Fulham Review reprints

Due to popular demand, I’ve reprinted the latest Fulham Review.   I got a good deal from the printer so it’s still £5 a go.

www.godsfoot.com tobuy.

If in doubt, please do get one!  You know it makes sense.   Easily the biggest and best version yet.   If you haven’t got one, why not?

That’s me being an aggressive salesman.   (previous editions are also available – if you want to combine postage drop me an email and we’ll sort something out).

Will be selling them on Stevenage Road before the Wolves game, up by the club shop/Hammersmith End gates.

Oddsnends: the gap between our former banks of four

The goals on Saturday were down to individual mistakes, no doubt about it, but under Hodgson they probably wouldn’t have happened.

By committing men forward Hughes is making life much more interesting for supporters, but is leaving his defence a bit exposed.

For the first goal we can see that Stephen Kelly’s been caught well upfield.  Fine, these things happen, but surely someone should have been filling in for him?   If not the wide player, then one of Etuhu or Murphy should have been guarding the back door, ready to slide over as required.  Granted, we had the ball until Paintsil mislaid it, but that never stopped Roy from building that solid base, even in possession.    Any single midfielder along that black line would have given John a better pass, and also been able to slow down the subsequent attack.

Next, for the second goal, we see much the same thing.   There’s a massive gap between defence and midfield.  Here we see the early stages of the move, Blackpool attacking all that green with no Fulham midfielder in place to slow them down.

On he goes, and eventually Hughes and Hangeland, missing the protection they’re used to, get caught in no-man’s land, playing an off-side trap that Paintsil’s not going along with, but still miles from the player in possession (and the player on the end of the through-ball).  Frankly it’s a mess, and the sort of thing Roy worked hard to stamp out when he was in charge.   It came at the expense of attacking gumption, of course, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing that this is happening (more a by-product of opening up), but nevertheless, it does showcase how much harder life is going to be for our defenders this season.   Perhaps, though, it’s a transitional thing, while the players get used to their new freedom.

But it does pose an obvious question:  are our defenders good enough to play without Roy’s team defence setup?    Too early to tell.  We’d assume that Hangeland and Hughes will do fine, but Paintsil’s issues could be just a bad day at the office, or the signs of a player whose life-jacket (two banks of four at all times) has been taken away.

Too harsh, I know, but it bears watching.

The gap between defence and midfield seems to have been there all game.  I have, I’m afraid, no idea who David Vaughan andElliott Grandin might be, but it looks like they got a lot of time and space out there yesterday:

These chalkboards don’t necessarily mean anything, and against better teams Hughes will surely tighten up here, but that’s a lot of passing going on in an area where we never used to allow much passing to happen.

On the plus-side, lovely to see Dembele influential again.  He looks some player, and win, lose or draw, will brighten many games between now and whenever Arsenal try to buy him.

Jamie’s Report: Blackpool 2-2 Fulham

Blackpool 2 Fulham 2

A strange and entertaining match which we could have won, but nearly lost. In the end we had to settle for our third draw out of three – perhaps a disappointment after the week’s previous results had raised our expectations so high. But this wasn’t your average Fulham away point. It appears Mark Hughes is already transforming us into quite a different team.

Blackpool started eagerly, throwing balls and men into the area as they looked to capitalise on early season optimism. But Fulham were quietly impressive and the more assured of the two sides. Moussa Dembele was making his first league start and after 35 minutes he made an impact: sent down the right by Duff, he steadied himself before planting a powerful cross onto the head of Bobby Zamora, who made no mistake. So far, so good.

The other selection change was Stephen Kelly at left back, ahead of the departing Konchesky and the up-and-coming Briggs. Kelly spent the second half making wonderfully daring raids down the  wing, right in front of the assembled 1300 Fulham fans and reminiscent of his finest hour, in Basel, December 2009. But he was crippled by a mixture of his inability and reluctance to use his left foot, and was involved in perhaps the turning point of the match when, during one such raid, a simple pass across the area which should have gifted Dempsey a certain goal never materialised. Instead he scuffed a weak effort with the outside of his right and, from the interception, Blackpool went up the other end and scored – Dean Varney making full use of the space left by Kelly’s run.

Varney’s shot, initially heading for the bottom corner, was deflected away from goal by Hangeland  but then into the net by the unfortunate Paintsil. It capped a difficult day for our favourite Ghanaian, who seems to be struggling for form since the World Cup. I wonder if a solution doesn’t therefore fall neatly into place: Salcido (assuming he signs) slotting in at left back, the lively Kelly switching to the right and Paintsil gaining a well-earned rest?

By this point in the game we had also suffered two injuries: firstly to Zamora, who was replaced by the desperately glum and disinterested looking Dempsey, and then to David Stockdale, who for some reason wasn’t replaced by Pascal Zubherbuhler despite clearly hobbling throughout the last half an hour. It had also started pouring with rain, and amongst it all we had fallen apart completely. Blackpool soon had a second from a lovely flowing move, finished by Varney who found the same bottom corner, this time without any assistance.

The sense of disappointment was familiar for Fulham’s travelling fans but the remainder of the game certainly wasn’t. Hughes acted fast, hauling off Murphy (after another iffy performance from our captain) for recent goal-hero Zoltan Gera and replacing the quiet Duff with Greening. Refreshed, we came storming back, with Dembele taking the game by the scruff of the neck in startling fashion – first almost scoring himself after a fantastic weaving run, and then playing the exquisite through ball that set up our equaliser.

The goalscorer? Dickson Etuhu, who showed no little pace and skill to gallop majestically onto Dembele’s pass, take a touch and lift the ball expertly over the advancing goalkeeper into the net. Fulham’s travelling contingent exploded with relief and delight as Etuhu ran down the touchline towards Hughes – the man who has let him off the leash and in doing to might possibly have transformed his career.

Exciting, frustrating, wonderful and woeful stuff, all in one day – this is how football is meant to be, isn’t it? The Fulham fans’ cheer at the final whistle felt as is if wasn’t so much for the result as for a game that had got the blood flowing so much more than the normal 0-0 shut out. It’s too early to tell how successful Mark Hughes will prove to be, or whether we’ll come even close to matching the achievements of the previous two seasons under his leadership. The good news is that on current evidence, it looks like it’ll be exciting either way.

Six great things from last night

On the pitch:

1)  Was there any better way to break Matthew Briggs into the team than last night?   Home game (but small crowd), weak opposition, surrounded by first team players all ‘looking out’ for you.   Really well done by Hughes, and Briggs will have gained a lot from that, not least because he’s no longer just the answer to a trivia question and is (finally) getting the chance he’s wanted for a while;

2)  Bobby Zamora would probably feel he could do a job for Barcelona at this point.   He’s bubbling over out there, in a good way.  Confidence like this doesn’t last forever, but we should enjoy Zamora’s play while he’s still at the top of his game.  I can’t imagine how he could be doing too much better at the moment;

3)  Moussa Dembele looks amazing.   Early days, of course, but almost everything he did oozed excellence.  The weighting of his passes, the way he ghosted away from challenges, his balance, guile…. he looks like he’s been here years;

4)  It was wonderful to watch Hughes and Hangeland dominating again.   I was pondering this in the stand in the second half;  how will people remember this era in 30 years?   Roy didn’t stick around long enough, MAF will of course be in everyone’s thoughts, and of course Hamburg is the big milestone.   But I can imagine telling my son/daughter (November!) about Fulham in the early part of this century, and one thing I’d talk about to try to convery the essence of this side is Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland.   They’re just perfect, aren’t they?

5)  The goals.  We all love lots of goals, but when they’re great goals too… I’ve seen the highlights – here in case you haven’t been on the message boards today – and they’re just phenomenal.   The first goal was even better in person.   Duff’s ball was exquisite, Briggs (who took a bit of encouraging to break on sometimes, causing Duff to look back infield) did his bit wonderfully well, and Gera attacked it with bravery and skill.   Zamora’s goal followed some dazzling interplay with Gera that had us all gasping.   Great fun.

6)   The fact that it could easily have been 10-0.  Our football was awesome.   And I don’t say that lightly.   I don’t care if it was only Port Vale, we were very, very good.   I went to the game expecting to get bored quickly but the whole thing whizzed by.   A pleasure to have been there.

Off the pitch:

1)  First time I’d tried the burgers from that tent thing just inside Bishop’s Park.   A fiver’s not cheap, but it went to charity, I believe, and the burger was phenomenal.   Just what I needed;

2)   I managed to sell ten of the reprinted Fulham Reviews.   It was throwing it down so I wasn’t making much of an effort, but by standing there with my arm in the air I managed to shift enough copies to have made the soaking worthwhile.  Thanks to all who had sympathy!

3)  Rain’s annoying sometimes, but a night time game in a downpour doesn’t half make for a good spectacle.  Somehow realer than real.  How it ought to be.  Vivid;

4)  The small crowd meant that stadium exploration was an option again.   Our usual seats were out of the question (exposed!) and I was the only one who went yesterday anyway, so I sat behind the VIP section in the Riverside in the first half (they have tv screens with a five second delay!  Imagine how useful that is), then crossed the Hammersmith End and sat in the Johnny Haynes where I used to be for the second.    There’s something holy about the Johnny Haynes Stand on nights like that.  Loved it;

5)  I saw Mick Harford in the VIP bit.  When Dad used to take me to Luton, Mick Harford was the centre-forward.  In my first ever game, an FA Cup 3rd round match against Liverpool, Harford hit the bar from miles out, with an orange ball because it was snowing.    For some time I wrestled with the idea of discussing this with him (he was just along from me) but he didn’t bring an air of approachability with him so I didn’t;

6)   Hade came and picked me up!   What a result!

Fulham 6-0 Port Vale

The heavens opened over South West 6 tonight but the football was divine.  Port Vale are clearly not a wet weather team, but this was like watching Muhammad Ali sparring with a stuffed bear: “If the pitch gets slick I’ll hit them for six”…

It was brilliant to watch, for all kinds of reasons.  First, the resurrection of Matthew Briggs, who is going to need first team football sooner or later, and got a chance to show what he could do tonight.  This is unfortunate for Paul Konchesky fans (Liverpool bound, then?), but nice for Briggs.  Indeed, the first five minutes seemed to be all about giving him ‘early touches’, Murphy in particular doing the captainly thing and bringing the youngster into the game whenever he could.  And it wasn’t long before Briggs made a serious contribution, laying on one of the better goals we’ll see at the Cottage this season.

Damien Duff spied acres of unguarded green grass on the left wing and switched play accordingly.  There was one man on the field who could keep Duff’s pass in, and sure enough Briggs retrieved the ball and whipped a wondrous high ball into the area, at which point Zoltan Gera hurtled through space and thumped home with a falling header, getting a boot in the face in so doing.   It was an extraordinary goal, with immense credit to all three players.

Moussa Dembele, making his first start, made it two.  Showing tremendous control and a delicious sense of.. time? (the old adage about great sportsmen never rushing springs to mind).. Dembele wandered infield and smacked a low drive into the very bottom corner of the Vale net from the edge of the box.   Sad to say, but he looks like the player we all hoped Clint Dempsey might be (and I say this as a huge Dempsey fan); he looks absolutely brilliant really.

The third came from Briggs again, his pass infield dummied by Zamora, picked up by Gera whose angled pass set Zamora free in the area.  A cross was on, but instead Zamora whacked a shot into the top corner.  Extraordinary pace to the move, beautifully done.

Zamora teed up Gera for a fourth, the latter given time to control and swivel and shoot home off the bar.  A nice goal, again.

The second half saw things calm down slightly.  Zamora made it five with a free-kick, then Dempsey six with a humming drive from the edge of the area.

Dempsey had six or seven shots at goal and appears to be trying a bit too hard.  He’s a good player but is again having to force his way into the side at the start of the season.   His has been a strange stint, our longest serving player, scorer of several vital goals without which life would have been much less interesting at Craven Cottage, but still he is somehow not entirely at home.   An attempted reprisal of “that chip” was (as Jamie suggested to me) almost a cry for help:  “see what I can do; remember what I did“.   When he eventually scored he ran towards the bench where his friend Eddie Johnson was waiting.

Parkes on Cordon

WSC’s Taylor Parkes gives James Cordon the Tim Lovejoy treatment.   Brilliant:

Abbey Clancy was hired to do what Abbey Clancy does; the backroom boys worked out some skits about how Uruguay’s players had long hair and looked like girls; a polo-shirted audience whooped with well-marshalled efficiency. “Lovely stuff!” barked Corden, banging his cards on the desk. Somewhere in Britain, another library closed.

Ex-footballers with nothing better to do squeezed onto the sofa with sort-of celebs like Denise van Outen and Pixie Lott, the kind of people no one really cares about, without whom no TV show is commissioned (“Have you been watching the World Cup, Pixie?” probed our fearless host. “Well, I saw the England game,” giggled the vacant Lott).

And what he has to realise now, as he weeps over England’s exit, is that he’s part of the problem. Sure, it’s only a laugh – but this overbearing oafishness bolsters the culture which has England stinking out one tournament after another, bullishly arrogant, proud of not thinking. Corden would probably scoff at the thought, but I guess you have a different perspective when you’re making a career of it.

Ouch.

The re-education of Dickson Etuhu

“Dickson Etuhu, who I had at Preston, was fantastic in training, but not so good in matches. Roy Hodgson [Fulham’s manager] rang me about Etuhu. I said, ‘If you can get him to play for Fulham the way he does in training, and I think with your experience you can, you have got the next Patrick Vieira.'”  Craig Brown

And now we begin to see it.   I have always felt that Etuhu’s contibutions to Fulham were undervalued anyway.   True, he rarely passed more than 15 yards, rarely threatened the opposing goal, and didn’t always make the most of his physique, but equally, he was always in position, deferred to better ballplayers, and never gave the ball away (despite what people like to think).

That was about that.    It was always a case of the system inhibiting his instincts, the question was whether he’d have the game to take advantage of the (missing) freedom.   Consensus seemed to be that he would not.    Maybe we’re about to find out otherwise.

Here’s a comparison between his first ever game for Fulham and his most recent:

The slight difference is the passing forwards, which didn’t happen to start with but which happened more than ever before on Sunday.  His brilliant surge into the area forced van der Saar into a pair of good/lucky saves, and while you might argue that Etuhu should have done better, the first shot was fair and he had little time to react for the second.   It would’ve been some goal.

The difference, of course, was the removal of what we might as well now call “Hodgson’s Handbrake”.   Here are our last two home games against United, and the team’s average positions.  The yellow lines show where the central midfielders have stationed themselves.

That’s a pretty sizeable difference (also note that the full-backs seem a bit narrower).   It leaves a bigger gap between defence and midfield, but closes the gap between midfield and attack.   Take your pick.   Hughes is backing his defence to be able to survive without a shield.    Based on how Hangeland and Hughes played on Sunday, that might be okay.   And it means we might well see Dickson Etuhu turn into that rarest of beasts:   a legitimate box-to-box midfielder.    There aren’t many who can be a force at each end, and while it’s a bit much to expect this of Etuhu, it remains exciting to see him develop his game.

I don’t think we need blame Roy for holding him back though.   You could very well argue that the entire team has benefitted from Roy’s schooling, and is now ‘ready’ to go to the next level.   Just as the Karate Kid honed his skills with repetitive drills that he longed to leave behind in favour of exciting tournament drama, so the Fulham players must have longed to burst free of their shape-led regime.    But in insisting on this dedicated approach Hodgson (Miyagi) probably did them a favour, laying a ‘walk-before-you-can-run’ foundation which they absolutely needed, and from which they might now, finally, go to the another level.   While we wouldn’t have got where we are without Hodgson, the chances are we wouldn’t have got beyond here either.    Under Hughes it really does feel as if the sky’s the limit.

Fulham 2-2 Man Utd

Thrills and spills and bellyaches at Craven Cottage this afternoon as Brede Hangeland moved to the top of my own private “Great People” list and David Stockdale made an unforgettable penalty save that he’ll still be talking about when he’s an old man.

We were 2-1 down when referee Peter Walton (who had a strange game) awarded United a penalty based on some kind of infraction from Damien Duff.  It looked perhaps as if Duff had handled after mis-kicking a clearance (in which case, could he have avoided the ball?).   Nani stepped up confidently and struck his kick well, but Stockdale flew to his left like a bright yellow superman and pushed the ball away.   It felt like a heart-warming irrelevance given the scoreline, but in the end proved pivotal.

Stockdale had a good game.  The afternoon’s first highlight came when a spectacular bicycle kick from Berbatov was brilliantly parried away, and while he was then beaten by a 25 yard Scholes daisycutter, it didn’t feel like a shot Schwarzer would’ve got to either.   His handling was impressive again, his kicking hefty, and I maintain that he looks more like Peter Schmeichel than any other goalkeeper in recent memory.   We are warned not to get carried away with these things, but it’s nice to see young players do well.   Let’s hope he gets a chance to prove himself.

Fulham almost equalised in the first half when Dempsey expertly freed Etuhu (in the box a lot again today; good man) and van der Sar was forced into two fine saves, one from a seated position.  Do you get many chances like that against Manchester United?   But happily enough we got the equaliser we deserved in the second half.  Damien Duff squirreled his way through the defence, Zamora pulled it back into the path of Simon Davies, whose shot was good enough to just about beat van der Sar.  Great work, Duff, great run, Davies.

On the hour Moussa Dembele then replaced Clint Dempsey, a nice chance to see our newest signing.  Dempsey shuffled off like a nine year old who’d had his football stickers confiscated by the teacher.  Dembele, though, justified the move with some nice work in confined spaces, a good appreciation of teammates’ runs, and a couple of surprising passes that on another day have led to goalscoring chances.   Harsh on Dempsey, who had played well, but Dembele looks a shrewd signing.

So far so good then, but United went ahead again with a confusing goal from a corner.  Personally I was looking at a wasp hovering a few inches from my nose when the ball went in, but nobody around me seemed to know what had happened either.   The news later suggested a Hangeland own goal, which made his late equaliser even sweeter.

We might have had a couple of good penalty shouts in the run-up to the goal, but in the end none of this mattered, as with three minutes left Duff’s high corner met Hangeland’s high jump, and a convincing header beat van der Sar low to his left.  The Cottage erupted.

Similarity Scores

Before I get started, allow me a quick introduction.  I’m Colin, who you may remember from my dormant blog Championship at Best.  Yep, I’m that stats geek.  Rich invited me to contribute an occasional piece over here, and since I haven’t really had the time to maintain a site on my own, that invitation sounded excellent.  I’m excited to share any  interesting bits of information I come up with, and that’s what I’ll try to do now.  So, on to the fun stuff!

One thing I see a lot, especially in team-oriented sports such as football, is that fans will compare their players with other players.  Most often, I see comparisons of physical attributes – height, strength, pace, sometimes even nationality.  Sometimes these comparisons work, sometimes they are easily debunked.  I’d like to see if we can come up with something totally objective, and just maybe, something that works.

A ton of my work has been borrowed from baseball writer/statistician Bill James.  One thing he came up with was the concept of a similarity score, where he compared players in several statistical categories and show us how different or similar two players are.  It’s a simple formula – start with 1000 points, and subtract the difference in each category.  The closer to 1000, the more similar the players are.  Here, I’ve taken this concept, and applied to the 2009/10 Premier League season.  Each category is weighted differently, depending on how “important” it is to that player.  For example, if Clint Dempsey makes a lot of tackles, then tackles are weighted more heavily in determining the players most similar to Dempsey.  As it is, Dempsey is a unique player, and one whose place has been under debate recently.  Here are his top ten comparables, based on last season:

Sebastian Larsson Birmingham 969
Zoltán Gera Fulham 969
Matthew Taylor Bolton 968
Stephen Hunt Hull City 962
James McFadden Birmingham 961
Damien Duff Fulham 960
Morten Gamst Pedersen Blackburn 960
Steven Fletcher Burnley 960
Kevin-Prince Boateng Portsmouth 959
Kevin Doyle Wolves 959

It’s interesting to note that two of the players he’s competing with for a place (Gera and Duff) make the list.  This may say a lot about Roy Hodgson’s shape, structure and defined roles, but it could also suggest that the three are interchangeable.  Let’s look at the other two players in question.  Here’s Gera’s top 5:

Leon Osman Everton 971
Chris Eagles Burnley 970
Glenn Whelan Stoke 969
Sebastian Larsson Birmingham 969
Andy Reid Sunderland 967

and Duff:

Craig Bellamy Man City 972
Mark Noble West Ham 970
Luka Modric Tottenham 965
Matthew Etherington Stoke 964
Samir Nasri Arsenal 956

It’s interesting to see that one-time rumored signing Craig Bellamy (who instead joined Cardiff on loan) was Damien Duff’s #1 comparable.  While Bellamy is obviously a major talent, his signing might have created an even greater logjam for us.  If we were to sell a player, say Dempsey or Gera, then perhaps Birmingham’s Larsson would be a suitable replacement?   At the very least, this makes it appear that he would be able to slide in and do the same job.

And I feel that that’s where this information might be most useful.  If a key player gets sold, can we find a replacement that fits in with our system?  What if Brede Hangeland moves on to a bigger club?   His comparables suggest that finding a drop-in replacement could be difficult and costly:

Nemanja Vidic Man Utd 970
Kolo Touré Man City 960
Sébastien Bassong Tottenham 958
Aaron Hughes Fulham 953
Michael Turner Sunderland 950

Similar story for Bobby Zamora:

Emmanuel Adebayor Man City 977
Dimitar Berbatov Man Utd 971
Louis Saha Everton 967
Frédéric Piquionne Portsmouth 962
Carlton Cole West Ham 962

While the top three are going to be out of our price range, we had heard rumors earlier this summer that Fulham were looking to sign Frédéric Piquionne.  And more recently, I’ve read that Roy is interested in Carlton Cole for his Liverpool squad.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

I expect that this formula will always have some tweaking to be done, but I think we have some reasonably accurate results already.  If my programming skills will allow it to happen, I hope have an online tool available soon to check these comparisons for any player.  I’d be happy to answer any questions or implement any suggestions, so feel free to share any ideas!

Dembele signs

Good news!

‘I am very happy to join Fulham and look forward to training with the team to prepare for the first home game of the season. It has always been a dream to play in the Premier League and I will make sure that I make the most of this opportunity.

‘I understand that Fulham has a strong squad, so I am prepared to work hard for the Manager and take my chance to impress him, and my teammates, when the opportunities arise.’

Good lad.
Dembele (does it sound like Pele?) is a young attacking midfielder, said (by various posters on message boards who know someone who knows something) to be quick, strong, with an unselfish approach and a good attitude.  Like the sound of that.  

Interestingly, Hughes has been tracking Dembele for a while.  Lork on TiFF noted this, and sure enough, it doesn’t take long to dig up stories:

MAN CITY boss Mark Hughes is ready to fight Arsenal to grab Belgium’s answer to Theo Walcott – £7million-rated Moussa Dembele.

Gunners boss Arsene Wenger has already had the young star, 21 – who plays up front or on the wing for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar – scouted on a number of occasions.

And he did not disappoint when they watched him last Friday, scoring twice for Louis van Gaal’s side in a 6-0 win over Sparta Rotterdam.

City, though, are also keeping tabs on him and Eastlands sources say they will have him monitored during the coming weeks – and hope that the presence of good pal Vincent Kompany, 22, will help them to seal a deal.

It is easy to see why Dembele, who already has 16 caps for Belgium, is so highly regarded.

In September, he came to the attention of many scouts when he took on seven defenders before scoring a memorable goal in a match against Willem II.

He was also a key figure in Belgium’s Olympic side, which defeated Italy in a run to the semi-finals.

Well, how about that?   Not sure what happened to the Man City move (perhaps Dembele didn’t like the idea), but Hughes has clearly seen something he likes and has managed to pull the deal off. 

The other interesting thing is that Dembele was part of AZ’s championship side a couple of years ago, when he worked under Louis Van Gaal.   This mightn’t mean much, but suggests that he’s been exposed to good (and notoriously disciplined, I think?) coaching.  So that could be good, too.

What an encouraging signing.  Not one Roy would have made, but perhaps this will make us harder to play against.

(here he is – note the mysterious hand on his shoulder, suggesting some kind of terrifying Belgian horror movie)