Despite playing a risky, aggressive game, Dempsey rarely gave the ball away against City, and had three good attempts at goal. Is this evidence of a distillation of the various Dempseys we’ve seen so far?
One of the interesting things about the Martin Jol era has been the play of Clint Dempsey.
I remember Dempsey’s early Fulham career. Lots of step-overs. They never really got him anywhere, but still he persisted. Under Hodgson Dempsey won his place back and gradually saw his game clipped back. The step-overs disappeared, the long shots (at one point he took a lot of these) seemed to decline, too. Hodgson, in retrospect, didn’t really care for flair in his players, and it’s to Dempsey’s credit that he altered his game to accommodate his manager’s wishes. Sure, it’s the obvious thing to do – the manager picks the team – but footballers don’t always respond in the right way to such challenges.
Under Hughes Dempsey continued to eschew the long-shot, and played at centre-forward a lot. Now his role was more or less functional, his involvement in buildup play relatively limited but his ability to find space in the area crucial. All of his goals (I think) were first time efforts, which says a lot about the (good) decisions he was making and the quality of his runs.
By now he’s gone from a raw talent to a reasonably complete player (within the parameters of his potential ability, at any rate: he was never going to be a superstar). Under Jol we’re seeing the gloves come off a bit. He’s back to dribbling again, the step-overs are on the menu again. The long shots are back. You get the feeling that he’s back to being the player he originally wanted to be.
Top musicians master their instruments so that they can make simple things sound extraoardinary. Similarly, footballers need a complete command of the game’s basics to raise their game to another level. Witness David Silva in City’s first goal: Barry’s pass to him was quite hard and about shin height; Silva took it down as if it was the perfect delivery, turned it onto Aguero, who scored. Nobody mentioned this because he made it look so simple, but most players couldn’t have done this. Xavi of Barcelona never seems to do much special, until you watch closely and see the little twists and turns and changes of angle and overall excellence of everything he does. He’s so good because he knows the game inside out, has complete mastery of the ball in every situation. He’s brilliant.
Dempsey will never be as good as either of them, but the new freedom could be important for Fulham. His education under Hodgson may have been painful (I don’t think he enjoyed missing the European run when Davies was preferred on the left and Zamora – barely fit – up front) but was clearly the making of him as a player. Under Hughes he continued to develop, and last year’s goals speak for themselves. Now we have the distillation of all of the above, the original Dempsey, possessor of a wider base of skills, but back to being himself. It could be spectacular, it could be more of the same, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens next.