One of the best things about football is that it leads to discussion, and divides opinion. Just like the finest art, football is at it’s best when not simply serving to entertain, but to provoke and make the observer think.
A few different discussions on man-of-the-match, and player performance levels, over the past few weeks has brought this concept to the forefront of my mind. Why is it that, in the match against Wigan, votes for MoTM can vary almost across One to Eleven? Why is it that opinion on our full backs, centre midfielders and strike force can vary so much?
There are obviously many reasons. Different people look for different qualities in players, have differing levels of benchmark performance or simply have a different outlook on life. However, something that strikes me as fairly significant is your viewing platform for the game. It gives you a different perspective.
By perspective, I’m not talking glass half full or half empty (although that will definitely matter), but how you actually view the match. For most of us, there are three main views from which to watch Fulham on a regular basis; behind the goal (in either the Hammersmith or Putney Ends), side on (in either the Johnny Haynes or Riverside Stands) or on television/online. There is a fourth viewing point, but frankly, I’d be impressed if anyone with access to the corner view from The Cottage balcony reads this.
View from The Cottage Balcony
Each one of the three main views has its own merits as you can see different things. Sitting behind the goal allows you to see the whole field so to speak; formations and tactics and player movement can all be seen building up before they happen. Side on; closer detail, and action at both ends. TV, while making it impossible to watch anything off the ball, you can usually see exactly what happens, and then see it again on replays just to make sure.
As someone who has a season ticket along the side of the pitch, my opinions and musings will come from a different perspective than those of you who watch our games primarily from behind the goal or on a TV. We all get the chance to watch on TV, or (at least if you’re like me), you search out every highlight of the game you’ve just got home from watching live and in person.
The players whom I feel I know more intimately than others (due to my seating position) are the right back and right midfielder when they’re attacking, and the left back and left midfielder when they’re defending. This might explain why I am such a harsh critic of Damian Duff and Stephen Kelly at times. Not due to any bias or ill will against them, but that they fall in my closest gaze more often than anyone else. It also partially explains my fondness for Chris Baird (to the extent that I own a Green and Gold third shirt with ‘Bairdinho 6’ on the back.
Stephen Kelly has been an unfortunate victim of my perspective. Where I sit is perfect position to see the right back overlap and attack. This is not Kelly’s strongest attribute, despite some marked improvements in recent weeks, and has, as such, fallen focus of my attention. Kelly’s, at times, sterling defending is not usually right in front of my eyes, so perhaps it falls, to an extent, out of sight, out of mind.
My perspective on John Pantsil was perhaps the opposite; he often attacked with verve and could sometimes cross the ball quite well. Defensively, he was (at times) a flight of fancy, and sometimes dangerously casual with the ball, especially in front of Mark Schwarzer’s goal. He was the North to Stephen Kelly’s South.
I will discuss who, in my opinion, is our player of the season once the season has actually ended, but perhaps it is perspective that led George Cohen to proclaim Moussa Dembele his choice, ahead of Clint Dempsey in a recent matchday programme column. Like me, Cohen attends every match at the Cottage with a viewpoint from the side of the pitch, and towards the middle of the park. The exact area in which Moussa has excelled since his Boxing Day position switch to central midfield.
The added dimension of a change of angle makes every away trip just that bit more interesting for me. Whether it’s the corner at White Hart Lane, behind the goal in the Shed at Chelsea or the matchbox upper tier at Loftus Road, every new view lets you see something else.
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.
[A week after THAT win against QPR our newest contributor shares his views on the team selection. Welcome to the HammyEnd team Joseph!]
In Fulham’s previous games this season Martin Jol has tried some interesting and constructive, though far from wholly successful experiments with set-up, individual player’s positions, and personnel. He can now be justly satisfied that for in this game almost all his tactical decisions and strategic ploys worked out. In particular he is to be congratulated on the following initiatives.
First, in abandoning the 4-2-3-1 very effectively deployed in the mid-week European game and reverting to 4-4-2. The new flexibility that Jol has introduced in adopting different systems so as to adapt to specific circumstances is very welcome.
Secondly, in choosing Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora as the two front men. This was a far from obvious choice before the game. Although now the man in form, AJ had a hard game in mid week, and there were clearly other contenders. Despite seeming the classic English ‘little and quick, with big and powerful’ front two combination, AJ and Zamora have over the past three seasons started together on relatively few occasions, due to their respective injury and form problems.
Thirdly, in playing Mousa Dembele on the right of midfield, and Clint Dempsey on the left with licence to get central and forward. I do believe that this is the most effective positioning for both these gifted ballplayers. Dembele is a most exciting player. At his best his rapid change of pace and direction whist retaining close control of the ball, distinctly reminds me of Charlie Cook, (for post baby boomers, he is the great Chelsea Anglo-Scots player of the 1960’s.) However he is not an out and out striker, as has been previously tried. Dempsey can be a very brave and effective loan striker, though he is better used as an attacking midfielder.
Fourthly, in sticking with the Hangeland / Baird axis as central defenders. (The Hangeland and Senderos combination used in some earlier games just did not work. With this we even saw some uncharacteristic mistakes on the part of the usually immaculately safe Hangeland.) I do believe that the best potential combination remains the time tested partnership of Hangeland and Hughes. (Baird possibly doesn’t have the physical stature to make a regular central defender for all occasions. Lescott was on occasion able to boss him aside in the game against Man City). Baird would be my right (or utility left) back of choice, even though Grygera is a real find as a right back.
Fifthly, in combining Danny Murphy with Steve Sidwell in central midfield. Danny again had a superb game. He is that rare talent, what the Italian’s call a “register”, a type of playmaker who by his distribution and positioning can rule a game. Murphy aided and abetted by Sidwell, did control the midfield and direct this game. (Jol has also learnt, as did Sparky in the second half of last season, to substitute Murphy in the last quarter before he starts to fade.)
Sixthly, I would like to think that the decision that Baird and Riise should take the goal kicks resulted from a positive tactical decision, and not from any injury problem on the part of the goal keeper. Schwartzer is a truly great goalkeeper, arguably the best in the premiership at picking balls out of the air in difficult situations. If he has a weakness it is in some of his distribution which is not always optimum, particularly from goal kicks. Baird is a soccer artilleryman very much suited to taking goal kicks. (It does make me nostalgic to see a fullback taking gaol kicks. I recall that Tony Macedo, Fulham’s goalkeeper in my youth, often ceded this duty to his fullback Jim Langley.)
Lastly, one slight disappointment, in that Jol did not persist with using Mathew Briggs at left back. This season Briggs has shown real potential as a genuine wing-back of quality, (although I was not convinced by Jol’s experiment in the early European games to try him as a left winger.) Brigg’s performance against Chelsea was particularly impressive. Briggs has real pace, unlike Riise, who although a consummate professional, is now appreciably less quick than in the days of his pomp with Liverpool.
So let us hear it for the new manager, who has been brave enough to try things out, and also got things right……………….at least for this Derby game.