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Empty talk, conservatism and impotence: A week of Fulham

15 November 2010

Don't throw your hands up, Mark. You're setting the tone.

After Fulham’s comprehensive 2-0 defeat of Wigan at home a fortnight ago that temporarily pushed the Cottagers into eighth place in the table, manager Mark Hughes proclaimed his team to be “a top-10 side” and that they had the quality to remain there.

Then, in an eight-day span, Fulham was outplayed at home by injury-ravaged Aston Villa, bunkered like a League 1 side in a Cup tie at Chelsea and came up blank more often than a rigged Scrabble bag at Newcastle. If not for the chest of a Villa defender that helped steer home Brede Hangeland’s sliced header at the death, Fulham would have completed 270 minutes of punchless soccer by lamely hanging on for a scoreless draw at a promoted side.

There’s nothing in sports that bothers me more than the hollowness of bravado-laced bluster followed by unmatched action, which is why I have been so disgusted with Fulham lately. A lot of the blame for the past 10 days or so has to fall on the players for their lack of execution, but if you’re the manager and you stake a claim to some semblance of status, you can’t deliver what Mark Hughes did last week.

Hughes’ midweek folly, isolating Moussa Dembele 30 yards above the nine players hanging behind the ball at Stamford Bridge, was made to look questionable when Fulham actually took it to the out-of-form champs in the final 15 minutes of the match and almost salvaged a draw. His m.o. was made to look outright foolish when Sunderland went to the Bridge yesterday and destroyed Chelsea. If Hughes’ goal was to bunker and pray, then there was no need to burn out most of the starters in the midweek match. If he planned to play his starters, then he has enough talent to give it an honest go instead of mimicking Carlisle United.

Early in the season, injuries were a fairly reasonable excuse for some of the points that slipped away. It remains sadly obvious how critical Bobby Zamora is to Fulham’s offensive competence, but he went down nine matches ago. Hughes has enough options to figure something out and has had enough time to come up with a plan. Right now, there’s nothing doing, and Hughes better figure something out quickly. The early part of the schedule was very conducive to picking up points. This next segment is much more rugged and Fulham could find itself uncomfortably close to a relegation tussle entering the January window if Hughes can’t deliver more in the six weeks beforehand.

So, Mark Hughes, this is now on you. You can’t make top-half claims and then watch your team get outplayed thrice in a week. You can’t play scared and then salute the effort. You can’t keep referring to Fulham’s league road form, the latest winless drought now at a mindblowing 25 matches, as an issue that needs to be overcome, and then applaud your side for a 0-0 draw at a team that spend last season in the Colaship.

Execution is on the shoulders of the players, but the setting of expectations falls on the manager. Why should the players be motivated to deliver something better when the actions of their manager say he accepts the mediocre?

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