An enigma from Sunderland v Fulham 19.11.2011I 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.
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.