How much difference does one player make?

We beat Sunderland without Hangeland, Dempsey and Dembele.  If a big club were to sign three of our players it probably wouldn’t be these three, but they’d all be in the discussion.  So how did we manage it?

My thinking:

A single player doesn’t make that much difference in any single game.  Over a season the small variations in ability add up, but in a single game you can cover for most absences reasonably well, particularly if the squad is of a uniformly decent standard.

The exception to this is when a player’s contribution cannot be replaced, either because he is unusually good, or he plays a certain way that cannot be replicated.

When you look at it this way, the Fulham team is actually quite nicely set up.  There is only one player in the squad (Zamora) that we can’t adequately cover:

If, for the sake of argument, you take our first XI as: Schwarzer, Baird, Hughes, Hangeland, Salcido, Davies, Sidwell, Murphy, Dempsey, Dembele, Zamora we can put forward the following as useful alternatives:

Stockdale, Paintsil, Halliche, Senderos, Kelly, Kakuta, Etuhu, Greening, Duff, Gudjohnson, Johnson (A).

Now you might argue that the first list of players is better than the second by some way, and perhaps it is, but all of those players have a history of meaningful contribution to football.  Stockdale we know can do a job, Kelly has done so for Fulham whatever his critics might suggest, same for Paintsil. Halliche played well in the world cup and we must assume could do a fair short-term cover job for Fulham. Senderos you would hope could do a longer-term cover job, as he has history in the league and ought to be approaching a similar level to Hangeland and Hughes. Baird can cover anywhere, and there would be no concern if Etuhu was needed to fill in for Murphy or Sidwell. Duff and Davies is a toss-up anyway, and Gudjohnson could reasonably start every week (and may deserve to do so).  We have no obvious replacement for Salcido, but of all the positions full-back is probably the easiest to cover, particularly short-term.

In retrospect, the only thing this squad couldn’t have got over this season was a long-term injury to Zamora. Why is Zamora harder to replace than Hangeland?  Brian Quarstad once put it to me that defending is like making bread (you follow a set recipe exactly), attacking is like making dessert (you can improvise).  Put another way: when you defend, you defend. Within various parameters the job is the job, it’s reactive, it’s replicable.  Attack is the opposite: proactive, variable.  Take away the main defender and you can substitute in a slightly lesser version of the same thing. Take away the main attacker and the whole team’s attacking dynamic changes because all the things you like to do, you can’t.  Zamora is so good and so unique that we couldn’t cover him.  But we’ve done okay anyway. (NB Gudjohnson does seem to share

If he stays fit next season we might reasonably expect to be hunting for those 8th/9th positions again.  (see how easily optimism can be conjured up when things are going well!).

11 thoughts on “How much difference does one player make?

  1. I think with Gudjohnsen in we do now have cover for Zamora. They are very similar players: strong, clever, skillful. As I’ve said before, they are both Mark Hughes types, Number 9’s who are as much creator and attacking fulcrum as goal-scorer. The kind of players who, as they age, could slowly drop back into midfield. I have no doubt that, if we had Gudjohnsen since the start of the season, we would not have felt Zamora’s absence as much. That’s not to say we would not have seen a decline in the level of performance — Zamora’s in his prime, whereas Gudjohnsen is past his — but rather only that we would not have seen our system unravel quite as much. We simply had no one who could do even a passable impression of Zamora for most of the time he was gone.

    And that, I think, is the point. It’s not so much that it is necessarily easier to replace a defender, a midfielder or a striker because of the nature of their role. It’s just that at the business end of the pitch, replacements are harder and more expensive to find, especially for a number 9 like Zamora.

    The only player I don’t think we have adequate cover for is Murphy. We’ve been lucky not to have him out for extended periods, because without him — as with Zamora — our system doesn’t function properly. Sidwell and Etuhu are completely different players. And while Greening is somewhat similar, I simply don’t think he has either the top-level experience or skill-set to perform even a decent impression of the role. He can do what Murphy does in front of the defense, but not behind the strikers, if that makes any sense. I have a feeling that Gudjohnsen could also act as cover for Murphy, and, if so, that would make his acquisition one of the best we’ve ever made. But it is not certain and I think we’d be much better off working on that position in the summer.

  2. I remember when Mourinho joined Chelsea he listed the team and indicated he had a replacement for every position – i.e. 2 XIs similar to your list above. It seems a bit simplistic: you may play different formations with different players; some players will always be picked ahead of other players (Baird is likely to get in ahead of Paintsil, Halliche or Kelly). Even so – how does that 22 compare to the best 22 when Roy was here (or even before that)? 15 of them are regular internationals – the others are English (with a few caps) or Kakuta. Looks very strong to me.

  3. An interesting hypothesis, and while I agree that attacking tends to show variety while defending is formulaic, Zamora belies this. What is special about him is that he is so good with his back to goal (in itself a unique role in the team). His actions in that position are on the whole predictable, but he does it so well that his marker’s objective of winning the ball or at least shepherding it away from the danger area are almost always frustrated. His shielding of the ball and range of lay-offs from head, chest or foot give supporting team mates a whole range of options which other team members are unable to provide.

    Dembele by contrast is entirely unpredictable. I don’t think he knows himself where he might end up when the ball comes to him. A handful for defenders but difficult for team mates to play off him.

    The other role in our team which is special is Murphy’s. It’s not just his ability to pass accurately but his awareness and ability to read and control a game. Yes, we can manage without him for the odd game or part of a game, but imagine where we would be if, like Zamora, he had been out for five months.

    1. The issue I have with the Murphy thing is Juventus: he didn’t play but we were excellent. I know it was a one off but it occurs to me that some combination of Sidwell and Etuhu with Dempsey or Davies thrown in ought to be able to muddle through.

      Against this, when teams make a plan to shut down Murphy (and succeed) Fulham grind to a halt.

      I wonder, though: is this because with Murphy on the field everything goes through him, but when he’s not on the field we find other ways?

      Hopefully Tim will go on a footballlineups type binge to see how much we have in fact missed Murphy when he’s been absent.

      Of course your last point remains key: we can get by without him for the odd game, but the longer-term is key to this. The only evidence we have on this was (iirc) the run around january last season (or was it the season before) when Greening had to fill in, and we did pretty well.

      Love the point about Dembele. He just goes off on these thrilling whizzes doesn’t he?

      1. What I always forget is that for much of the Juve game we faced a team with only 10 men. This allowed for more space in the midfield and Baird was perfectly capable of assuming Murphy’s role.

        If Baird had been hassled and harried as Murphy was, we may not have had the same result. Murphy’s strength is not so much his stellar range of passing (although that is very good) but his ability to work in tight spaces, draw men in, then release the ball to a player in space. This requires a combination of quick thinking, a footballing brain and excellent technique that Danny has, but whilst other players could attempt, would not get right the same amount of times as Danny.

        1. FWIW. There was a stretch in the fall of 2009 where Murphy was out. Losses to Roma (1-2) and Birmingham City (0-1), wins against Liverpool (3-1), Blackburn (3-0), and Sunderland (1-0), draws against Roma (Kelly red 76′), Manchester City, Wigan, Bolton, and Burnley. 1.4 points/match.

    2. “Dembele by contrast is entirely unpredictable. I don’t think he knows himself where he might end up when the ball comes to him. A handful for defenders but difficult for team mates to play off him.”

      Kamara used to be the same, but less consistently. Funnily though, I think Kamara has a higher goal scoring rate than Dembele. Which is a major reason why Dembele gets labelled by some as “no end product”.

      1. Dembele seems to have lost any belief that he can score goals. (It seems he did score in Holland, not at an impressive rate, but he did score some goals). Two league goals, in one match, against Wolves, way back in September – it’s not good enough.

        In the first-half of the Bolton game there was a situation where Dempsey was in possession moving forward towards the defence, with Dembele for support on the right. You could sense that Dempsey wanted to slip a pass through the defence for Dembele to run onto. It was the obvious play, a strong goal-scoring chance in the making. But Dembele never shaped to take a chance on outrunning the defence. And eventually Dempsey gave him the ball square in front of the defenders.

        Dembele is outrageously skilful (the one player we have that could be picked up by a top six club?) but there needs to be more of a goal threat. Surely this can be coached or insisted on by coachs? Too much of what he does is aimless meandering. Even if it is fun to see him making fools of the opposition!

        1. I know what you mean – I always say to my season ticket buddy “If Dembele had an end product he wouldn’t be playing for us” (i.e. he’d be winning trophies with someone).

          You’d think that having Hughes as a coach must help though – I’m really curious to see how we play after a summer’s worth of coaching and player transfers.

          1. I don’t think it’s that black and white though. There must be a benefit to a player consistently drawing at least one, sometimes two, players to him and therefore away from their original position. How many players have we had who can do that in the past? It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t show up in any stats but which feels as if it ought to be useful.

            1. Oh, I agree completely – it’s not all about scoring, even in a forward (a bit like AJ – ha!). But there are more “complete” forwards who are excellent are drawing players out of position with their excellent technical skills and are also confident in front of goal. I’m just saying that if Dembélé was one of those “complete” forwards, he’d probably be too expensive for us given how good he is at the former skill already.

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