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.