The kids are alright

One thing we all do when talking about sport is look for narratives. Presently the narrative is:

“Fulham are playing with kids and it’s possibly not working”

Now I don’t know. That feels a bit too easy to me. I’ve seen some really ordinary grown ups over the years. It seems too obvious to say that we’ve played kids and lost as a result because “this is different”. I’m not saying it’s not different but in terms of absolute ability I don’t know that anyone we’ve had on the pitch is showing inexperience. I don’t really know what that means anyway, other than it’s largely intangible. Again, I’m not saying it’s not important, but I don’t really understand it.

The big thing for me is that we’ve conceded earlyish in both games. Here’s something: there have been 19 victories in the Championship this season – all 19 were earned by the team that scored first.

Simply put: if you go a goal down it’s really hard to come back. Yes we’ve had 60% of the ball and quite a few shots, but that’s what happens when you’re behind. I don’t think it’s evidence of a good performance particularly, nor do I think it’s necessarily encouraging.

As we’ve discussed a lot over time, football hinges on small moments, and at this point in the young season the two big moments were Ipswich’s Murphy burning Shaun Hutchinson and the collective lapse that led to Millwall scoring so early on Saturday. The other moments were the Dembele save at Ipswich and Rodallega’s chances on Saturday.

So far the big moments have gone against us. I don’t necessarily know that this is because we’re using kids, rather that this is just what happens in football.

A final thought on Patrick Roberts. It’s true that he can come on and run through tired legs. It’s also true that both times he’s come on we’ve been behind. If you play your best players from the start, are you more likely to swing the match and control of same in your favour?  Then you don’t have to chase the game in the first place.

Fulham 0-1 Millwall

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The giant flag saying “Still Believe” still hangs from Craven Cottage, but with the air of an “EVERYTHING MUST GO” sign in the window of a shop that closed 18 months ago.  

Still believe? In what?  In the youngsters? Sure. In the manager? Well maybe. In the club overall? Well there’s nothing to not believe in really, is there, unless we’re talking about the club’s ability to win football matches, which is a different question and not so easily answered.

In any case, they’d be better taking it down. 

Today Fulham lost to a spirited Millwall side that had the gumption to get ahead and then stay there.  The opener looked soft, with Ricardo Fuller putting in a cross that floated across the box and was volleyed home at the back post. Scoring goals should be harder than that.

Going a goal down at home means that you’ll probably have most of the ball and most of the attack, which Fulham did. That’s how the game goes and we should be wary of getting too excited about what followed. 62% possession? Fine, but that’s normal under the circumstances.   The trick is to hurt the opposition and again it didn’t necessarily feel that we were.  Part of this is fitting a story to an outcome: if Eisfeld’s early drive had crept in early on then that’s a different game. Hugo Rodallega, willing and present amid most of our good moments, looked to have a clear chance in the second half, but shot straight at Forde in the Millwall net.  He had a better chance soon after, but wanted a bit more time than seemed absolutely necessary and his eventual dig at goal was cleared off the line.

The chances were kind of there and I’d say we weren’t that far off, but goals decide games and we didn’t deliver on that front. My friend Lewis, a Millwall fan, mentioned that it was probably a good thing for them to get Fulham now rather than in a few weeks time, and I can see that.  There still looks like half a useful team brewing here, but I think we all know that it’ll take time.

The question I have is whether Magath has the patience and know how to develop this young squad.  It’s dangerous to read too much into these things but Shaun Hutchinson, warming up, had the air of a man with the wind taken out of his sails.  I have a real issue with his being dropped after a single game. If you think that one game is sufficient to discard players then that says a couple of things: you misjudged them in picking them last week, or you think that pulling young players in and out of the team on one game’s evidence is the way to do things.  I associate the latter with knee-jerk reactions among supporters, not with managers whom you’d hope might select a player then back them.  By way of an analogy, it is generally accepted that the England cricket team is better off now that it gives its chosen players a run of games rather than switching them around after every match.  I feel that the same applies here. That’s not to say that rotation isn’t a good thing either, but that’s more controlled, that’s more ‘horses for courses’.  

Speaking of fans, and this really is low hanging fruit, some of this lot were pretty ordinary today.  Stan and I were sitting right at the front and couldn’t see much at the other end, but the people behind us were effing and blinding about everything.  They were particularly pulling people up on not shooting from distance when they could have. Never mind that you can’t see how far out players are from where we were sitting, it’s stupid to take hopeful pot-shots unless things really open up.  Finally, Scott Parker punted one into row Z of the Putney End, rather making a point.  It never ceases to amaze me how angry people can get about things that they either can’t see or don’t understand or both.  It’s funny how the message boards talk about ‘johnny come latelys’ not ‘getting’ football, and Fulham’s place in same, but most of the bile comes from grizzled old gits who you’d assume have been going (and moaning) for years.  Yeah, football is for letting off steam, if that’s your bag, but lots of people just seem to want to shout and swear for the sake of shouting and swearing. Now that’s fine, too, but it can add up to an atmosphere that isn’t as positive as it might be.

Anyway. I was too close to the pitch to have any sense of space and movement and could only judge what I saw on an incident by incident basis (Hoogland slides, wins tackle, yay Hoogland; Parker tackle, yay Parker; etc, etc) which makes judging a game basically impossible (but perhaps explains why everyone loved Steve Sidwell, who was pretty good in the incident by incident stuff but perhaps not in the bigger picture).  So I have no idea who played well and who didn’t.  Rodallega seems to have attracted criticism but I’d be more inclined to praise him for being in good positions and being involved with what appeared to be most of our opportunities.  The two full-backs continue to impress me, but we’ll have to see the goal again on TV to see what happened on the goal.  All three midfielders looked like they did alright to me.  Maybe Williams on the wing struggled to get into the game but I might be miles off on that. 

Let’s not go overboard. This one could easily have gone either way and I’m not sure that our start proves much beyond the fact that a team with mid-table inclinations can very easily lose two close games in a row.  Three in a row, four in a row even.  This season is 46 games long and we know it’ll take time.  How can it not, when you’ve essentially built the team from scratch?  So if we know it’ll take time we need to find it in ourselves to give the players and the manager time.  

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Fulham

41 Joronen
2 Hoogland Yellow Card 47′
6 Bodurov Yellow Card 63′
38 Burgess
3 Stafylidis Yellow Card 77′
21 Christensen Subbed Off 45′
8 Parker
28 Hyndman
27 Williams
20 Rodallega
7 Eisfeld Subbed Off 61′
SUBS
4 Hutchinson
14 Roberts
16 Woodrow
30 David Subbed On 77′
32 Kavanagh
40 Bettinelli

Millwall

1 Forde
44 Edwards
2 Dunne
16 Beevers
28 Malone
7 Martin
6 Williams
26 Abdou Subbed Off 78′
11 Woolford Goal 12′ Subbed Off 62′
27 McDonald
19 Fuller Subbed Off 73′
SUBS
4 Wright
8 Easter Subbed On 73′
9 Gregory
10 Bailey Subbed On 62′
13 Gerrar
17 Webster
18 Gueye

Weather 20o. Wind 10mph Westerly. Partly cloudy.

 

More on the Championship, SD scores

SC Scores 2

Having a quick look at last season’s Championship table a few things stand out.

The top six teams were all among the division’s best defences: only Middlesbrough missed the “defend well and make the playoffs” bus.

Saying that, nobody had an absolute shocker defensively (the worst team in the league allowed 77 in 46 – contrast with Fulham’s 86 in 38 last season). The teams at the bottom defended worse than the teams above them, but not calamitously so. No, at the bottom of the league, the biggest problem seems to be an inability to put the ball in the net reliably.

Unlike the Premier League, where there’s less balance owing to well known financial issues, there’s no dominant team at both ends. The best we saw was Leicester, and that’s why they won the league. Derby and Burnley were the next two best teams, but Derby did it with attack and Burnley with defence.

One more thing: Millwall under Holloway (January onwards) weren’t half bad, and not the mad flying attacking team we remember him turning Blackpool into. He turned the team around defensively, sacrificing forward play somewhat in the process, but it kept the team up. I’m told they played really well in the season’s opening game so it’ll be another tricky game. Looking forward to it.

Scott Parker, tigers, Fulham’s youngsters and why we look at all of these things differently

Further to an excellent comment below, yes Scott Parker probably is being judged to higher standards than his teammates at the moment.

When we make up our minds about players we’re not just reacting to what we see on the pitch. So say Scott Parker gets 5/10. When we think about Scott Parker we all draw on our expectations of what Scott Parker is.

Suppose we meet a tiger in the street for the first time. Now, I don’t know about you, but I have no experience of tigers. But I’m able to draw an inference that this tiger might be dangerous, so I act accordingly. If the tiger then bares its teeth I’m going to be twitchy. Now, it turns out the tiger was just yawning, but it gave me an awful fright for a moment. After a while, as we get used to the tiger, we realised that it’s not going to bite us at all, and we recalibrate our expectations a bit. Now, if someone new to the area comes across the tiger they’re all “whoah!” but to those of us who have seen it around and got used to its habits, we realise that this tiger doesn’t bite. We relax. It’s just a big friendly tiger. That doesn’t mean we’re completely sure about our tiger. It might bite us. But we’re not super-charged in our fear here. Respectful is the word. It would have been stupid to decide the tiger wouldn’t bite after seeing it just once – although a lot of people would have done exactly this – but after we’ve seen it a few times we do recalibrate our expectations.

So it is with Parker. When we got Scott Parker he wasn’t far removed from being England’s player of the year. He’d played well enough for Spurs and felt like just what we needed. Now, some people might have made snap judgement, particularly those with access to fitness reports perhaps, but for the rest of us it was a question of waiting and seeing. This was Scott Parker! Saviour of West Ham. England hero. Good egg. Leader. We were lucky to have him. But as time moved along we realised that rather than being part of the solution, Parker was a big part of the problem. It wasn’t just him, but somehow all of Fulham’s combinations were wrong last year and because we’d expected so much of Parker it felt quite easy to point fingers at him. We had an expectation of what Parker might be and what we saw wasn’t it. We expected an 8/10 player and we got a 6/10 player. But to us – for the reasons outlined above – he felt like a 5/10 player.

Fast forward to the Championship. Alright! Scott’s going to dominate here, what with his knowhow.

But again, he didn’t deliver. He played okay, but it felt like there were too many occasions where he tried to do a bit more on the ball than his skillset might warrant. There are players in this team who do some things better than Parker, but he seemed to want to impose himself on various moves rather than just keeping things ticking along. As I noted at the time, there were occasions when an obvious recycling ball looked on, but Parker failed to take the option, ran into trouble, then played the same kind of ball anyway. Now, like Bryan getting dispossessed, this probably happened far fewer times than my mind thinks it did, but nevertheless, these are the things I take from watching Parker now. I’m biased, I have made up my mind: I look for the things he’s not doing well to back up my feeling that he’s no longer up to it. I don’t do this on purpose and if he plays out of his skin I’ll notice this, too, but generally speaking if he’s bumbling around having a middling game it’s the things that conform to my perception of Parker that I’ll remember.

By way of contrast, if one of the 18 year olds plays the same way they’ll get 6 or 7/10 from most of us. We have no preconceptions, they’re young and starting out, so we have lower expectations, we desperately want to see the best in them, so we’ll overlook the negatives and focus on the positives. The Ipswich first goal comes when a bouncing ball is badly headed by Hyndman (?), then Parker doesn’t take control and they score. Now, everyone focuses on Hutchinson getting burned here because that was very obvious, but in midfield we focus on Parker, not Hyndman. We want the kids to do well, desperately so. They get more rope. Parker doesn’t get that.

This of course is why Fulham have been very smart in going the way they have. Facing an absolute meltdown of a season the club have cleared the decks of the tainted many and brought in the kids. The fans will pretty much back the kids come what may. The board, the manager, and yes, Scott Parker, are likely to get some flak, but the kids will ensure that there’s some feelgood factor around the club this season. That’s clever.

Whether the tiger ends up biting anyone is beyond me, but by now I suspect not.

Ipswich 2-1 Fulham

Before the game we all agreed we had no idea what to expect, but really that went exactly as we’d have expected, had we had any expectations.

The home team and favourites looked pretty good.  Someone said ‘functional’, which does Ipswich a disservice, but this was a fully realised team in a way that Fulham aren’t.  Ipswich won’t have worried at all that Fulham had almost all the ball for much of the first half, Fulham’s play being too far from goal and lacking a bit of something.  The front two of Dembele and McCormack looked nifty on occasion but was really too far away from a midfield that flickered in and out. For all the good possession there wasn’t much of a killer instinct.

There didn’t need to be, of course.  As the away side, enjoying most of the ball, Fulham will have felt okay about the world until they went behind.  I’ve spoken of Glenn Hoddle’s multiple mistake theory of goal concessions before, but here was a good example.  Some untidiness around a bouncing ball in midfield, Scott Parker erred in waiting for the ball to settle of its own accord, which it didn’t, and suddenly Ipswich had turned on the jets and Fulham were in trouble. A quick pass to Murphy, who had it all to do, but then he burst forward past a bemused Hutchinson.  The latter presumably felt he was about to slow Murphy down while help arrived, but Murphy had other ideas and charged in on goal.  Joronen was probably down a bit early and Murphy finished well.  Four mistakes of varying seriousness and Fulham were losing.

The whites’ best chance came when Chris David stung the hands of Gerken, the Ipswich ‘keeper. The ball popped loose and Dembele reacted quickly, but Gerken redeemed himself with a smart block.

David was withdrawn at half time.  Eisfeld replaced him, like-for-like.

Fulham didn’t offer much in the second half until Patrick Roberts came on.  At that point they were two down, Hutchinson capping a day he won’t want to remember by being shouldered off the ball near the corner flag. Town swept the ball infield and McGoldrick powered home the loose ball.

With 15 minutes left Fulham brought Roberts on and suddenly the game was transformed.  Roberts was by some distance the best player on the pitch and managed to transcend the mediocrity around him.  He slipped Eisfeld through with one good ball, and his play brought a directness and intelligence heretofore missing.  It was he who slipped Hoogland through down the right for what would become the Fulham consolation, Hoogland overlapping, cutting in, then shooting home via a deflection.  And it was he who had half an opening late on, the ball not quite going where it needed to go.  He’ll do a lot of damage cutting in from the right.  Sooner rather than later Fulham need to take off the cotton wool and let him play from the start.

So yeah, probably the right result.  One team knew itself, the other finding its way.  Understandable: this is a new team full of new combinations. It really will take time for this team to get going.

Setup, players, etc

Joronen got the start in goal and did okay. Not at fault for either goal and made a couple of nice saves.  6/10

Hoogland played as an energetic right-back and appeared capable of playing the role well. He was up and down and didn’t appear to be caught upfield at all.  I didn’t really get a sense of his defensive prowess, nor of his crossing, but he scored and had a couple of other dangerous runs so gets 7/10 for now.

Bodurov had a good debut as best I could tell.  One tackle in the second half impressed particularly.  Bears watching but so far so good. 6/10.

Hutchinson will be better than this. He’ll hate how his debut went but made a couple of decent interventions and it wasn’t all bad by any means.  A thrown-together team is probably hardest for the defence and they’ll need a while to get a sense of what’s happening and where.  I hope Magath’s style isn’t to throw players in and out with every iffy performance. 4/10.

Stafylidis did what it says on the tin with some good bursts forward and some robust defending.  Like everyone else, it seems, I like the look of him. 6/10.

[it must at this point be noted, somewhere, that both of our full-backs had ponytails and beards - a first?]

Parker – I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on him but as the squad’s senior man I expected more.  It’s like he was trying to be “the man” a bit, but I got cross with him eschewing the obvious pass time and again, overlooking teammates who could have taken the ball, and twirling around before passing somewhere no better than option 1.  The result was a general slowing of Fulham’s approach work to no obvious advantage.  Scott Parker knows more about passing than I do, but he wouldn’t be the first 33 year old to completely lose the ability to play football and I’m more inclined to think that he’ll do a Danny Murphy in the championship than not. The Premiership exposed his lack of range and waning physicality and perhaps we simply saw a continuation of it today.  Put another way, when Fulham needed an equaliser did you want Parker anywhere near the ball?  4/10

Burgess was used in a sort of Busquets role in which he dropped deep out of possession but moved up with it.  Now it’s true that we’ve been desperate for that unselfish Etuhu role since Dickson last donned a Fulham shirt, but it didn’t really feel as if Burgess was the answer.  I mean, he did what he did well enough, particularly as an 18 year old playing his first game in a tricky away match with a completely new team in a completely new position, but… no, there can’t really be a but can there?  5/10.

Hyndman looked terrific to me, absolutely terrific.  Bold, busy, intelligent, technically able.  Very impressed.  Brendan Rodgers will buy him. 7.5/10.

David/Eisfeld played the central attacking role the team needs to knit together what might become quite a broken team when Roberts isn’t playing.  They both showed glimpses of class and both seem perfectly able.  Mad as it might seem, giving them half a game each for the rest of the season wouldn’t be the worst thing that’s ever happened, but on this evidence, if you were choosing one of them it might be Eisfeld, who looked more polished and intelligent in his 45 minutes.  As with everyone, their play will improve as they get to know their teammates. 6/10.

Dembele – I’ll be honest, I have no idea what all the fuss is about.  I’m conscious that he’s only young and that in time he could be a beast, but to me he just looks clumsy and out of his depth. Against that I guess he had the one big chance, which speaks of an ability to be where he’s meant to be, but letting the ball run under his boot as time ran down kind of summed him up for me.  I’ll look ridiculous when he’s hitting 30 a season for AC Milan in 5 years but there we are.  4.5/10.

McCormack has apparently not been 100%, which is a big shame as you can see the class in his work and how he will score the goals.  6/10.

Subs: Woodrow does have that terrific energy, doesn’t he?  It does presumably make him nice to play with as he’s always trying to show for the ball.  I don’t doubt that in time Dembele will be the better player but I think Woodrow’s more useful to us now.  (6/10).

Roberts I thought was terrific.  A different game with him on the pitch.  The hype will swirl around and he’ll go large sooner rather than later, but let’s maximise his time on the pitch while we have him. 7.5/10.

9/8/2014

Wind: 10mph SW

Temp: 21C

Ipswich Town: Gerken, Chambers, Berra, Smith, Mings, Hewitt, Hyam (Bru 82), Skuse (Wordsworth 70), Tabb, Bajner (McGoldrick 44), Murphy.
Subs: Bialkowski, Henshall, Marriott, Nouble.

Goals: Murphy 32, McGoldrick 61.

Booked: Hyam, Mings, Berra.

Fulham: Joronen, Hoogland, Hutchinson (Roberts 74), Bodurov, Burgess, Stafylidis, David (Eisfeld 46), Parker, Hyndman, Dembele, McCormack (Woodrow 57).
Subs: Bettinelli, Rodallega, Fotheringham, Burn.

Goal: Hoogland 86.

Referee: Stephen Martin

Ipswich Town v Fulham preview and welcome to Konstantinos Stafylidis

The bookies’ odds for Saturday’s game against Ipswich are closing in. For a time Ipswich were favourites but we’re getting to the point where it’s almost too close to call.

I’m not sure what the odds should be. Nobody knows what Fulham 2014/15 will be, but we know that Ipswich, managed by the authoritative Mick McCarthy are a more than decent side. This chart, from Statto.com, shows that last year they were strong at Portman Road, only losing to the very top teams and Leeds. There were a few draws thrown in but you’ll get that. Generally speaking they performed well at home. They scored almost every game, too.

itfc

I had a look at the odds and when the bookies have a home team in the Championship as favourites, that team will win 80% of the time, and when they have an away team as favourites that team will win about a third of the time, so whichever way the odds drift you would have to imagine that Ipswich SHOULD be favourites.

On the one hand you have a good Championship side with a goodish manager (McCarthy’s career win percentage is around the 40% mark, which actually isn’t bad; Felix’s is 48%; Roy’s was 43%; Mark Hughes is 38%). They’re playing at home against a team that has barely played together, that is basically starting from scratch.

As I type this it’s really hitting home how little we know about our team. We don’t know what formation they’ll play, what style, nothing. We have a forward who scored 12 goals in 23 away games last season so that’s something, but otherwise it’s just so hard to know, isn’t it?

Unknown goalkeeper, presumably Accrington Stanley goalkeeper Marcus Betinelli. I’m fine with this. Most goalkeepers save most shots and the games will be won and lost in front of him for the most part. If the team limits good shots against him he’ll probably do as well as most people; if he’s exposed he’ll let a lot of goals in. I’m assuming a base level of competence here and he may not have that, but as we’ve said a million times before, experienced goalkeepers make mistakes too. That doesn’t make them ‘not ready’.

Unknown defence, presumably largely unused to playing with one another. It’s a worry, it really is, particularly if rumours of us playing in a diamond are true and we’re really expecting the fullbacks to provide all the width. That sounds a lot like last year’s death by a thousand bad overlaps (not that the middle was solid or anything).

In any case, I’m supposed to be doing background checks on the new players aren’t I? So here’s a quick overview of Konstantinos Stafylidis.

ears

What are the lions doing to Konstantinos here?

Konstantinos Stafylidis is on loan to us from Bayer Leverkusen. He’s only 20, which is in keeping with the new Fulham, and I think we have an option to buy. He plays left back.  When Leverkusen signed him they said this:

Bayer 04 Leverkusen have signed Greek U19 National Team Konstantinos Stafylidis. The 19-year-old left-back for PAOK FC signed for the club a valid work from June 1, 2013 five-year contract. About the fee arrangements agreed both clubs silence.

“This investment in the future, we have once again traded 04 Leverkusen in the style of Bayer early to bind young and highly promising players to us. Konstantinos Stafylidis is at PAOK despite his youth already a fixed size., We are convinced that he will prepare ourselves in the coming year as then further matured players a lot of fun, “said CEO Wolfgang Bayer 04 wooden houses on the transfer.

 

Indeed.  This is actually half interesting to watch.   People laugh at Youtube but you do get some sense of a player from watching.  And I’ll say this, I believe in National Stereotyping of footballers and Greek defenders are alright by me. I watched their European Championship run on DVD a few years back and paid particular attention to their defenders, and really they do know what they’re up to.  No messing about.   Do have a read of this, one of the better things I’ve put together here.   The Greek bit is at the bottom.

I haven’t got where I meant to go here, but this is a young player with little by way of a track record who’s been signed by a decent club then allowed to leave on loan at the age of 20.  Frankly he could be anything.  So let’s move on.

A midfield anchored by Scott Parker and with Chris David and Alex Kacaniklic in it feels like it ought to do well. Kacaniklic is absolutely my dark horse tip for this season, but saying this, for all I know he’ll be sold to Helsingborgs for an undisclosed number of tracksuits before he players another game for the club. It always feels like Scott Parker needs an asterisk next to him denoting that it’s not the Scott Parker many football fans will remember. Parker’s like the Big Macs you see in the adverts and the ones you get served: fundamentally the same but disappointingly not quite what you hope for.

Which begs further questions, doesn’t it? Will Parker thrive amongst lesser players in the Championship? Or is he still not going to be able to cover enough ground? The trick here will be in his usage. Put a stake in the ground on our penalty spot, take a 10 metre piece of rope, tie one end to the stake and the other end to Parker, and I suspect all will be well. Show him video clips of his greatest moments as a West Ham player and we’re in for a long season.

parker

Up front we seem to be rich with options: Rodallega can be a fine big man (he can: he plays taller than he is) to McCormack, or Woodrow can do more of a general forward role. There are other options, too.

I’m no nearer an answer. Fulham feel half reasonable, to the extent they can feel half reasonable when I’ve only seen about three of them play.  But we’re away to a decent team, and that’s got to be a big factor in any prediction, however half-baked.

PREDICTION: Home win

Welcome Tim Hoogland

thWell, Clarice – have the lambs stopped screaming?

I meant to do so much more introducing the new season, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions, isn’t it?

Next we’re going to look at Tim Hoogland.

First, the above is an open goal: you can’t have a song about Hoobland and not use it when you have a player called Hoogland. You just can’t. Football supporters are football supporters, and of course he’ll either get Hangeland’s thing or a variation Moritz Volz, who, lest we forget, came from Germany and ****ing hated Chelsea. Never let it be said that alternatives weren’t suggested.

Hoobland/Hoogland. Honestly.

But what about on the field of play?

Tim seems to have spent a lot of time not being on the field of play, if we’re honest. He ‘broke in’ at FSV Mainz 05, playing 84 games over three seasons. The first two were in the second level of the Bundesliga, the third in the Bundesliga itself (is that right? Or is it still the Bundesliga 1?). Here he was mainly used in right midfield, but had a meniscus injury that ended his season about halfway through. That was it for him at Mainz.

In 2010-11 he was at Schalke I think but didn’t play. In 2011-12 he did play, coming on as a sub twice. In 2012-13 he was loaned to Stuttgart and didn’t play there either. In 2013-14 he was back at Schalke and was reinvented as a right back. Here he played most of the second half of the season and the team did really well. So that’s what aroused Fulham’s interest, I imagine.

What does it all amount to? A midfielder who got injured and then struggled to find his way in the game, who then turned into a right back and seems to have done quite well.

On this basis it’s hard to know what to think, but it sounds half positive, especially given the levels we’re talking about here: successful in Bundesliga -> fine in the Championship, no?

Riether and Duff, and the advantages of defending

One of the interesting things I’ve taken from the analysis of the last week or so is that Fulham were foolish to abandon the emphasis on defending. At the top level it’s MUCH harder to be a good attacking side than a good defensive one. In effect, all Martin Jol did with his change of emphasis was to weaken the thing we were good at without improving on the weakness.

Keeping things tight when you’re playing better teams makes every sense. Imagine Fulham are playing Real Madrid in a sort of training game.

If you give each team one possession of the ball, Fulham might come out of the match with a draw. Madrid would still be favourites, but in one possession each team chances are they won’t have the scope to impose their superiority.

What if you gave each team 1,000 attacks? Madrid would win easily wouldn’t they?

Over that amount of time their ability would eventually tell.

This is why you see Sam Allardyce teams slow everything down so much. Create stoppages. Slow it down more. The less time the ball’s in play, the less time the superior team has to make a breakthrough. It makes every sense. Against better teams you try to condense opportunities. Against lesser teams you need to open up.

So in a way Fulham need to decide where they are in all this. If we feel we are better than the teams we’ll be playing, then a more expansive game is presumably the way to go. If we are nervous then building from the back is surely key. Absent any real clue either way you’d hope for the latter.

On this, I’ve talked a bit about how attacking full-backs aren’t all they might be when your team is in the process of letting in 85 goals. Well part of this is combinations. Roy used to talk about combinations all over the pitch, essentially each player and the man next to him. So Paintsil would have a combination with Aaron Hughes inside and Damien Duff ahead. Konchesky with Hangeland and Dempsey or Davies. And so on.

And so it is that I noticed something odd about Sascha Riether. I’d been criticising him on Twitter, as I do, when a fellow fan named Ewen mentioned that, while everyone liked the Riether and Dejagah combination, he felt Riether had been better with Duff.

That resonated with me. I hadn’t the gumption to notice it myself, but when Ewen mentioned it something clicked. Yes, that made sense. Duff cuts inside and gives Riether proper space wide, but perhaps more importantly, Duff worked hard to defend, too. With Dejagah you didn’t really get either. In a team like Fulham’s that’s a big deal.

I went back to the 2012/13 season to see what I could see. No sense in looking at last year – everything was awful.

Here’s what I found:

chart1

With Riether and Duff we scored and allowed 1.6 goals per game.  Without Duff it was 1.8 conceded and .8 scored.

1.3 points per game with both; 0.8 without Duff*.

So you might conclude that despite all this attempted analysis, the biggest problem Fulham have had over the seasons is Damien Duff getting older.   It’s not that simple but he, probably with Murphy, were I suspect a lot better than they were really given credit for (and I know everyone rated them highly).

So that’ll be a big part of the new Fulham. Finding players who work well together.

*PS it doesn’t seem as if Duff and Riether played together in easier games or anything

Fulham: the decline from peak Hodgson to the bowels of footballing hell

decline

Okay, I’m sticking with my SD scores as I like them and they feel right.

Next we’re going to look back over the time from peak Hodgson to relegation.

The first thing we see looking along the Attack line is that this team has never scored goals. Hodgson’s team was well below average in scoring but was still positive overall: the defence, and remember that this is a team thing, not just the back four, was just outside the normal defensive range for the league. Only Chelsea, Liverpool and Champions Manchester United could say the same. So if there was any doubt – and I don’t think there was – Hodgson’s team was built on defence. That’s how we qualified for Europe. Note that this side was largely unchanged all season, with Etuhu and Bullard doing half a season each.

In the European season we saw a lot of squad rotation. The team didn’t improve at the attacking end and the defending wasn’t quite as good. This is the league remember. I think we all saw the team prioritising that year. Etuhu only played 14 league games.

In Mark Hughes’ first season the attack made a bit of a jump towards normality, and the defence rebounded towards peak Hodgson. This in some ways is a natural regression: if we assume 2009-10 was compromised because of Europe, you’d expect the season after this to see some bounce back. Hughes kept his end of the bargain in this sense. At this point Fulham were fine. The age thing was starting to happen but on the pitch we were right where we should have been.

Jol’s first season saw a progression towards a more attacking team, a setup that allowed Clint Dempsey to score all those goals, but we can see the defensive dropoff immediately. The defence and the attack was now right bang in the middle of the pack, but the balance had shifted too far and the net result was that we were now a below average side. The changes here were tactical, but also personnel based: Senderos took a lot of Hughes’ playing time, and the very underrated Salcido gave way to Riise. Right-back continued to be a transition position. Etuhu was hardly playing, but Dembele was in a more central role late in the season.  The warning signs are there though: the attack isn’t contributing as much as the defence has given back.  The team isn’t as balanced as it was.  It’s lost something.

In 2012-13, Jol’s second season, the attack became a smidge better – Berbatov – but the defence went bad. This was Sascha Reither’s first season, Riise was a regular, and again Hangeland had a variety of partners. The midfield became patched together, with Sidwell and Karagounis the most common CM players, a terrible drop-off from Murphy and Dembele. This was the first season where the defence was below average, but it was still within league norms. The danger was the trend, which was now firmly in the wrong direction, and the midfield drop-off, which to be fair, Scott Parker was then brought in to remedy.

2013-14 we’ve been over enough times. The rot had set in. Everything was wrong. The club got itself into a horrible mess, confusing causes and effects, shipping out ‘luxury’ players like Berbatov and Ruiz, who may not have been helping but who ultimately didn’t play more than 10 games each.  The team began to rely on the graft of Parker and Sidwell… in retrospect it’s not at all clear where we expected the goals to come from… but very clearly the problem was in defence. As noted time and again, we became far the easiest team to play against.  Now again, I have no problem with Sidwell or Parker as footballers but clearly there’s a lack of intelligence on display here.  Hodgson knitted together players into a coherent whole, but it’s almost as if Fulham 13/14 felt that there was no obvious source of goals so they’d all crack on and do their best, and hope that they might collectively get back and do a bit of the old defending, too.  Meulensteen tried the packed defence approach and given what we’ve seen here, I suspect that this was exactly what was needed to at least steady the ship.  He may not have been the right manager, but he was sacked at exactly the wrong time.

If there’s anything new here – and perhaps there isn’t – it’s that the move to attacking full-backs under Jol clearly upset the balance of the side. The team post Reither simply couldn’t defend. I’m not laying this on one man, but stylistically he was clearly not right given how we were playing and what we needed to do. Riise was sporadically terrible, too. He was less attacking than Reither but more inclined to be neither/nor, neither bombing on nor staying back. Again, it all felt a bit ad hoc.  He’d attack if he felt like it, and defend if he was back.

The transition from gifted midfielders to limited midfielders also doomed us, as did the move away from Hughes and Hangeland: we weren’t the same once they were broken up. It’s hard to pin too much blame on attacking players as that side of the game was broadly even, although if we assume that a goal not conceded and a goal scored are of broadly equal value, the team should have received a far bigger attacking lift from the decision (?) to stop defending.  There was nowhere near enough payoff from adopting this expansive approach.

Then by the end we couldn’t attack or defend, which I guess is called bottoming out: in 2013-14 we couldn’t accomplish anything with the ball in part because we were so terrible without it. We would be playing against teams already in the lead, we were playing against teams that would keep the ball from us and indeed take it off us. We had nothing.