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Fulham 3, West Brom 0: Talkin’ about a revolution

16 September 2012

When last we left this trusty blog, I was gnashing teeth aplenty over the state of Fulham’s central midfield in the wake of a poorly executed late transfer window and an execrable effort at bogey side West Ham a fortnight ago. The fears of Friday night, August 31, spilled into Saturday morning, September 1, vividly, with an ascendant club suddenly looking older, deeper in transition and quite vulnerable on the wrong day.

Perhaps it was premature to draw *too many* conclusions off what was a terrible effort mere hours after an emotional and draining transfer window closed. And it’s certainly too early to assume yesterday’s passing masterclass is how things will be, especially since Fulham are always night-and-day home and away anyway. That said, I was extremely intrigued by what I saw yesterday, more than even encouraged. Encouragement will take repeat performances, but in two weeks, Martin Jol seems to have figured out a couple things that were wrong, and that’s a great sign.

When Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey were still in Fulham white, the side often played a very lopsided formation. Dempsey always played very narrow on the left and everything sloped from back left (John Arena Riise galloping alone up and down the left flank) to the front right (where the target striker usually drifted to interplay with Damien Duff, leaving a gap into which Dempsey loved to gallop). A lot of play also came through the central channel, with Danny Murphy picking out short passes and Dembele advancing via the dribble. When it worked, it looked pretty, but often, Fulham’s players ended too bunched and we’re not Barcelona. Forays petered out at the 18.

The narrowness issue was one of the major problems against West Ham, but Fulham also had an awful performance from Steve Sidwell compounding things. Kieran Richardson pinched in repeatedly and didn’t track back well enough, leaving Riise often to deal with multiple threats on the flank. Fulham’s midfield couldn’t connect with either the back four or the front runners. The whole thing was just disjointed.

Yesterday, three major things happened that changed the look and emboldened Fulham’s offensive approach, even with a lineup that was missing Bryan Ruiz, Mladen Petric and Diarra, with a very conservative central mid pairing of Sidwell and jack-of-all-trades Chris Baird shielding the back four.

First off, Jol went back to Alex Kacaniklic on the left, and his more traditional wing play (at least in terms of width and attacking off the dribble) were a welcome addition. Kacaniklic is rapidly showing that he should be a regular feature in the Starting XI. His runs are not always fruitful, but when they are, they create very dangerous scoring chances (see the first two goals). He combines very well with Riise and also tracks back well defensively, as needed.

Combine that with the unexpected sight of Sascha Riether rampaging up and down the right in combination with a clearly in-the-mood Duff, and suddenly Fulham’s entire modus operandi, at least for one match, was totally flipped. Yesterday, Fulham was a completely balanced, outside-first team. Even when the ball did circulate centrally, whether with the deep-lying mids or when it found Dimitar Berbatov as he dropped into the No. 10 hole, it consistently ended up wide again, and Fulham spent most of the match taking on West Brom’s fullbacks and spooning crosses into the box. In an additional change, given Fulham lacks aerial presence, the crosses were almost always *in front* of West Brom’s back four. It made me daydream for a second about Clint Dempsey pouncing from late runs into the box.

The third development was that the Sidwell-Baird partnership, at least for one week, at least against a WBA side that didn’t show much attacking intent prior to Peter Odemwingie’s stupid and cynical red card, worked. Like, really worked. I wrote last week that Diarra couldn’t be the more creative presence in a midfield with Sidwell, but for a day, Sidwell definitely could be the more creative guy paired with the quietly effective Baird. Sidwell’s tidy play then fed into his defensive responsibilities and he was just much, much better all over the field. Excellent performance.

This match started what could be a season-defining stretch for Fulham. Their next three away matches are against Wigan, Reading and Southampton. They have some home matches they can get some points from. They barely have to leave the London area over the next two months. This is a time for entrenchment and initiative, to settle the fears of supporters and leave the club in a relative position of strength entering the January window. For one match, they did just that. With Bryan Ruiz, Petric, Kerim Frei and (assumedly) Diarra back to health soon, Jol will have options. What he does with them — and how different they need to be week to week — will be very interesting to watch.

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