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.
Our Italian loan signing has fielded some interesting questions from Fulham fans. Apparently, he ‘eats well in England,’ Roy’s Italian is very good and he wants to play cricket before his loan spell is out. Have a look for yourself here.
The Fulham manager hadn’t intended to give the on-loan Roma striker his first taste of Premier League action just two days after he concluded a protracted transfer but an injury to Erik Nevland forced his hand. The Italian under-21 international looked strong, but raw, and was disappointed to miss a glorious chance to mark his debut with a goal.
I told him not to worry about it. He’s devastated by it because in Italy mistakes are magnified 100 times and I think it would take him years to live it down over there, but it will probably only take a few weeks here. If I was him I would put it into perspective by looking at the wonderful backheeled goal for Roma the other day.
I think Okaka’s going to take a lot of time. He’s a young raw player and had Erik Nevland not had that toe problem he would not have started.
He doesn’t speak a word of English at the moment and my Italian’s nowhere near as good as it used to be. I’m sure he will get better and I’m sure he will turn out to be a useful signing for us.
But he’s not a saviour by any stretch of the imagination. He’s a player we were able to get in on loan for this period of time and a player who has some interesting characteristics that we might be able to use, but he’s not the man who will carry us.
We’re not saying don’t worry if Andy Johnson’s not around because we have Stefano Okaka, that would be placing far too much responsibility on his shoulders.
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.