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Some thoughts from the Portsmouth game

Hodgson’s substitution in the early stages of the second half was absolutely key to last night’s result.

Kelly was very poor, and had to be taken off. I couldn’t hear any of the reported booing, just a silent air of relief. Think it’s pretty disgraceful to boo a player unless he’s obviously not trying. Kelly did try, but whatever he did went wrong. I felt sorry for the guy, but he had to be taken off – his confidence is clearly shot at the moment. Hughes was fantastic; Hangeland still looks a bit shakey (I think his recent back injury is still hampering his movement); and Schwarzer put his recent dodgy performances to one side and was outstanding – his first half saves prevented us from being out of the game, and made an excellent one in the second half, which he made look so easy.

The Baird-Murphy a partnership is simply no longer working as effectively as it once did. Baird makes a good combination with Greening, because they are both hasslers, who like to get stuck in. With Murphy, I really am starting to think that we need an “enforcer” next to him. Whilst Baird has had a superb season at CM, Murphy is the one that pulls the strings, so I would bring in Dikgacoi or Etuhu when fit, just to give Murphy that extra little bit of licence and freedom. Murphy started to take control more after the change, and we have to make sure that continues. I’m still not convinced by Dikgacoi quite yet, but we do need some more presence in the middle of the park, and a run of games for the South African could be beneficial for his development and for the team.

In addition, I thought Baird moving to right-back also made Duff a much more potent threat. Kelly didn’t seem too willing to make overlapping runs – Baird made them time and time again. When you have wingers who like/need to cut in, it is essential to have the full-backs overlapping – the opposing full-backs have little idea who to mark, and the wingers have more space with which to work with and run at the opposition defence. Barcelona are a prime example of this – whilst Messi is a fantastic player, it is Dani Alves who dominates the right hand flank. The result of this is that Messi can wander inside onto his stronger left foot, and the option to switch the play back out right for a cross remains. Both the advancing full-back has increased space to get a cross in (as Baird did for Zamora’s header), and the winger can cut inside and get a shot on goal with his stronger foot.

Shorey was excellent, little more needs to be said about him. He is absolutely tiny though – Kevin Davies targeted Konchesky in the air and dominated him in the home fixture this season, and doubtless will be licking his lips at the thought of doing the same to Shorey. Greening too worked his socks off – I was very disappointed to hear his name booed when read out at the start. He’s not a natural wide player, but he did a good job for us, and added that little bit of extra grit that we have perhaps been missing in recent weeks, and was essential in last night’s game. It would have been interesting to see whether he would have been played, had there not been an attacking full-back making his debut. Greening gave Shorey just that little bit of solidity with which to work with.

One final thought – I really felt that we missed AJ last night. Whilst Okaka looks promising, it was really evident how we missed a striker who a) defends from the front; and b) makes runs into the channels. The former makes it so much more difficult for teams to dictate play, as Pompey did for much of the first half. The latter is one of the side’s main ways of getting the ball into advanced and dangerous positions. Duff was livid at Okaka at one stage for not making such a run – instead he just stood there, being marked by a centre-back. We immediately looked more dangerous going forward when Nevland came on – his movement really helped us open up Pompey more frequently.

Okaka should learn this in time – he’s only been here a couple of days – but we really lacked that extra bit of movement up front which is so essential to our attacking play. Even the relatively pedestrian Elm, who impressed me last night, made these runs – no doubt a result of spending so much of the season so far training with the side and knowing exactly what is expected of him. If Okaka can learn and adapt to this aspect of our game, he should do well for us. He seems to have all the raw attributes to be a success in English football. Let’s just hope that he can put that (dreadful) miss behind him – we’re going to need him if Zamora is out injured.

It wasn’t the best game we’ve played – the first half in particular was beyond abysmal. Mentally though, this was a massive result. Get a point at Bolton, and bring on Burnley at the Cottage. Our fortunes won’t seem so bad then.

Who will fill-in for John Pantsil?

Now that Pantsil’s off to the ACN (and perhaps for longer if his knee injury is worse than feared), who’s going to play at right-back? Whoever it’s going to be has quite a job to live up to: Pantsil was outstanding against Didier Drogba this afternoon, and has been marvelous since his joined the club in the summer of 2008. The options:

Stephen Kelly: Injured at the moment (which is why Kallio was recalled so soon after his loan was extended), and I’m not sure how long he’s going to be out for. Whilst looking ok there, he hasn’t especially shone. However, in the home game against Basel, he dovetailed superbly down the right with Riise, and has plenty of Premier League experience at RB (more than most 25-year-olds). This could be his chance to show what he can properly do if he regains his fitness soon.

Chris Baird: At most an emergency right-back. Plus, he has been so impressive in centre-midfield that he should not be moved from there. His reading of the game is magnificent, resulting in him making multiple important interceptions, often nicking the ball from the feet of the opposition’s playmaker. Starting to develop a good partnership with Murphy, and with Etuhu going to the ANC too, that leaves Greening as the only other option (not sure if Dikgacoi is going as well). Whilst he’s done ok there, Baird deserves to keep his place next to Danny.

Aaron Hughes: Has played at right-back for Newcastle, Aston Villa and Northern Ireland, so will know what he is doing there. This move would also allow Chris Smalling to get more game time in between Hughes and Hangeland. However, Hughes does appear to be the one who leads and organises the defence, and this might be difficult for him to do at right-back.

Fredrik Stoor: This would be an interesting one. Wants first-team football, but seems keen to leave the club too. A good spell in the side could be his chance to alert interest in him from other clubs, meaning that he can leave and we can get a decent return from our investment in him. Equally, if he plays well enough, he could show Hodgson what he can offer the side, and get more game time in the future. Was injured recently at Derby though, and am unsure when he will be fit again to play.

Chris Smalling: Has impressed so far at centre-back, and this could be an opportunity for him to get more experience in the first-team. In addition, it could be invaluable for him to get a further understanding of a full-back’s role, and make him a more versatile player. However, he doesn’t seem to have the pace to play at full-back, and having performed so well in the centre, it would be demanding and rather unfair for him to be asked to do so in an unfamiliar postion.

Keanu Marsh-Brown: Regarded as one of Fulham’s most promising prospects. An attacking right-back, now a regular in the development squad, but having never played for the first team, it would be a massive surprise if Hodgson elected to thrust him into the starting line-up.

Or perhaps there is some substance to Hodgson’s reported interest in Tottenham’s Alan Hutton….


Yet more thoughts on Jonathan Greening

On Sunday, I wrote this piece about Jonathan Greening. Unfortunately, my internet broke before I could upload it. Now that it is mended, I have seen a plethora of articles about this very subject, including one from the ever-excellent CCN. Nevertheless, here is another take for those of you who haven’t tired of the Greening debate quite yet…..

We Fulham fans tend to be a fan of scapegoating individual players. Under Sanchez, first it was Steven Davis (a player who I think would do a very good job for us now, but that’s a different matter). Next, it was Chris Baird and then Bobby Zamora, both of whom have proven themselves to be very good players and have been key to our side in recent months. Now, it appears that attentions have been turned to Jonathan Greening.

His every (rare) mis-placed pass is greeting with groans and curses; when his passes do find their target, he is still bemoaned for rarely passing forward and venturing into the opposition half. That, combined with the fact that he gives away a few free-kicks (down to not being afraid to put his foot in) and the fee that the club have supposedly agreed with West Brom for him (not his fault) have led to him not exactly being a fans’ favourite at the Cottage.

There are, however, two things that I believe need to be looked at before we lambast Greening further for his performances.

Firstly, a closer look at the role Greening plays is vital.

Who are the dangermen in our side? The players that can create chances out of nothing? Well, the front two of Zamora and Johnson, although short on goals, are key in our forward play. Most of their service has come from the defenders (mainly Aaron Hughes) passing to their feet or into the corners for them to chase, where they then bring others into the game in attacking areas. Murphy occasionally plays a through-ball, but with all of our quick strikers out injured, this part of the game is ruled out at the moment. Murphy, of course, is our other main attacking player, but Greening doesn’t play with him, only as cover for him.

Our main attacking threat, however, comes from the wide players, Duff and Dempsey. The full-backs too like to come forward and join the attack – see how key Pantsil was in our two second-half goals against Blackburn. Greening’s passes are predominantly to these wide players. If he is not feeding the dangerous, flair players in our side, then he is keeping possession in tight spaces, before switching the direction of attack, spreading play to these players in more space, who in turn can stretch and run at the defence.

My previous article about Bobby Zamora highlighted how Zamora enables us to play in the attacking third of the pitch. Greening effectively does the same – he might not play defence-splitting passes, but more often than not, he enables the side to keep possession. Gabriele Marcotti agrees with this view, referring to Greening as “technically, at least, Fulham’s best player after Murphy”.

Secondly, it does seem to take a while for new signings to adjust to Hodgson’s system. We all know that Roy uses a very structured formation, especially in central midfield – hence his willingness to let Bullard go. He likes these players to constantly be in position, and not to shirk their defensive responsibilities. Chris Baird has stepped in and done an immediate job in the middle, but he has been training with Hodgson since he took over, and knows exactly what is required of him. It took the team some three or four months after Hodgson took over for them to understand what was required of them, although admittedly there were some severe mitigating circumstances.

Cast your minds back to Dickson Etuhu’s first performances for the club. He was signed in the end of August, was promptly injured, before beginning to play at the end of December, when Bullard was injured/went on strike. His opening performances were so poor that he was dubbed by many as a “badly injured Michael Mison”. Likewise, Greening missed all of pre-season and the first couple of games, meaning that he has had to learn his very precise role “on the go”, with other key players around him missing. Even Zoltan Gera, playing in the wide roles where there is a bit more license to roam and cut infield, has only just stared to operate at the high level that we all know he can.

Greening has been improving in a very demanding role. His opening performances weren’t great, and these were tough games against decent opposition (Aston Villa, Manchester City, and the European games, plus the occasional appearance as a substitute). The turning point for me was the home match against Roma. He was excellent in both of those games, and has been a constant since, in an injury-depleted side that has only been defeated twice during his run in the team – once unjustly (Roma away) and another (Birmingham away) in which his performance was highly praised by the manager. His set-pieces too have been dangerous, although haven’t quite had the reward that they deserve (a couple of glaring misses against Blackburn in particular come to mind).

I think part of the problem is that he is NOT a Danny Murphy type player – he is by no means a match-winning or a match-changing player. What he does do, however, is keep the side ticking over in midfield, often starting our attacking moves (our goal against Bolton originated from a good forward pass from Greening), and breaking up opposition moves.

I admit that when Murphy returns, he should take Greening’s place in the team, even though he wasn’t great this season before his injury. However , I am more than happy to have a player like Greening as an option on the bench – he is a proven Premiership player, and think how many of those we could call upon last season, when our only midfield option was Olivier Dacourt.

What we do now have is somebody who we can call upon to do a good job, one who will do better and better the more he gets accustomed to Roy’s system. It’s a sign of how far we have come under Hodgson when we can complain that somebody like Greening isn’t good enough – and perhaps also a testament to Chris Baird’s improvement and the potential that Hodgson has spotted in Kagisho Dikgacoi. Once we have a fully-fit side once again, our squad will look as strong as it has ever been in our time in the Premiership. And that can only be a good thing.

Bobby Zamora – a striker, or a forward?

“Bobby Zamora,” a typical argument will go, “is rubbish. He can’t score for toffee. A striker’s job is to score goals, and as Zamora is appalling at doing this, he is not doing his job properly, and should be out of the team.”

I believe that there is a key distinction between a striker and a forward, and I shall explain why this is important in the Bobby Zamora saga.

A striker, in my opinion, is somebody who has no other role in the team other than to score goals. If you have a good one, and an excellent side around him that creates a plethora of chances every game, he can be invaluable. A prime example of this is Michael Owen – an excellent finisher, but a player who offers absolutely nothing else to his side. Even Erik Nevland could fall into this category.

On the other hand, I view a forward rather differently. Unlike the striker, his role isn’t to score goals. That’s not to say that he is told not to score (although some scallywags might argue that Zamora could well have been, given his reluctance to put the ball in the back of the net), merely that scoring is not his primary role in the team. A forward gives defenders a torrid time, bullying them and dragging them out of position whilst winning flick-ons to his team-mates. A forward provides an outlet to his team when they are on the defensive, playing the ball up to him and hoping that he will retain possession for them (or winning free-kicks, corners, throw-ins etc.), whilst his team-mates get into more advanced positions. A forward plays much of the game with his back to goal, linking up play with his midfield and striking partner.

A forward should be viewed as a player who is at his most effective in the final third of the pitch – not as a player whose sole job is to score. Bobby Zamora is definitely a forward, not a striker. The equally-maligned Emile Heskey also falls into this category, and these two players are both rated very highly, not only by their own managers and players, but also by the opposition managers. Opposition managers certainly praised the jobs Zamora (and indeed AJ) played last season many, many times. It is a selfless job being a forward, one which brings not only a lack of praise from the fans, but often disdain from them.

Obviously, there are examples of forwards who are marvelous finishers – forwards and strikers are categories that are certainly not mutually exclusive. Players such as Drogba, Adebayor, and Ibrahimovic, for example, but these are all fantastic players who are certainly out of our reach. The last one we really had was Louis Saha, who left us for Manchester United. McBride wasn’t bad either. If he can get more consistency, Carlton Cole has the attributes to also become a goal-scoring forward.

Obviously, everybody would like it if Zamora would (or rather, could) score more often. There is little doubt however that Fulham often play a lot better when he is in the side. Against Arsenal, he showed exactly what he, and any good forward, offers to the side with one moment in particular in the first half. A ball was played upfield to him. Zamora, running towards the corner of the pitch to get the ball, dragged Vermaelen out away from the centre with him, barged into the Belgian and used his strength to retain the ball. He held onto the ball until players got into advanced positions, before he laid the ball off for Zoltan Gera to cross. As Zamora was occupying the largest of Arsenal’s defenders by the corner flag, the diminutive Johnson was able to win the header, and only an excellent stop from Mannone prevented a goal. Zamora, isolated in the corner of the pitch, a) held onto the ball until options came, and b) used his physical threat to draw the largest of the opposition centre-backs away from the danger area. He played well throughout the game, and only his finishing and an excellent save denied him a well-deserved goal.

I will readily admit that Bobby Zamora is a rubbish striker. But he is an excellent forward.

A worse start than expected?

As it stands, Fulham lie in 17th position, just two points above the relegation zone. Is this almost a case of second-season-syndrome? Obviously we have spent longer than two seasons in the Premiership, but last season we seemed almost an entirely different team from the relegation-threatened one that we were for the few seasons before, and I think it’s fair to say that we took quite a few teams by surprise with the quality and organisation of our play. Are we now suffering because, as has been suggested, teams have now worked us out?

Six points in six games is admittedly relegation form, but as Hodgson himself stated, it is important to look at the teams that we have already played. Even though Fulham finished the season in a superb 7th position, our first six games this season have already included four of the teams that finished above us. How many points were we seriously expected to get from these games?

Portsmouth admittedly were/are in disarray; Chelsea have a vastly superior side to us; and Villa away was always going to be more than tricky, especially considering the injuries we had. Despite the run that saw us beat Everton at home every year, they still finished in 5th last year, and ended that particular hoodoo in the final game of last season; Wolves seem to be a decent side at home, and we always struggle early on in the season away at newly-promoted clubs (see Hull and WBA last season); whilst Arsenal have been playing some superb football this year.

Perhaps a quick look at BBC’s “Lawro’s Predictions” might give some insight as to how we were expected to fare in our matches so far this season.

Portsmouth 0-2 Fulham

Fulham 1-2 Chelsea

Aston Villa 2-1 Fulham

Fulham 1-2 Everton

Wolves 2-1 Fulham

Fulham 1-2 Arsenal

So, if Lawrenson was correct, we have managed to double our expected tally already this season. I know a lot of people (and I include myself in this) don’t think that Lawrenson is exactly the best pundit in the world, but his predictions do indicate a rough guideline of what is expected of certain matches – and his predictions are probably fairly reflected by the odds in the bookies too.

The immediate future isn’t looking too great either. Of our next five league games, only two are at home, including one in which we host Liverpool. After that, we will have played five home games, four of which were against teams that finished in the top five last season. We will soon get home games that will be far more winnable, the first of which being Hull on the 19th. If we struggle in those games, then would be the right time to be concerned, not now. And if we continue to play like we did against Arsenal, we should have no trouble at all this season. It might not be as comfortable as the last one, and we might not finish in the top half, but we should be fine.

No need to panic. At least, not yet.