Skip to content

Away matches and the fear of fear itself

24 August 2012

Rooney scoring against Fulham usually is a feature of matches at Old Trafford. Getty Images

In the book Scorecasting, authors Toby Moscowitz and Jon Wertheim determined that soccer has the largest homefield advantage of any sport, with a very large component of that advantage deriving from referee bias that benefits the home team. Anyone who follows soccer closely would believe that working theory, as in a low-scoring game, even one or two decisions — a dicey penalty, a second yellow resulting in a sending off — that shade toward the home side can greatly influence the result of a match. There is an additional posit among soccer fans that these calls abnormally favor larger clubs over smaller ones, creating a double-advantage of sorts for the best teams at home.

The former, statistically, is true based on the work in the book. The latter can hold true but probably is a decent part anecdotal, as well. Whatever the case, it’s exceedingly hard to win on the road in soccer, especially if you are not a megaclub and doubly especially if you are playing at a megaclub.

That brings us to the curious case of Fulham on the eve of their first away match of the new campaign, a visit to the mecca that is Old Trafford and a contest with a banged-up and ticked-off United side that already is three points off the pace after a single match. If Fulham are ever going to take the next step as a club, they have to solve their absurd road difficulties and there’s no better place to start than tomorrow.

As mentioned, winning road games is very difficult in soccer. United itself won the Premiership in 2010-11 despite winning just five of 19 away matches. For a relatively decent club with numerous top-10 league finishes over the past decade, though, Fulham takes road struggles to an implausibly bad level. Over the past decade (190 away matches), they have lost more than 50 percent of the time. Almost as damaging, the Cottagers have won just 27 of those matches (a 14 percent win rate), so they’re left trying to nick a point here and there. Last season’s “haul” of 18 away points was the second-highest mark of the last decade (after the 21 claimed in 2003-04).

It’s virtually impossible to join the regular mix for European competition if you can’t do better than that away. Fulham have a tremendous home record over those 10 seasons, with 93 wins and 322 total points (1.69 per match) at Craven Cottage. Still, even with claiming 35 or more home points in five of the 10 seasons, Fulham have only finished higher than eighth place once. Reminder: to qualify for Europe by way of league standing, you have to finish at least seventh.

Those who have watched Fulham for years don’t have a full explanation for the extreme home/away splits, but I can say with some certainty that a significant part of the problem is the team’s approach away from home. At Craven Cottage, Fulham typically plays some of the most free-flowing stylish soccer outside the truly top sides. When they hit the road, they become more conservative than Rush Limbaugh. Soccer is more complicated than this, but I fail to believe packing nine men behind the ball, ceding loads of possession, absorbing pressure and hoping for a counter is a sustainable strategy. The time has come for Fulham to show more ambition away.

This all ties in neatly to tomorrow’s contest, as United hold a 27-2-3 all-time mark against Fulham at Old Trafford and certainly will be expected to take the points at home lest they fall further behind Manchester City before August is done. Historically, this is one of those matches a side like Fulham chalks off in its head as a freeroll, and if you somehow nick a 0-0 or 1-1 result, it’s a golden point. This season, I say “Screw that.”

This is the first Fulham side since I started following the club in the 2004-05 season that has the on-ball quality in its front six to really make a go at this. Since the lineup (assuming the same/similar look to last week’s 5-0 win over Norwich City) lacks any type of aerial presence, the idea that hoofing long balls out of the back toward a target man to control against multiple defenders seems even more comical than normal. What this Fulham side can do is dribble and quickly pass the ball, and against a weakened United starting XI, they should be able to do some of that even in this most hostile of environments.

With Michael Carrick assumedly still deputizing in the central defense (and winger Antonio Valencia playing right back), that makes both the back four and United’s central midfield weaker. Fulham has its classiest central midfield combo in memory with former Real Madrid man Mahamadou Diarra working in clockwork with sublimely smooth Moussa Dembele, their yin/yang act working to control tempo and open up space for the cleverness of Bryan Ruiz and striker Mladen Petric. Add in balanced wing play now that Alex Kaciniklic is deputizing for Clint Dempsey, and Fulham’s front six should create numerous issues for a makeshift United side. That’s if they keep the ball. Which they should, if they’re not afraid.

With a stadium expansion project in place, managerial stability for the first time in four seasons and individual quality oozing from its first-choice side, even Mark Hughes would have to be impressed by Fulham’s current level of ambition. With that push now comes a choice. A decade of road ineptitude has to end. Fulham must come to play, come to expect something from every road match, come for the kill when it’s available. It won’t be easy tomorrow, but this is a match that this Fulham side can get something from. Now it just has to try.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: