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?
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!).