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D) All of the above

01 September 2012

The temptation in the immediate aftermath of a truly dire performance is to take one of two extreme positions: Either the team just had “one of those days” or the fear of a woeful midfield has manifested itself in HD clarity. What happened to Fulham this morning, though — from the first minute of the match — requires more nuance, because those issues, and ones caused by those issues, are not mutually exclusive.

It’s been a very long week at the club. Transfer speculation mounted, modest injury woes grew, a third away match in a week loomed at a stadium Fulham never plays well in, and the end result was as predictable as Fulham’s play. A starting lineup shorn of its two most skilled midfielders, and with multiple other skill players missing or limited, was completely overmatched. More frustratingly, it was completely accepting of its fate. Fulham committed five fouls in the entire match as they were outrun and overpowered on the ground and, repeatedly and with devastating effect, in the air.

The fears about a Diarra-Sidwell midfield, as noted in last night’s blog entry, seem founded, regardless of other positional issues around it. Diarra cannot be the more creative passer in a central midfield and Sidwell is not a Premiership-quality starter at this point. The pair spent the first half of the match overreacting positionally, first leaving enormous gaps in front of the back four (the root cause of the first goal, which came directly off a long header off a Mark Schwarzer clearance), and then retreating so far to help a struggling defense that acres of space were available in front of them (see: Goal No. 3). The result was a complete disconnect. The back four didn’t have a consistent conduit to relieve pressure, and when they did, there was no way for the next ball to connect with our front four. Too much space, too little size and physicality to win and retain possession and hold long enough for the gaps to close. It was a disaster.

What that complete midfield capitulation did was expose burgeoning weaknesses elsewhere. Brede Hangeland, perhaps unsettled by his own contract situation or maybe he’s just losing a step, had his second very shaky game in a row, getting punished repeatedly in the air by Andy Carroll. John Arne Riise was constantly left exposed by Kieran Richardson’s narrowness and lack of cover, so he had to retreat and give space constantly. Sascha Riether has regressed from game to game defensively and provides zero threat moving forward. To compound things, Schwarzer was significantly to blame for a goal conceded for the second week in a row, and his reaction times on several plays (including the first two goals) were shockingly poor.

So yes, it was a bad day at the office and somewhat understandable. It’s not like this is the first bad Fulham road performance we’ve ever seen. This kind of match will happen occasionally. Insert whatever other cliche you want here. On the plus side, Dimitar Berbatov showed tons of class in his 45 minutes, and his presence seemed to elevate a pedestrian-so-far Hugo Rodellega. When Bryan Ruiz, newcomer Ashkan Dejagah and Kerim Frei are available (and Jol sticks with Alex Kacaniklic, too), the side will have more skill and craft on the ball, which may help relieve the pressures on Diarra and whomever else plays centrally, which should then help the creaking back four find better footing.

All that said, there’s a problem, which I broached in worryingly prescient detail last night. Fulham badly whiffed in its efforts to reinforce its central midfield before the transfer window closed last night. Anyone who’s watched the club longer than a week knew this was a looming problem that needed to be fixed, and it wasn’t. Now it’s on Martin Jol to figure this out. Whether trying new players, new formations or new tactics, something has to give. Today, the thing that gave was the center of Fulham’s formation, and the worst part about it was everyone saw it coming.

One Comment leave one →
  1. PattyPine permalink
    01 September 2012 1.00pm

    Well said. Awful performance, but let’s see where they are once Ruiz, Frei, and Berba are all playing together.

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