Have you ever seen anything like it?
One of the worst first half performances in memory. Newcastle were very impressive, well drilled, pressurising perfectly, timing their confrontations and ganging up on our players relentlessly. We couldn’t keep the ball. They could, spraying it around and running us ragged. They scored just before half-time and rarely has a goal been so well deserved.
Steve Sidwell went off after 34 minutes. It could have been an injury or a tactical switch. He and Murphy rarely look the part together and the team simply wasn’t functioning. But Jol’s shuffle was terrible: Bryan Ruiz, a fine player but one who does not thrive in busy areas, was placed in the middle of the pitch with Murphy. If a manager’s job is to put his players in a position from where they can make the greatest contribution, Jol could not have got this more wrong. Sure enough – and who could have seen this happening? – Ruiz was caught in possession by two Newcastle midfielders, the ball broke to Danny Guthrie and he smashed home from distance.
Ruiz was subbed at half-time, a shame because he had been sold down the river with Jol’s change.
However, good news was on the way. The team was obviously missing Dickson Etuhu (again) but with him not in the squad the obvious move was to introduce Chris Baird, a player who hasn’t featured much but who has the happy knack of playing well and making those around him better. All of a sudden Murphy looked like Murphy, knowing that he had a team player and capable side-kick in the engine room.
Instantly and perhaps fortunately we were back in the match, a long ball over the top setting Johnson free. He got into a contact situation and fell over, but it didn’t feel like a penalty (and if it was a penalty, why did nobody receive a punitive card?). However, after some consideration Lee Mason pointed at the spot. Danny Murphy did the rest and we had what felt like a horribly undeserved equaliser.
Then the game went mad. Clint Dempsey scored another one of those goals that are easy but only if you’ve put yourself in the right place to make it easy, in this case following in after a great surge from Johnson and a nice bit of play by Zamora. Krul saved but Dempsey used some part of his leg to bundle the ball home.
Then another, Dempsey free again after more good forward combination work, and a fine low finish past Krul. Goodness.
At 3-1 Newcastle had to attack and the game opened right up. AJ and Zamora were having great fun now, and all the momentum was with Fulham. AJ won a second penalty, again slightly fortunate perhaps in that he seemed to have lost control of the ball, but against that he might have been fouled at the start of his run. Dempsey was on a hat-trick, Murphy had already scored a penalty, but this one was taken by Bobby Zamora. Who knows why, but in any case, up he stepped and in it went.
Hatem Ben Arfa turned Riise inside out and buried a shot at Stockdale’s near post to make it 4-2, then Zamora (?) sent Dempsey racing clear again, and again he drove past Krul on the run, a second January hat-trick for the man who scores with his left, his right, and makes Drogba look shite (and indeed, at this point Dempsey may be the better player).
So what happened?
First, the penalty. We had been so bad that we needed something to go our way to get back into the match. The penalty was perfect in that sense.
But it was only possible because AJ was on the field. We were so static and hopeless without him that we could’ve played all day and got nowhere. Sometimes AJ’s running can look pointless and easy to handle, but today felt like a game where he could contribute. He did that, as fine a performance as he’s given in a Fulham shirt.
Of course the goals changed the game, and with each one that went in Newcastle seemed to get more and more open. This played into our hands and we murdered them on the break. This Fulham team seems to thrive with space, whether it’s against 10 men (Blackburn excepted) or when games open up, suddenly our attacking players come alive and show what they can do. When space is hard to find we look clueless, but can be devastating when we get time and places to run into.
I was quite optimistic that Newcastle would tire. They defended so well as a team in the first half, and teams generally can’t keep that sort of thing up for ninety minutes (witness Real Madrid’s attempts to harry Barcelona lately: always goes well for half an hour then reverts to normal). As they tired we got better.
The return to four-four-two. This felt a bit like player power (echoes of QPR when we went 4-4-2 with AJ and Zamora and scored six), but whatever happened, the team looked far more cohesive in its more familiar setup.
So yes, weird, wonderful, 5-2. This one’ll take a bit of digesting, but what fun (in the end).