You might not admire Daniel Levy, but have to chuckle at his consistency. Tottenham have just lost the north London derby, when the punditocracy was beginning to talk of the famed gap between the red and white sides of the rivalry growing in their direction, and drew disappointingly with West Brom at the weekend. There are a few rumbles in the fan base and some supporters have even questioned whether Mauricio Pochettino, one of the most progressive coaches in the game, is all that.
Levy is a master of communication and subterfuge well beyond the world of sport – famed for pulling off great deals. Fulham fans of course have bitter experience of how he snared Mousa Dembele at the last knockings of the 2012 transfer window and would, therefore, have eyed yesterday morning’s Telegraph report that Spurs had installed Ryan Sessegnon as their one number one target to replace the ‘fuming’ Danny Rose with great trepidation. Given the way the modern sports media works, it was soon blasting around cyperspace, social media and leading Sky Sports News, with a special package heading the hourly bulletin.
As ever, the substance behind the story is difficult to find. Levy and Spurs did their best to try and rattle Fulham earlier in the year, briefing to the same paper that they’d placed a £25m bid for Sessegnon, having been one of a host of leading clubs disappointed when one of the country’s most coveted young players signed his first professional contract with a Championship club. No formal offer was received by Fulham – this was merely a test balloon floated to see if whispers of teaming up with Tottenham and Pochettino could tempt the teenager away.
Sessegnon, who along with his twin brother Steven has been with Fulham since the age of eight, was mature enough to recognise that, whilst he could have easily swapped Motspur Park for a Premier League club in the summer off the back of his astonishing exploits during his breakthrough season in senior football, learning his craft at a club committed to providing the pathway through to the first team for their young starlets was best for his development. He’s been a regular in Slavisa Jokanovic’s side this season, starting at left back, and scored that sensational hat-trick at Sheffield United – which seems to have started off a new round of frenzied speculation.
Matt Law’s piece proclaims that Sessegnon is above Luke Shaw in Pochettino’s pecking order to replace Rose, who is apparently destined to join Manchester United in January. The report builds on the Mail’s revelation at the weekend that there’s no minimum release fee clause in the deal that Sessegnon signed over the summer, but adds that Fulham struggle to retain the youngster should they fail to reach the Premier League in May, which seems like a bold claim given that he was happy to sign on after the play-off heartbreak. Why might this link come now, at a time when Spurs are worried about being left behind in the league again? Could it be because Manchester United have been linked with a £35m move for Sessegnon in the new year?
Perhaps the most intriguing part comes at the end, where Law writes:
But Tottenham believe Pochettino’s record of bringing through talented English youngsters puts them in a strong position for Sessegnon’s signature.
Pochettino has undoubtedly cultivated the talents of Harry Kane, Dele Ali and Harry Winks in the past couple of years, but you don’t have to cast your mind back too far to see how Spurs’ jettisoned the careers of several English talents. Sessegnon could just ask the last local boy to come through the academy – a midfielder who played in all four divisions for the club, represented England at youth level, and enjoyed cult hero status with the fans.
Sean Davis had his head turned at the height of his powers and, after a standoff, swapped west London for White Hart Lane, whereupon his promising career failed to take off. The man who amassed 188 appearances for the Whites, scoring goals at Blackburn and at home to Sheffield Wednesday that ensured Fulham would return to the Premier League having been given his senior debut by Micky Adams as he was resurrecting the club in the bottom tier four years earlier, would tell Sessegnon to learn from his experience and stay put.
Fortunately, Fulham’s hottest property is a man whose maturity and intelligence belies his tender years. He has a genuine appreciation for the club that have given him and his Steven their chance to shine and clearly loves the affinity developing between him and the Fulham fans. That doesn’t mean to say we can book in his testimonial at Craven Cottage for 2026 but it might suggest that we are dealing with a different character to Moussa Dembele, who moved to Celtic for a nominal fee two years ago, having benefited from the Motspur Park finishing school or even Pat Roberts.
The best summation of Sessegnon’s career prospects came in this weekend’s Football League paper from Adam Virgo (pictured left), who advised Gareth Southgate to consider picking the Fulham prospect in his next England squad. That might be a little premature considering Sessegnon hasn’t even had an under-21 call-up yet, but if Southgate, who knows his history, wants to return from Russia with silverware next summer he will have to fast track a Fulham player into his plans at some point.
As we streamed out into Stevenage Road after this match, the pathetic consensus amongst my close companions, shared by me, was that Fulham had deserved at least a point. Our simplistic reading of the arc of this game was that Spurs had the better first half, though they were decidedly flattered by their two goal lead at the interval. Thereafter that Fulham were by far the superior team, but were denied a farer result by virtue of the combination of: some superb saves by Brad Friedal; desperate goal line clearances by both Ledley King and Luca Modric; and the iniquitous failure of the referee to spot Karl Walker grounding his low two handed catch of the ball in the six yard box, with ten minutes left of the game – when this penalty denied might well have given Fulham goal parity and potential ascendancy.
Having now reflected on this match, and with the benefit of having studied a recording of the live TV screening, I am not now so sure that Fulham truly merited a better result. Not that I would for a moment deny that Brad Friedel was correctly awarded ‘Man of the Match’. (It was a vintage display from Spurs’ veteran keeper. In particular, his brilliant reaction-save to Steve Sidwell’s header in the second minute, and his safe-handed clutch to hold onto Chris Baird’s pile-driver hit strike in the seventieth minute were crucial events in preventing Fulham from succeeding.) Nor does the recording fail to bear-out the impression, formed by spectators at the match, of Fulham having much more of the play. (This indeed is confirmed by the match stats, see below.) However my present, more considered view is that a subtle combination of the factors outlined and discussed below, each of which arguably comprises a tactical error, may well have made the vital contribution to Fulham’s failure.
Quiet extraordinarily for the first week in November, Fulham have already this season played a total of 24 competitive games in all competitions. This is therefore an opportune time to take stock of what new manager Martin Jol has brought to the team’s performance, and what possibly may be lacking, as exemplified in this game. On the very positive side, Fulham have much greater flexibility going forward, as well as being a more attack-minded side. In this game the team’s starting set-up of 4-4-1-1, (with Zamora out front and Dembel positioned centrally as a ‘false number 9’,) morphed at times almost seamlessly in and out of a 4-3-3, (with at the front Dempsey working left, Zamora right, and Dembele centrally,) and on occasions late in the second half to a 4-2-4, (with the subbed on Bryan Ruiz working to the right up front.) As well as this new more flexible deployment, there is a marked increase in rapidity of the build up, with Fulham at last showing some capability to move with speed through midfield without any need to resort to long-ball passes. These very real improvements can, and certainly did in this game against Spurs, produce more good scoring opportunities. Rarely in the Premiership does a side lose who have had 13 shots on target, as did Fulham.
On the deficit side, it is becoming clear that Fulham are not now so markedly good at preventing penetration into the their penalty area, as they were in recent seasons under the management of Hughes and Roy Hodgson respectively. It is of particular concern that in the games since the draw at home against Manchester City back in September this year, the characteristic tightness and effective defensive shape that were the Hodgson hallmarks, have been consistently dissipated. In this game, both of Spurs’ first half goals stemmed from avoidable errors in defending technique. The first goal followed a move by the Spurs fullback Kyle Walker who, whilst on a right overlap, was allowed to accelerate into the penalty area past a late arriving and hapless J.A. Riise. For the second goal the Fulham defence was caught out by Aaron Lennon, who having switched wings with Gareth Bale, avoided Zdenek Grygera and then sped on, turning the retreating Chris Baird before slotting his shot home close to the left post.
Also directly associated with this game were the following important judgement calls upon the manager, where possibly Marin Jol may have erred. First, was it prudent to field so many ‘first team players’ in the Euro Cup game on the preceding Thursday evening? Eight of the Fulham players who started the game against Spurs played in the Euro cup game, as also had all the subs that Fulham subsequently used. (In marked contrast none of Spurs’ starting eleven played in their Euro game.)
Secondly, why has Martin Jol persisted with J.A. Riise at left back despite his poor performances in recent games? Riise seems at present a muscle-bound shadow of his Liverpool days, lacking positional sense and timing in the performance of his defensive duties, and no longer really effective when he (over)commits to his endeavours forward. Surely it is over time now to give the outstanding young player Mathew Briggs a good run as first choice left back?
Thirdly, although Martin Jol is correct in realising, (as did Hughes,) that Danny Murphy does need to be substituted before he may fade in the last quarter of the game, the choice of sub made in this game is questionable. Was it appropriate at the time when Fulham needed to force the game forward to bring on Dickson Etuhu, who operates best as a defensive/holding midfielder? Would not Kasami, an attacking midfielder with an eye for goal, have been the better option?
Fourthly, was the introduction of Bryan Ruiz, some twenty minutes before end, left too late? Bryan (I use his own preferred choice of name,) was subbed as a direct replacement for Duff, to be another naturally left sided player also working in from the right, and taking on Duff’s right-corner taking responsibility. He gave a good cameo performance, consistently giving the slip to his would be marker Modric, whose influence on the game was eclipsed following Bryan’s introduction. However as a potentially very sharp finisher, (as is indicated by all his goals last year in the Dutch league, plus ‘BBC Goal of the Month’ for October,) could he not have been more effectively used earlier and more centrally, possibly as a replacement for Zamora or Dembele?
Martin Jol is a progressive manager whom I trust will consider these matters. His endeavours to add to Fulham’s attractive passing game a more effective attacking emphasis should be applauded. It remains encouraging that there were times during the second half when Fulham were more fluid in their built –up and quicker in their passing movement then in any previous game this season. The really important thing must be that Fulham learn from this disappointing home defeat.
Fulham: Kaboul own goal 55;
Spurs: Bale 10, Lennon 45, Defoe 90
Attempts on goal
Fulham 23 (13 on target); Spurs 6 (6 on target)
Corners: Fulham 11; Spurs1
Possession: Fulham 53%, Spurs 47%
Yellow Cards: Fulham: none. Spurs: Kaboul.
Fulham: Schwartzer;Grygera (Kelly 45 mins); Baird; Hangeland; J.Riise; Dempsey; Murphy (Ethu 76 min); Sidwell; Duff (Bryan Ruiz 71 mins); Zamora; Dembele
Spurs: Friedel; Assou-Ekotto; King; Kaboul; Walker; Bale; Modric; Parker; Lennon; Van Der Vaart (Defoe 66); Adebayor