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Transfer deadline day takeaway: Stay healthy, Mahamadou

31 August 2012

The phrase “leaving it late” typically refers to a team scoring deep into a match to secure victory, but twice a year in the Premier League, it becomes the unofficial mantra for clubs looking to reinforce at the transfer window deadline. It’s said that deals aren’t made until someone’s up against a deadline, and at no time is that truer than the final day of every August and January, where breathless speculation leads to both breakneck dealmaking and abrupt dream-dashing.

Today’s deadline day was atypical in that little ol’ Fulham was one of the clubs making noise. From the morning conclusion of Dimitar Berbatov’s signing to the final stage of Clint Dempsey’s saga to numerous sexy names from the continent being linked to the club, Twitter and TV spent an abnormal amount of the day discussing the Cottagers. At one point, it looked like Fulham would be completely reloaded and improved despite losing two of their best players. In the end, after multiple deals fell through at the last minute, there was disappointment. Fulham *should* still be pretty solid, but the failure to shore up the central midfield area could haunt the club over the next four months, as could the missed opportunity to take a real run at a spot in Europe for next season.

First, the good. In the space of eight months, Martin Jol managed to turn a strikeforce of Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson into Berbatov, Mladen Petric and Huge Rodellega while pocketing a net of three million pounds in transfer fees. That’s a huge upgrade, regardless of whether Berbatov’s weekly wages cut into that profit (and my sense is that media reports are way off on his contract). The club also managed to grab north of 20 million pounds of Spurs’ money from the sales of Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey (if you believe Spurs paid 6 million for Clint; earlier reports of agreed-upon deals with Aston Villa and Liverpool may have been overstated). Four million of that yielded multifaceted left-side player Kieran Richardson and German/Iranian winger Ashkan Dejagah, and even with the four tossed in for Berbatov, Fulham are sitting on a large cash surplus should they need to do something in January’s window.

Therein lies the bad part of today. Fulham may (badly) need to enter the midseason market after whiffing on a long list of possible central midfield targets. After seeing Danny Murphy, Dickson Etuhu, Dembele and Dempsey all leave the club this summer, Fulham ended up importing no one who’s primarily suited to play in the center of the park. That leaves Mahamadou Diarra and Steve Sidwell as likely first choices should the club lineup up with a pair in front of the back four, with the hope that the Chris Bairds and Patjim Kasamis of the world can provide adequate cover.

At best, it seems obvious that the club failed in its objective to strengthen this position. At worst, it could become a disaster, especially if Diarra picks up a significant injury before January. The club can spin this all it wants, but with Fulham adding two solid wingers and a world-class striker to go with skilled players like Petric and Bryan Ruiz, not addressing the hole in the middle of the park is like buying a high-end sports car and then having a four-cylinder engine installed. Fulham doesn’t appear have enough class and/or experience there to consistently connect with what should be a crafty and formidable front four.

It begs the question as to whether a formational shift is in store. Could Martin Jol start experimenting with a 4-1-3-2 with only Diarra shielding the back four? Or a 4-3-3, utilizing the bounty of wide players now available while minimizing the need for two central mids? Or even a 3-5-2, with Senderos joining Hughes and Hangeland in the back, with Riise and Duff flanking them wide? That’s what they pay him good money to figure out, with one seemingly clear takeaway is that Ruiz (Jol’s pricey purchase last season) now has a lot of pressure on him to perform.

All of this tinkering will have to come after tomorrow’s early match at West Ham, one that seems surprisingly important for just the third match of the season. A win against the promoted side will leave Fulham feeling good, with six points and three solid performances out of the gate, and with two weeks (thanks to the upcoming international break) to sort out who goes where and who plays well with whom. A loss, especially if Fulham continues to look impotent away from home, will create many questions heading into the following fortnight. Berbatov should feature, but there are questions about the health of Petric and Ruiz, and Fulham could end up fielding a very pedestrian XI and see an opportunity to take a small step forward wasted, much like it was midweek at Sheffield Wednesday.

Rooting for a club like Fulham takes a certain amount of patience and self-awareness. There aren’t limitless funds and elite players either don’t come or quickly try to go. Under those rules, Fulham had itself a pretty solid transfer day. One top-shelf talent arrived and the club did pretty well selling off two expiring assets under time pressure. Add in the approval for the expansion of Craven Cottage and the future looks quite promising. I’ll have to remind myself of that each time I see our midfield sputter over the next four months.

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