, and showed some nice touches. I don’t think he can play CM in the first team (to the level of Murphy or even Greening), and unfortunately he’s no better than what we have in the wide areas. Hope he makes it though.

Dikagcoi: Really impressed me tonight. Won the ball well, and showed some of his expansive passing range with some cracking passes to the front two and the wide men, and also recycled the ball well in tighter areas. Still prone to making needless gaffes though, and sometimes chooses a very silly option in dangerous areas, but could certainly make a difference in our first team. Would very much like to see what he can do alongside Murphy. Has all the physical attributes of Etuhu, but with Baird’s passing.

[Replaced on the hour mark by left back Alex Smith, who looked more comfortable there than Marsh-Brown, and dealt very well with the impressive Nathan Redmond. Smith went to LB, Marsh-Brown to RM, and Brown to LM.]

Milsom: This boy really impresses me every time I see him play. Excellent pressuring in midfield, won the ball well, and distributed it nicely. Have now seen him play at left-back, left-wing and centre-midfield, and he looks comfortable all over the park. Such a shame he suffered such a nasty injury after he made his debut at Old Trafford last season, as Hodgson said he was heavily knocking on the first-team door at the time. Next year is a big one for him, but I think he can be a valuable and versatile squad member.

Buchtmann: Certainly has talent. Nippy player, with excellent pace and dribbling skills. Reminds me of a young Damien Duff at times actually. Likes to cut into central areas as well. With both him and Brown fond of this, I wonder if there would be benefit in playing them on their “reverse flanks”, much in the way that Duff and Dempsey are utilised in the first team. If we got him as cheaply as reported, we got one hell of a bargain. Less effective when moved to CM after the departure of Dikagcoi.

Hoesen: Quick and certainly has some excellent ball skills. One particular highlight was when Hoesen nutmegged two Birmingham players in succession, in the space of about three seconds. Composed finish. Replaced soon after Dikagcoi by the equally rapid Stefan Payne, who closed down defenders well, but other than one snapshot, didn’t really have any chances.

Okaka: A class above everybody else on the pitch. Certainly the strongest. Shrugged tacklers away, so difficult to dispossess. Equally adept at running off the shoulder of the last defender as he is dropping deep and linking up play. Looks more comfortable than he did at the start of his spell – whether that’s to do with Hodgson’s training or simply settling into a foreign culture, he’s clearly improved. Would like to see him get more game time with the first team in the future.

Fulham Reserves see off Birmingham

Just got in from Motspur Park, where the Fulham Reserves comfortably beat their Birmingham counterparts 3-0.

Fulham lined up in what was more  a 4-2-2-2 formation than the more familiar 4-4-2 that the first team play. Neil Etheridge was given a chance in goal, protected by the strong-looking defensive units of Cheick Toure and Matthew Briggs, flanked by Fredrik Stoor and Keanu Marsh-Brown on an unfamiliar left-hand side. Kagisho Dikagcoi and Robert Milsom sat quite deep in midfield, hounding and hassling the Birmingham midfielders when not in possession; and recycling the ball intelligently when they did. Wayne Brown and Chris Buchtmann playing in advanced positions on the flanks; Stefano Okaka and Danny Hoesen were given a go up front, where they made intelligent runs and dropped deep with effect.

Birmingham gave starts to Kevin Phillips, Teemu Tainio and ex-Fulham defender Franck Queudrue, but other than these three, this was an inexperienced line-up.

Fulham opened the scoring in the early stages of the game:  Dikagcoi played a long pass over the Birmingham defence; Hoesen timed his run brilliantly to beat the offside trap, and slotted the ball calmly past Colin Doyle in the Birmingham goal.

Minutes later, Fulham doubled their lead. Milsom, Buchtmann and Okaka linked up well in position, before Wayne Brown received the ball on the right hand side. Brown cut inside and shot – crucially, it took a big deflection, taking it past the helpless Doyle.

And before the quarter of an hour mark had passed, Fulham found themselves three goals up. Buchtmann’s deep corner from the right-hand side was nodded back across the face of goal by Briggs, leaving Okaka with the simple task of poking the ball home.

What was rather strange about this game is that other than this burst of three goals, it could be claimed that Birmingham were in fact the better side. They certainly had more of the ball, with the impressive Michel Madera demonstrating his broad range of passing. Phillips too looked dangerous, dropping deep and linking play well. However, on the one occasion he found himself through on goal, he also found Etheridge making a very impressive stop to deny the ex-England striker.

The second half was much of the same. Birmingham had most of the ball, especially once Dikgacoi departed and Buchtmann moved into the centre, but were unable to break through a stubborn and hard-working Fulham side. How often we have seen this with the senior side, allowing the opposition to keep the ball and do nothing with it; pressing them and not letting them create anything like a decent chance; before Fulham break away, attacking with intent and incision. Indeed, it says much of the game that whilst Birmingham had plenty of the ball, Etheridge wasn’t overly troubled. The best chance of the half went to Fulham, Okaka teeing up Brown on the left-hand side, forcing Doyle to make a super save.

All in all, a convincing and comfortable win, with impressive performances all over the pitch. Whilst Birmingham had a lot of the ball, it was Fulham who looked the more dangerous side. And much of that was down to the excellent work by Dikagcoi and Milsom in the centre of midfield.

FULHAM RESERVES (4-2-2-2): Etheridge; Stoor, Marsh-Brown, Briggs, Toure; Dikgacoi (Smith 65), Milsom, Brown, Buchtmann; Okaka, Hoesen (Payne 71). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Pierre, Harris.

GOALS: Hoesen (9), Brown (14), Briggs (18).

BIRMINGHAM CITY RESERVES (4-4-2): Doyle; Ozturk (Dunphy 69), Rowe, Kerr, Queudrue; Michel (Sammons 75), Tainio, O’Shea, Shroot; Phillips (Redmond 75), Jervis. Subs (not used): Butland, Asante.

Thoughts from the Burnley game

Fulham were superb tonight, all the way through the team. The BBC match report seems rather skewed to me, suggesting that Burnley were at least as good as we were tonight, and only lost because of some poor refereeing. Sat from where I was in the Putney End tonight, I must say that the first two goals didn’t seem blatantly offside to me or those sat around me, although obviously I must be wrong about that. In fact, I could have sworn that there were a couple of handballs in the Burnley penalty area that were missed by the referee too, so I suppose it’s swings and roundabouts.

Schwarzer was solid if rarely tested, collecting every cross that came his way with consummate ease. Even Mears’ free-kick that clipped the post appeared to be covered by the Australian. Hughes was as good as ever – it hardly seems worth commenting on his performances any more. What a snip he was at £1m – thank you Martin O’Neill (and Lawrie Sanchez)! Hangeland was more dominant than he has been in recent months, even if his positioning isn’t as good as it perhaps was last season.

Shorey continues to look absolute quality at left-back. At this rate, Konchesky is not going to get back into the side, unless he plays in front or behind Shorey on the flank. Baird too seems a lot more composed and adept in the RB slot than he did under Sanchez. Not sure whether that has anything to do with a) Roy’s coaching and defensive set-up; b) confidence and an improved skill set from playing in midfield; or c) having better players alongside him. Either way, he was excellent tonight. Baird and Shorey too offer the attacking threat from full back that is so crucial to our play, providing valuable width whilst our wingers cut inside and feed off front men’s work.

I was saying last week how it was time to give up the Baird-Murphy partnership, and play a more physical enforcer to add some presence next to Murphy. Etuhu and Dikgacoi really do seem to provide Murphy with a lot more space and time on the ball, and crucially we seem to be much more adept at regaining possession with one of them in the side. Etuhu was superb tonight, breaking up play well, and allowing Murphy to influence play and spray passes all over the park, safe in the knowledge that Etuhu was offering protection behind him.

Duff was dangerous every time he got the ball, and seemed to get behind the Burnley defence time after time (maybe due to some poor work from the officials. And how good was it to see Simon Davies back playing again? He has played on the left hand side and fair bit under Hodgson, so that doesn’t worry me too much. Considering it was his first game back in a while, I thought he played well, despite being slightly rusty at times. Riise demonstrated the bundles of energy that we have come to expect from him; Greening came on with the sole intention of preventing the dangerous Eagles from inspiring any Burnley attacks, and did so pretty effectively.

Zamora showed yet again just how crucial a player he is to our attacking play, bullying the Burnley defence, linking up beautifully with Duff, Murphy and Elm, putting pay to the concept that two target men can’t play well together. Zamora scored an excellent free-kick – another string to his bow – and could have had a couple more, were it not for the keeping of Jensen. Fortunately, one fell nicely at the feet of the impressive Elm who tucked it away nicely. He looks a decent player to me, leading the line well, with some nice flicks and link-play.

Despite having no real pace up front, these two played well together – either getting the better of the defence and running at goal; or passing it out wide and getting into decent positions in the box. They’re our best bet up front at the moment. Okaka caused Burnley some problems, but that first goal still eludes him. I think he’s better off at the moment coming on from the bench whilst he learns the nature of our game, and using his strength and pace to attack tiring defences.

For the first time in weeks, we looked a good, balanced side out there. We really cannot afford any more injuries though. Not because (as some might suggest) we will get sucked into a relegation battle – we have 34 points with 12 games remaining. But there is a very real danger that our season can peter out into nothingness.

All in all, an excellent three points. Lucky? Maybe. But nobody could suggest that it wasn’t deserved.