The sort of game that makes you want to kick a dustbin. Fulham, so lively and so bright in recent times, stunned by the usual mess from Stoke, a team of trees that is always greater than the sum of its parts, always seems to have extra players on the pitch. Stoke seem to fill every area, and Fulham’s players rarely found space until a frenetic last ten minutes when we threw the kitchen sink into proceedings. And even then there wasn’t really anywhere to construct anything, as Stoke were packed deep and determined.
It’s hard to know what Martin Jol might have done differently. Without Ruiz the team tried a moderately successful approach that involved Baird, Sidwell and Karagounis in the middle and Berbatov and Petric up front. Dejagah was the true winger in all this.
But the trouble was, we couldn’t settle on the ball, despite having all these midfielders. Stoke eventually scored a very Stoke like goal, a deep cross knocked down by Peter Crouch and swivelled on by an advanced Charlie Adam. It’s not a goal you’d want to concede and it was a shame that Crouch wasn’t troubled more, but this is what Stoke do so well. The disappointment is more that we weren’t able to impose ourselves on them at all, which meant that Begovic had absolutely nothing to do until some late efforts from Berbatov and Petric, the latter in particular making us wonder what might have been: a devilish swirling shot that Begovic didn’t like one bit and spilled.
By then we had Duff on, Rodallega too, but there wasn’t enough exact football in the final third, mainly because Stoke were defending well. What do you do? We have no big target man, that’d be playing into their hands anyway, so the only option was to keep trying to play. Perhaps we might have tried to go through the middle more, and Sidwell’s occasional bursts hinted at something, but it didn’t feel like there were any good answers. We had most of the ball but just couldn’t make anything happen.
We defender okay too. Tony Gale in commentary seemed keen to adopt the fashionable “Senderos is an accident waiting to happen line” whenever Stoke attacked but he didn’t look so bad to me. An average performance in trying circumstances. And Stoke only had two shots on target all game (so did we, of course), so there’s that, too.
You have to look at these games in isolation and in context of others. In isolation it’s a tight defeat at a difficult place to go. In context it’s another game without getting what we want, but at this point nobody need worry – we’ll start winning again soon.
What an exciting week for managers in West London. Roberto di Matteo, who has fully exposed the role of randomness in football, lost his job soon after guiding a rudderless team to the biggest prize in club football. Mull over that for a while. He’s been dismissed because he isn’t the person who can take the team to the next level, where they might…. But probably won’t…. win the very prize di Matteo has already secured for them.
As I say though, randomness. Or not. Di Matteo is an ordinary manager who was just what Chelsea needed at the time, and he got lucky enough to win big. That doesn’t mean he’s the right man to repeat the trick, but the logic is a bit weird. No wonder, as Howard Wilkinson recently said, football managers are a very stressed group.
And so to Mark Hughes. The thing here is that Hughes is a decent manager. He has proved that. We don’t like him for obvious reasons but it’s not like he did a terrible job for Fulham. We struggled at Christmas but got better afterwards. There are no rules about having to get good results in any particular order and while there were rumours that player power had instigated a shift in philosophy we can’t really know, and in any case, Hughes was savvy enough to not get in the way of whatever did change. In retrospect it’s a big relief that we didn’t get to feel the full force of his nous in the transfer market, but he did okay for Fulham, just as he had for Blackburn and to an extent Manchester City.
Lawrie Sanchez’s time in charge of Fulham showed us just how negative a home crowd can get when things aren’t going well. By the time the winter months came around the early season bad luck hadn’t reversed itself and results were bad. Sanchez was – rather like Hughes – making bullish statements to the media, but at the ground it took very little time for the crowd to get twitchy. Every misplaced pass would lead to a gradual building of nerves, and the players must have felt this. Leaving the Newcastle home game was pretty horrible, all the negativity and anger. I understand how football fans are but a lot of it got a bit personal and that didn’t feel right.
I’m sure QPR are in a similar position, vibe-wise. If the owner were to say that Hughes has three more years, come what may, I’m sure he’d be rewarded with the progress he expected in the first place. QPR are a half-decent side, apparently lacking in defenders who can defend, and probably won’t finish bottom. Hughes could have seen to that.
Harry Redknapp seems to specialise in these kinds of rolls. When he took over Spurs they were in a manifestly false position and would have risen in due course had almost anyone taken over. Sure enough, they rebounded back to where they’d been under Martin Jol, and Redknapp got the plaudits.
The same thing will almost certainly happen here if he gets the job. QPR will finish lower mid-table, we might assume – would have done so under Hughes – but Redknapp will get the credit for the transformation.
What he will also do is weed out half of the squad, which probably does need doing. I’ve been kind to Hughes above, but no high turnover business has any reason to be paying someone like AJ a Premier League wage. Johnson hasn’t played much for an eternity and hasn’t been prolific for even longer. I think QPR are Kieron Dyer’s latest benefactors, too. Who’s making these decisions?
I don’t know that either decision is really the right one. In football you win some and you lose some. Chelsea are a good team by Champions League standards, and last year reached the upper limits of what their talent could achieve. This year they’ve merely got the other side of the same coin. It happens. We don’t quite know how good QPR really are – they’ve turned over their players so often in recent times there’s nothing really to go on – but on paper their squad looks decent enough. A team good enough to finish 12th will sometimes look like a 20th placed team (or it could be a 20th placed team). Sometimes you have to be patient. It’ll be very expensive to remake the squad in the new manager’s chosen style, after all (as it would be expensive to be relegated, too). Newcastle weren’t daft in giving Alan Pardew that long deal. In a flash they’re saying that they are in this for the long run, that while they acknowledge there will be ups and downs, this is more or less normal and not something to panic about.
I am still reading Inverting the Pyramid, the brilliant book about the development of football tactics by Jonathon Wilson. This morning on the way to work I read a passage about the Brazil side of the 1970 World Cup. Considered by many (including me) as the zenith of football ability, combining success with artistry. Wilson makes an excellent point that had Brazil not won the World Cup that year many of their most celebrated moments (Pele’s lob from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia that hit the bar and his dummy to evade Uruguay’s goalie which he followed by missing an open goal) would have been viewed as counter productive extravagances rather than beautiful football.
I continue to be frustrated by so called analysis on British television that rarely tells you anything you couldn’t have seen for yourself and is very much focused on contentious decisions and praising the side that won the game. A player might receive great praise one week because he played a key part in a side that kept a clean sheet but be taken apart the following week because he made one mistake that led to a goal. I understand that winning is important, I know I would not be happy if we lost stylishly EVERY week, but I’d like to see football analysts look beyond the result a little more often.
The great thing about live football is that you see the game you want to see. I’m thoroughly enjoying the current style & panache of Martin Jol’s Fulham. Sunday’s match was the first time I can remember enjoying a game we lost. Early on we were so comfortable it looked like we’d cruise to an easy win and there’d be little need to get excited. Hangeland’s sending off changed the game (a ball winning tackle that ironically brought to mind Bobby Moore’s tackle on Jairzinho in the 1970 World Cup) and wasn’t helped by the fact we’d not long replaced Alex Kacaniclic. Despite the imbalance in numbers we still dominated the first half and to my mind were the best side in the second half too.
Berbatov was supreme throughout, drifting into fabulous positions and picking out passes that perhaps only Johnny Haynes would have been able to see as clearly. Ruiz buzzed about and, though he does have a tendency to give the ball away at bad moments, looked like he was going to be able to unlock the Sunderland defence until his unfortunate injury. Having replaced Ruiz, Petric started like a steam train and even when struggling a little after getting studded whilst scoring, looked threatening for the rest of the game. So many positives throughout the team that I felt the performance outweighed the result.
Even at 3-1 down I felt we had a chance to get a result. I was enthralled to the end and proud that we didn’t try and shut up shop and went for the win. Perhaps at times we were a little naive in defence but I think rather than try and posit blame on individuals we need to understand the disruption caused to the team balance from the loss of a player. Poor old Philippe Senderos got a tonking from some of those people around me. Whilst I’ve not yet been convinced of his abilities myself, he really was on a hiding to nothing and left horribly exposed on several occasions.
Obviously results do matter. If we lost stylishly every week I’d soon tire of it but we’re having a great season so far and I’m excited to see this Fulham side playing. We’ve got a tough few weeks ahead in which we’ll be missing key players. Hopefully this will give the opportunity to some of the squad to show us what they’re capable of. Senderos will almost certainly get a little run. He needs to perform. I’d like to see more of Dejagah and Petric. I’d also like to see what Rodallega could do in a more central role. Whoever plays though I’m sure it’s going to be fun.
Sometimes you just get a feeling about games. Just when you think things are going well, there’s a nasty surprise around the corner. In this case the nasty surprise came in the form of Sunderland, a spluttering version of their former selves, Martin O’Neill more or less failing to ignite his expensiveish team to the point where until very recently only one person – Stephen Fletcher – had actually scored for them. But what Sunderland have is a bit of midfield bite, terrors down the flanks, and the fortune to be playing Fulham on a dark Sunday when bad vibes were everywhere. So yes, sometimes you just know. I put my money where my mouth was and placed a hefty £4 on a Sunderland win, cashed out at half-time when the score was 0-0 but when Brede Hangeland’s sending off had placed Fulham’s game in jeopardy.
It was just one of those games. Sunderland aren’t all that and with 11 men I’m sure my bad vibes would have ended up being misplaced, but as it was we didn’t have 11 because Brede Hangeland became a victim of the current “thou shalt not tackle” dictum. Yes, he left his feet, but only so he could execute a tackle on the half-way line that wasn’t exactly perfectly timed but which did win the ball. The referee’s red card brought disbelief from Hangeland and indeed everyone else. Martin Jol stood up from his bench, for example.
Fulham nearly went ahead anyway, John-Arne Riise shot across goal and hit the bar via a deflection, but this was a problem in the making. With 10 men our covering options were perhaps diminished and nobody had taken Riise’s place. Sunderland broke, Senderos gestured behind him to nobody and ended up covering two people but nobody, a great pass took him out and Fletcher scored easily at the far post. Harsh on Fulham.
But an equaliser came, Duff teeing up the lively Petric for a well taken equaliser. Petric came on when the influential Ruiz was removed with an injury, and made the most of his chance. He’s become a bit of a forgotten man what with everything, but showed phenomenal skill on a number of occasions. We ought to find a way to make the most of his talents, and he should certainly have taken more of the free-kicks we kept winning. Rodallega seems no better than Riise at these, but still positions himself as one of the go-to-people when there’s a shot on.
Sunderland went back ahead with a Cuellar header from another set piece, Steve Sidwell underlining a miserable game for him by not getting close enough to the goal scorer (and doesn’t that feel like a strange marking assignment?).
Sidwell. I watch Berbatov with interest. Does he feel his team-mates are good enough? Who does he work well with? Ruiz, Duff, anyone really. But his every interaction Sidwell seemed to end in disappointment. I exaggerate, and credit to Sidwell for getting into a few good situations, but it just wasn’t happening. A missed chance in either half following some Berbatov genius was the biggest issue, and could have made the game quite different. But again, credit Sidwell for making the right runs.
Stephane Sessegnon, who apparently has been pretty terrible this season, scored a screaming third to sort it all out once and for all, a wonderful fading drive that Schwarzer couldn’t get near.
3-1, and that was that. It was an unfortunate defeat for Fulham but not one that holds any great meaning in the big scheme of things: just one of those things.