The contrast from last week’s disappointing loss at Blackburn to this week’s Home fixture v Fulham will be particularly stark, however much we are naturally tempted to look at the teams in and around us in the Table as being the really key fixtures.
Ostensibly, in comparing the two opponents, one is initially tempted to class them as Clubs of similar stature. By that I mean in the Radio phone-in sense, a sort of “My Dad’s Toy is the same size as you Dad’s Toy”. Neither, in the language of the TalkSport aficionado, is that much “BIGGER” than the other. And, almost certainly, neither could be considered that behemoth of the airwaves “A MASSIVE CLUB”.
Both, after all, have been members of the PL for some years. Both, either were, or are, bankrolled by 2nd tier (in PL £ stakes) benevolent Owners, the late Jack Walker and the very much still here Mohamed AlFayed.
They play in similarly sized Stadiums (of differing History). Neither have regularly, but have occasionally, been troubled by big time relegation worries. That though is where we start to run out of like for like examples of sameness, and begin to see contrasts, the over-riding one being in the matter of football styles.
Fulham, unlike our Northern nemesis, play what is generally considered to be Football in the modern idiom. Very much a pass and move game, predicated on ground based skills, designed to out-class as opposed to over-power opponents. A bit like us then, eh? Yes, to a degree, and it was on show in their latest fixture – a satisfying 1-0 win over a powerful Liverpool team at Craven Cottage, on Monday night last.
In that game, they went, unsurprisingly, with their first choice XI, which was……..
Schwarzer, Kelly, Hangeland, Senderos, Riise, Etuhu, Murphy, Ruiz, Dembele, Dempsey, Zamora.
Evidently a 4-2-3-1 going forward, rapidly a 4-5-1 when defending. The strength of the side remains in the spine.
Mark Schwarzer, the long-serving Aussie GK, has over 440 PL appearances, which puts him 10th of all time for all players. Many accrued at Middlesbrough, his previous club, he has, since 2008, been an ever present and a rock in the Fulham side. Still good enough to send the Club’s England U-21 player David Stockdale to Ipswich on loan, many will remember his performances against us in a Cup Tie 2 seasons ago, with numerous brave and acrobatic saves.
Brede Hangeland, the CB, was signed initially from FC Copenhagen by a previous (in both senses) Manager, Roy Hodgson, and after a stuttering initial period, the Norwegian captain has turned out to be one of the more successful CB’s in the Division. Like Samba last week, he is equally good in attack at Free kicks and Corner kick opportunities, as he is as an out and out defender.Long,slim, and seemingly limited, he is anything but.
The cornerstone of the team is Danny Murphy, the eloquent and elegant Midfielder, ex-Liverpool.He is, I understand, struggling to be fit. His top class passing skills, allied with a football brain that makes his lack of pace redundant, he often scores from free kicks, spot kicks and open play, and will be hard to replace.
Should he not play, they may well go with Steve Sidwell, ex Villa, Chelsea, etc and this option will see them utilise Sidwell’s run all day leaning, leading to a switch in tactical roles, where Dickson Etuhu, often picked as a holder/tackler becomes more creative and pushed further forward. His bite and energy mean that they often switch him into this role, dependent on the state of the game. Both Sidwell and Etuhu have plentiful PL experience and ability.
Up front, the line is led by Bobby Zamora. Having started his League career at Bristol Rovers and then Brighton and Hove Albion where he scored 77 goals in 3 seasons (with 2 promotions included), he went on to have some fallow years at Tottenham and West Ham. But, since his promotion with West Ham, and his move to Fulham in 2008, it’s fair to say his career has advanced even more. A key component in Fulham’s run to the UEFA Europa League Final of a couple of years ago, his form has brought him to the (still continuing) attention of Fabio Capello, and since 2010 and a win against Hungary, he remains in England’s and Capello’s plans. A highly mobile, two footed fulcrum, he links well to late running midfielders, and finishes well himself, too.
The FB’s are generally Stephen Kelly and John Arne Riise. Kelly, on the right, is an Alan Tate type club servant. Always reliable, rarely headline material, the Irishman has nevertheless the confidence of Trappatoni at the RoI internationally, and Martin Jol for his club. His competition is Chris Baird , the talented ex-Southampton utility defender. On the left, John Arne Riise, returned from Roma, was once Craig Bellamy’s golf club target on a Liverpool trip to Spain. They won, and so did he. After a big money move to Italy, the Norwegian International returned to Britain via a move to Fulham to join his brother, Bjorn Helge Riise, a squad player. Possessed of a rocket left foot, he is always a danger when shooting.
The remainder of Monday’s team v the Pool are equally interesting. The other CB was Phillipe Senderos, the Swiss traveller via Arsenal and Milan, never quite Diamond quality, more a semi-precious stone.He seems to have more of Jol’s confidence than Aaron Hughes, previously the first choice partner for Hangeland under Hodgson, but we shall see. Hughes can cover RB too.
Moussa Dembele, is a 24 yr old Belgian International attacking midfielder signed from AZ Alkmaar in August 2010. He tends to play as the withdrawn striker in the 3, but this group rotate regularly and to good effect. Predominantly left footed, his ball skills are excellent, and he has combined this technical excellence with a committed, competitive streak, becoming a key member of the Cottagers attack.
Then, Bryan Ruiz, a Costa Rican International scouted by many PL clubs, was signed from Twente Enschede for £10.6 million in the last hour of the transfer window. He is still bedding in to the PL but has scored, particularly one against Everton, which show his level of skill and ability. Similar in style to Jordi Gomez, late of this parish, he’s one of those players like Marmite – it’s a love or hate thing.
Now then, Clint Dempsey.The US forward has a genuine claim to be the Premier’s best ever American outfield player. Whilst Landon Donovan’s star shone brightly for a limited period at Everton, and Fulham’s own earlier Yank, Brian McBride once had the most American goals scored in the Division ,and again whilst their keepers are always good (think Friedel, Howard,Keller,Guzan etc….), here is a US import who gets better by the season.The Texan has since
become the goals record holder, and delighted a lot of people by scoring against England for the good ole’ US of A in the last World Cup. (Remember the E.A.S.Y headlines from the raggedy Sun ?. I do- karma, ha ha.)
Some of us will remember too that he scored against us in that FA Cup replay win at Craven Cottage, along with Hangeland. He remains that which we seek – an important midfield link player who fits effortlessly again into the second striker role and a player to admire.Two footed, good in the air, too.
Front cover is given by Andrew Johnson, who remains a pacey, busy alternative. Ex-palace and Everton, penalty winner, one to keep an eye on. Offers mobility, terrier like tenacity, and a contrast and balance to an evolving squad.
Squad depth is given by Bjorn Helge, brother of John Arne, Riise that is, a MF’er. Neil Etteridge (GK), Zdenek Grygera (Defender), Rafik Halliche (defender we nearly signed, remember?), Patjim Kasami, Marcel Gekov (MF’ers) and the ageless Damien Duff, once a Chelsea wing wizard, and still in the RoI squad. Simon Davies, (remember him?), is still on the books,too, although he has been out with a knee-grunge.
Think back to that FA Cup tie.
I would like to suggest that that was the game when we came to more general, national even, notice. As a Championship Club, we entertained Fulham from the Prem in front of the live National Broadcast media. It was the first time, in recent years, that many people throughout the country had seen us, and our style of play. It was also a game in which I can genuinely say we outplayed the opposition, and despite the despair of their getting an undeserved draw, it brought the entertainment that we’d been privvy to for the last few seasons to the watching millions.And despite the disappointment of the 2-1 replay loss, I like to think it did us well, because it showed us and those who saw on the box that we could not only compete, but compete well, at this level.
Fulham’s manager, nowadays, is the affable, bluff, gruff Martin Jol. Eventually getting their man (ex Tottenham and Ajax gaffer) on the bizarre resignation of Mark Hughes, he is in the early to middle period of transforming them from Roy Hodgson’s training-ground drilled competitors to something a little more adventurous, if no less problematic. Just ask Liverpool.
That run to the Europa Cup Final did many things. Financial and Commercial bonus; tactical, continental experience; pride and kudos, both from their own fans and Commentators generally – and no little excitement, including a fantastic 4-1 win against Juventus before an ultimate defeat to Atletico Madrid’s Diego Forlan, it confirmed Fulham as a cut above people’s laziness in labelling them yearly strugglers to beat the drop.
There has been some excellent debate this week about how we will set up against them.
It’s almost inconceivable to think we’ll do other than retain our general shape. Talk has centred on individual personnel to fill roles. My thoughts, for what they’re worth, are these.
At the back, I can see no change other than the possibility that Caulker, if fit, might step in for Monk, to give us more aerial prowess, but I get a gut feel that BR will stay with the club skipper.
Two other positions, certainly, are up for grabs. Joe Allen’s suspension means the choice seems to lie between a)Kemy Agustien as a one for one b)Stephen Dobbie or Luke Moore as a Home-game influenced more attacking option or c) assuming Lita keeps his place up front, a fit again Danny Graham at the tip of the Midfield 3, though I concede this is unlikely.
There has also been consternation over Nathan Dyer’s replacement at half time last week and whether it foretold a little more than seemed so at the time. Was he injured, bruised, exhausted? I suspect a little of all of the above and no more. So Wayne Routledge may keep his place, with ND used as an impact sub.
All of this is pure conjecture on my part- no more. I know for certain nothing other than Brendan and all of the coaching staff, the players and all involved will have been working hard throughout this week on these and a whole lot of others issues too. We get to enjoy the fruits of their labour. They get to play in the relentlessly hyped, but no less rewarding, Premier League. We get also, to discuss and share this rewarding experience.Remember, please, the bad days – because the contrast is so pleasurable.
I’m delighted we’re welcoming another classy, worthy, footballing, above all PREMIERSHIP team to the wonderful Liberty Stadium on Saturday. I would dearly love to see us take all 3 points.
Onward – Swansea City.
This article was written by Peter Thomas