When I was younger and played 11 a side football on a regular basis, I was a centre back. Coupled with Italian heritage, I have always been a big fan of this rather unglamorous position. Italy’s World Cup success in 2006 was as memorable for the peerless defensive work of Fabio Cannavaro (later seen being imitated by a stand-in at Craven Cottage in 2010) as for the thrilling victory against Germany or the Materazzi inspired head butt in the final. The fact that Italy conceded only two goals in the entire tournament (one of which was an own goal) is a testament to that defence, particularly since it was rocked by both injury to Alessandro Nesta and later suspension for Marco Materazzi.
What has this got to do with Fulham? Italy’s current incarnation under Cesare Prandelli has evolved into a much more possession based team rather than a classic Italian reactive one, in a move similar to the change seen at Fulham this season. At the Cottage we have seen the most decisive change in playing style since the arrival of Roy Hodgson with Martin Jol initiating a much more attacking philosophy. Suddenly the defence has had less cover and has looked shaky at times. Philipe Senderos deputised for, then displaced, the injured Aaron Hughes and became the subject of much opprobrium and a lightning rod for the criticism of Jol’s new system before it had fully clicked. What this change has revealed is a much clearer picture of how good Brede, Aaron and Philipe actually are. How have they each reacted to the new style?
Hangeland has certainly had more ‘hairy’ moments this season than all of his other seasons at Fulham combined. However, he remains a top notch centre back. He is excellent in the air both because of his height as well as his fantastic positioning. He is an aggressive centre back, and this season has seen him much happier intelligently fouling players (this is not an oxymoron) to stop dangerous counter attacks and force the issue in terms of attack by striding out of defence looking for a killer ball or a layoff to a striker. It feels as though we are seeing a more continental, rounded centre back than perhaps in previous seasons, even if there is more chance of an error.
Hughes is a different prospect all together. His successful partnership with Hangeland was built on the tried and trusted ‘Stopper/Cover’ relationship with Hughes performing the latter role to perfection. This season has seen different questions asked of the defence an emphasis on being more proactive and more comfortable in possession. Hughes struggled to a certain extent earlier in the season, with his lack of passing exposed more than under the Hodgson regime. Previously a hopeful punt up-field had a target in the form of Bobby Zamora and was a legitimate ‘out ball’, but with Zamora’s struggles and a change of style this was less of an option. However, as Hughes was reintroduced to the side in the place of Senderos it was noticeable how improved his passing was. Perhaps some additional competitions for his place or getting over a niggling injury are the reasons for this. Whatever the reason, he has been back to his usual high standards.
Senderos has been a player I have really enjoyed watching this year. He is a similar player to Hangeland – always looking to force the issue and also happy to foul players to stop dangerous situations. This is partially what I enjoy about watching him – he is a very Italian defender. There is also something really likeable about him; he always seems to be fully focused on the task at hand, usually whilst pulling an amusing face. At the same time, I can fully understand people’s frustrations and worries about him and his role as this season’s divisive figure. There is the air of the accidental about his play, the feeling that disaster is never far away, even if the stats do not bear this out. I lay the blame for much of this at the feet of Fulham’s new style. Whenever there is a big change, there is always an adjustment period and this stands for the fans too. We have all been used to solid and dependable defence with two star performers. This season the defence has chopped and changed and has had less cover, with Jol sometimes preferring to play a much more aggressive defensive line in the form of Hangeland and Senderos. The breakup of a tried and tested partnership and the benching of a fan favourite have no doubt helped to fuel scepticism as well.
So what of next season? Again it will be a tussle between Hughes and Senderos in who partners Hangeland. However, if Jol continues along his current thinking and splits the playing time between each depending on circumstance, we should see positives results equal to this season, particularly with a full pre-season under their belts and a fully developed understanding of the system that Jol wants Fulham to play.
Born in the US, raised in the UK and now living in London, Alex has been following Fulham since the late 90s and is a current season ticket holder. Part time Football Manager addict and popular culture buff.