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Pointless Dilemmas

19th Century American philosopher and pragmatist William James wrote that “there is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision”. One might use this logic to surmise that dinner parties at the Magath’s are hardly a barrel of laughs.

For there is no greater shuffler of packs than Felix Magath. In our first three Championship matches, Fulham have used 20 different players despite 6 of those starting all three games. Several others have featured on the substitutes bench but are yet to make an appearance meaning there are more debuts to come. Felix Bingo, the game of guessing Fulham’s starting line-up, has progressed from a humorous sideshow to a sad indictment of present times. Indeed Sean Kavanagh has said he was only told of his selection for his professional debut two hour before kick off on Wednesday. Presumably the likes of George Williams and Emerson Hyndman were told of their apparent dropping on equally short notice.

Following Saturday’s defeat to Millwall in which we dominated possession and had double the number of shots, Felix’s call for patience seemed a perfectly legitimate request. Wednesday’s loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers however, was quite the different story.

For many fans the game marked something of an epiphany. There was no plan, or at least not one that showed any signs of working. After Saturday, our first win looked only a matter of time. After Wednesday, our first win is significantly harder to visualise.

The Constant Unpredictability

Change for the sake of change. Are Felix’s rotations the result of a man with a plan or a man searching for answers?

At this stage that looks a hard question to answer. With a squad filled almost entirely with new signings and academy products, knowing the ideal team straight away would be a challenge to any manager. However, there is an over-riding sense that Felix has been treating the opening few games as something of an extended pre-season. In three games, we have lined up with three different formations at kick off – there was a narrow 4-4-2 diamond at Ipswich, a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 hybrid against Millwall and a flat 4-4-2 against Wolves.

In two of the three games there has been a substitution at half time, while it took until 49 minutes for the opening change on Wednesday. Indeed it was Wednesday’s substitutions that sent out warning signals to our manager’s sensibilities. Over the course of three second half substitutions, the left back that was playing in left midfield went to central midfield with a centre forward going to left wing followed by the actual left back being subbed off with the left back playing in central midfield then moved back to defence only for the incoming player, Ryan Williams – a right winger by trade, to play out of position at centre mid. All while Thomas Eisfeld, a central midfielder, was sat on the bench doing nothing.

Hopefully that section was as confusing to read as it was to watch?

The Dearth of Experience

Of the 20 players that have featured for Fulham so far this season, only 4 (McCormack, Parker, Fotheringham and Rodallega) have more than one full season of experience in English league football. 4 players (Joronen, Kavanagh, Burgess and Hyndman) have made their professional club debut’s this season, while 6 more (George Williams, Christensen, Roberts, Dembele, Eisfeld and David) can count on one hand their senior appearances before this month.

What puts this all into stark contrast is the downright bizarre ostricisation of some of last season’s squad that are still on the books. You can almost understand why the remaining high earners are being sidelined before they depart. I don’t think anyone really expected to see Amorebieta, Mitroglou and Ruiz. However, to have players who have not expressed a desire to leave and who have Championship experience, such as Dan Burn and Alex Kacaniklic, sat in exile is little short of madness.

Of the two senior players that survived the cull, Hugo can at least outrun most people in our squad, but aside from athleticism he is not what we need up front. He may well end up as fourth choice striker and that’s ignoring the fact Adam Taggart is yet to feature. As a squad player, Hugo is a fair survivor, he is unlikely to fire us to promotion but he’ll provide reasonable support for the young guns and a willing runner for McCormack.

In all of this though, it is not the young players who are underperforming. Indeed Burgess, Roberts, Williams, David and Hydnman have been bright spots amongst the pointless fortnight just gone. Cauley Woodrow showed his technical ability on Wednesday night while Moussa Dembele had our only shot on target.

Midfield Woes

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The area that is costing us more than any at the moment is central midfield, and in particular Scott Parker. The veteran midfielder has started in all three of Felix’s selections so far and has seen far too much of the ball. That we are seemingly building our team around him fills me with dread. For a team supposedly wishing to develop fast, attacking football, the pirouetting ponderousness of Parker is significantly out of place. Our young midfielders need space to play, not an obligation to pass it to Parker every two seconds.

The Championship is a physical league and against Wolves on Wednesday it was noticeable that we lack in physical stature. Parker’s lack of size and power mean our midfield is getting over-run. We have technically gifted youngsters who will eventually learn to pass round teams, but until then, they need some protection, and that is something we are sorely lacking at present.

I asked a friend of mine who’s a season ticket holder at Birmingham City for his thoughts on us starting Parker and Fotheringham leading to tendency to play long balls over the top:

“[This] is a hallmark of playing dirty – there is no point of doing that if you don’t have the personnel – it is a waste. Blues now have the personnel for that and literally have been peppering balls over the top – we have two big, powerful (fast!) strikers who can run in behind and hold it up or win flick on headers. Fulham seem (from the outside) like a technically gifted side that need to get the ball down and move it quickly and smartly, running at defences when they can. Parker and Fotheringham do not facilitate this.”

On Wednesday night, Parker led the team in passes completed with 61, yet for the second game in a row, it was young centre half Cameron Burgess who led the team in forward passes with 34. Playing Fotheringham is in itself the sort of decision to question a man’s legitimacy as decision maker, but to play him next to Parker is sheer tactical tomfoolery. Interestingly, Fotheringham was nicknamed the crab during his time at Norwich for his tendency to pass the ball sideways. Alongside Parker was there really ever any chance of the ball getting to our attacking players, let alone at speed?

Transfers

The selection of Fotheringham was undeniably the straw that broke a few camel’s backs. However, his arrival at the club in itself should have raised red flags. Transfer policy is an area Felix is famous for. Those Bundesliga aficionado’s amongst you will be well aware of his wheeler deeler reputation. Again not entirely problematic if the players being wheeled and dealt are the right ones. However, instead of a Championship midfielder of sensible age, experience and quality, we get a man released by a team struggling in League One. More pennyball than moneyball.

Indeed there is no real problem with our summer transfer strategy to date. Veteran players like Hoogland and Bodurov could prove shrewd additions over the course of the long season, while Stafylidis has already shown potential and one suspects Shaun Hutchinson would do the same if he were allowed to play again. The arrival this morning of Tiago Casasola from Boca Juniors is something to lighten the spirits, it’s not every day your club signs a 19 year old from one of South America’s most famous clubs.

However, without a bit more ready-to-play quality, our squad is not complete. Our young players need some help, they need a central midfielder who can take control of a game by the scruff of its neck. Counter attack goals and a set piece aside we’ve defended pretty well this season, it is the transition from defence to attack that is once again proving our Achilles heel. Mr Mackintosh and Mr Khan need to open their chequebook at least once more before September rolls around. We are heading for a roughly break-even summer when you take into account player sales and the dramatically reduced wage bill, it might now be just the time to spend a fraction of those infamous parachute payments.

Where next?

I wouldn’t advocate changing the regime just yet. I think we need to see where Felix is going with this. We all support the project. We want the kids to play and develop, they are the future of our club after all, but its time for the incoherent chopping and changing to stop. How will this team ever learn to play together if it’s one game on two games off for those but a chosen few?

We comfortably outpassed Ipswich and Millwall and outshot the latter 2 to 1. Were we to continue on that path, then the results would undoubtedly come. Let’s hope Wednesday was the anomaly from within Felix’s research and development phase, though I fear it may not be. The next two games will be tough, Derby and Cardiff are amongst the league’s favourites for promotion, but the beauty of the Championship is that any team can beat any other on any given day. I, for one, just hope Felix’s random generator isn’t actually as random as it appears and lands on the winning numbers sometime soon. Losing habits are hard to shake.

COYW

Confidence Trick

Unbelievably, sitting down yesterday to write this article I was struggling to know what to write. Sunday’s performance against Wolves was superb. It was our third straight Premier League victory and we scored five or more goals in a home league game for the third time this season.

Column inches, whether on superb websites like HammyEnd.com or in papers like The Times, are easier to fill when there are problems to be solved or drama to be reported. A smattering of headlines from The Game (Times football supplement) on Monday morning were “Old Ghosts Return to Haunt Tottenham”, “Villas-Boas architect of own downfall” and “Connor is shown size of the task by Russian”.

In a positive world perhaps these could have read, “United’s typical class fells Tottenham”, “Unlucky Villas-Boas sees tenure end” and “Superb Fulham down Wolves”. Now which set of headlines sounds better? Probably the former.

So time for me to help buck the trend. It’s not too often that we as fans can be genuinely proud and boastful of our team. Right now is one of those times.

Over the last three games we’ve scored eight goals and conceded one. We’re up to eighth in the league with a run of favourable games coming up (if we ignore the trip to Old Trafford). Liverpool are now only three points ahead of us in a Europa League spot while QPR and the relegation zone are now 14 points behind us.

As a team, as a club and as fans, we can all be rightly confident at the moment. Therein lies the magic word, confidence. Whether a Vegas casino, a first date or a Premier League match, confidence can be the difference. Sunday’s game was a perfect example of how confidence can make the difference.

For 35 minutes we had knocked on the door, shot after shot, chance after chance, it was only a matter of time before we scored. But for those 35 minutes, Wolves still had some belief. They had a couple of counter-attack chances and were not out of the game.

Then, when Moussa’s shot took the faintest of touches off Richard Stearman to earn Fulham a corner that Wolves were adamant was a goal kick, the game changed. Both in their team and their fans you could see the disbelief. Not another decision. Sure enough Pavel Pogrebnyak then gave us the lead after Stearman himself missed a chance to head clear.

The smile on The Pog’s face said it all; we are a team enjoying a rich vein of form and luck. The look on Wolves caretaker manager Terry Connor’s face similarly so, Wolves were a team bereft of form and confidence.

Pogrebnyak and Johnson - Bringing the swagger back

I stayed up late to watch the QPR documentary “The Four Year Plan” on Sunday evening (fascinating viewing for all football fans regardless of your feelings towards our neighbours) and the one thing that was startlingly evident was a football club’s need for stable and solid leadership both on and off the pitch. Here at Fulham we are lucky enough to have the quartet of Mohammed Al-Fayed, Alastair Mackintosh, Martin Jol and Danny Murphy. Three of those four have been here for a number of years, and it looks like all four are to stay together for a little while yet (provided Danny gets his overdue contract extension).

If you change more than one of the chairman, chief executive, manager, captain quartet in one season you are asking for trouble. That is exactly what has happened at Wolves, and the results were there for all to see on Saturday. Despite the stable pairing of Steve Morgan and Jez Moxey in the boardroom, the sacking of Mick McCarthy two weeks ago followed an unnecessary change of captaincy at the start of the season when Roger Johnson replaced Karl Henry.

On the pitch, Wolves lack of leadership was there for all to see. Stephen Ward, Premier League footballer by virtue of his versatility is no more a captain than he is a Premier League quality left back. A case of you’ve been here longest so you take the armband. Karl Henry, now not even vice-captain despite being famously Wolverhampton born and bred now looked a shadow of the former biting midfielder who’s recklessness cost us a certain striker for most of last season.

If Terry Connor was the Marechal Petain, Martin Jol is becoming our Churchill. The Dutchman is starting to rub off on our players. We are evolving into a free flowing attacking unit with the self-confidence and belief that comes with winning a few games.

Our front players are beginning to play with swagger. This is exemplified by the confidence exuding from the likes of Clint, Moussa, AJ and Pogrebnyak. There seems not a soul in the team who doesn’t believe that we can and will win games.

Aside from those mentioned above, Danny revelled in the space Wolves afforded him, the pass for Clint’s first goal was back to his visionary best. Duffer looked sharp while John Arne Riise’s marauding up the left flank will have given Ronald Zubar more nightmares than a trip to see the Woman in Black. The Norwegian’s first goal is surely just around the corner.

With excellent leadership from top to bottom and a side marvelling some long due self-confidence and belief, it may be time to start looking up and not down. I’ll be making the trip up to Birmingham at the weekend to watch us play Villa and I hope many of you do as well, the noise at Loftus Road a fortnight ago was undoubtedly a contributing factor to our famous victory. Here’s to another one.

COYW