The case for the defence (sorry)

Before this season I’d have put money on people starting to worry about our defence.

For two reasons: a) they’re all getting older, but more importantly, b) we play differently now.

Under Hodgson we had two banks of four pretty much as standard. The players were expertly drilled on transitional football, meaning that even when we had the ball we were well placed to defend if we suddenly lost it.

What did this mean in practice? A couple of things stood out. First, we never really got men ahead of the ball. If a player was ahead of the ball he was covered well by a teammate, but it simply didn’t happen that often. We put together some lovely pre-determined passing moves but they were all quite careful not to overcommit. Imagine something quite simple: Etuhu to Murphy, Murphy to Gera, Gera to Konchesky, Konchesky crosses low for Zamora. All of these happen more or less with the majority of players behind the ball. Not always, obviously, but this is mainly how we kept it so tight.

Another thing Fulham players basically never did under Roy Hodgson was dribble the ball in the middle of the pitch. Hodgson’s argument there would’ve been that losing the ball in an important area takes the ballcarrier out of play and leaves everyone else in a mess. Jimmy Bullard once exemplified this away at Portsmouth, losing the ball and exposing everyone behind him.

And Hodgson’s back four was almost never exposed. They were rarely required to meet an attacking player. The midfield screened them and the back four could hold their shape. It was almost impossible to break down if everyone was doing their job. There were breakdowns, of course there were, but Hangeland and Hughes proved superlative at making well timed interventions.

This is very different to what we have now. Of course the midfield does cover back and often do a good job, but it’s not remotely the same as it was. Now instead of having 8 men back at all times we might only have 6, with a couple more on their way. We lose the ball in more dangerous areas now.

I think all of this might exaggerate to a degree, but must broadly be true. We’re now scoring more than ever, but there’s a cost involved: sometimes our defence might look ragged. It sometimes felt as if Hodgson was too conservative, defence above all else, and clearly Jol feels that he can gamble more on attacking football. I think this is broadly right, as it was frustrating to play so defensively against what seemed like lesser teams under Roy, but equally, against the best teams, Hodgson’s methods were dynamite. Swings and roundabouts, but again, it just means that different players get to struggle. Under Roy our forwards were probably better than they looked; under Jol the defence is being slightly exposed.

This isn’t the whole story though. Defending set pieces is another thing altogether, and it’s perplexing that we seem so bad at this now. I think Schwarzer – inevitably – is no longer the great goalkeeper he was, and perhaps Hangeland and Hughes are moving past their peaks, too. Hughes in particular enjoyed a spectacular rise under Hodgson’s methods – the suspicion may be that of all the players, he was made to look a bit better than he actually was. Good, very good sometimes, but benefitting from a defensive system that fit him perfectly. Hangeland I don’t know about. It wouldn’t surprise me that much to learn that he’s carrying an injury or something, he doesn’t quite seem himself even if we ignore all of the above. Perhaps it’s just one of those things, though: all players experience good form and dips in form and of course he’s done more than enough that we can forgive the odd lapse here and there. But hopefully he’ll be back to his old dominant self soon enough.

10 thoughts on “The case for the defence (sorry)

  1. I think you have it bang on Rich, although it was actually Hughes who started to change in philosophy. Pantsil was the player that really struggled in this system but managed to prosper on the previous one (sad to see his subsequent demise- a shattered fragile confidence was never repaired I think). I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Senderos in against Villa with Hughes on the bench, Jol is not afraid of making changes and I think after sorting out the midfield issue he will probably deal with the defence. I am prepared for Hangeland to leave at the end of the season , I wonder if his drop in performance might be due to Jol not being over friendly on the new contract front

  2. Its the losing the ball in the middle of the pitch thing that has me worried. When Dembele was there, he was so supremely good at dribbling past players that we didn’t lose it all that often. But so long as we have Ruiz playing in the middle we will be losing the ball quite frequently there, as I showed on TIFF yesterday (moving him from the wing gains us 0.7 extra chances created by him at a cost of an extra 5-5.5 losses of possession).

    Nonetheless, as you’ve pointed out, it’s not really open play that’s killing us. We still have good defenders (although Hangeland is really off the pace this year) and a good midfield shield in front of them. We have to sort out set pieces.

    1. I broadly agree with what you say about Ruiz although I think the stats are an unfortunate reflection of the fact he has played this season with a second choice midfield and a striker who cannot hold up the ball. I bet he, and the team in general, look better when first Berbatov and then Diarra are brought in since they are very capable of not only holding on to the ball but also offering themselves as passing options constantly.

      The issue with giving the ball away in the middle should be negated by the fact we are currently playing two defensive midfielders. This has meant (from what I have seen so far) that we have not been exposed as much through the middle as we might, but it has meant we have given the ball away more up top because they dont provide the passing options that the likes of Dembele and Diarra did. PArticularly in the former’s case, he not only was good in possession he also attracted a lot of attention and was marked, freeing up other players. I dont think many opposition managers are going to be desperate to mark Sidwell and Baird out of the game meaning extra attention can be paid to Ruiz. Berbatov should alleviate this though.

      What needs to happen with Ruiz is to stop him retreating deep into the Fulham half to get the ball. This is where he is most vulnerable, so the two midfield men need to really make a concerted effort to find him further up the pitch. A good example of this was against Man City – in the first half we looked good and Ruiz was getting the ball in attacking postions; In the second half we dropped deeper and Ruiz often had to drop to get the ball from within 10 yards of our penalty area.

      As for the defence as a whole – we are definitely more exposed and I completely agree with Rich’s points about being more open. Some interesting questions arise from the recent performance of Hangeland and Hughes though – does this mean all in sundry who spent last season harassing Senderos were wrong and we had simply seen the beginning of the end for the Hodgson defence?

      Anyway, the worry is set pieces really. Lets hope that work on the training ground will sort that out sooner rather than later before it really bites us in the bum.

      (apologies for the long and rambling response, but rbjiii’s comments on tiff yest were interesting but the format on there not great for debating/responding)

  3. Several things became apparent in the match against Southampton. The first was that we had been conned! This was not at all the team that we had seen completely outclass and dominate WBA. All the pretty passes at ground level had disappeared. Instead, the Big Boot reigned supreme…optimistic punts up the field, invariably ending up with the opposition. The whole team was guilty of this. It seems that every time they travel away they become a totally different set of players.

    And the tactics! Rodellega was left stranded on his own up the field, surrounded by Southampton defenders. No chance to do anything. Ruiz, supposed to be supporting him, was instead always to be found tussling for the ball on the halfway line. The TV pundits to a man were screaming out about the hopelessness of Rodellega’s situation; but Jol, once again, failed to understand what was happening.

    Above all, Southampton harried and closed down Fulham players every second they had the ball. No time to think; no time to breathe. This is the hallmark of successful teams (watch Chelsea and Barcelona). I wish that our players had the energy to do the same.

    1. Pressing is fine, but it was also ultimately Southampton’s downfall – they flagged badly in the second half and we should have come away with the win.

      Pressing is very difficult to deal with, especially when we are effectively lining up with a second string midfield and attack. With no one to hold the ball up top (berbatov) and no centre mids completely comfortable in possession we unsurprisingly struggled.

      Does anyone know what coaching manuals say about pressing? Try to play with width? Simply ride it out and wait for the opposition to tire?

      1. Chelsea haven’t pressed properly for ages. You press with a high line, the idea being to squeeze the play in the opponents’ half, and because you’re pressing well they haven’t the time to pick out the big ball over the top. AVB tried this at Chelsea but they couldn’t press well and hadno pace at the back so it went horribly wrong and he had to go back to the old deep defending.

        1. And no, you’re not supposed to press for 90 minutes, nor do you press everyone. So teams might let opposing centre-backs have the ball, for example, then press when they give the ball to someone else.

          Other teams might press when the ball reaches a certain point, e.g. over the halfway line.

          The problem with asking Fulham to press is the makeup of our players, and the fact that they’re traditionally, like Chelsea, a deep defensive unit. Sidwell is the epitome of a pressing midfielder; Duff could do it, too, but I’d be surprised to see Berbatov and Ruiz doing this effectively (and if you press you have to do it well or you might as well not bother).

          Also pressing is usually accompanied by a high defensive line and we don’t have any pace to draw on if we do get hit over the top. For an example of pressing going wrong think about how we destroyed Newcastle last season in the second half. They tried to play high up the pitch but weren’t able, in the second half, to keep up the pressing, so our players kept on picking them off over the top.

          In short, I don’t think this is the answer for us, at least not as a main tactic.

        2. as for countering a pressing game pace over the top is key. I suspect this is half of what we were trying to do on Sunday, given the number of useless punts over the top for Rodallega to run after. It nearly worked a couple of times but not enough.

          But if you do have pace and the ability to hit accurate through balls then you can murder pressing teams.

          The problem is when they back off when your centre backs have the ball. Hangeland frequently had time but no options, as Southampton’s defence was quite well set up, so he had to try to make something out of nothing.

          Equally, someone like Dembele is helpful because he can take pressing midfielders out of the game. Baird and Sidwell are good players but have to play with what the opposition gives them. WBA stood off them and they made havoc; Southampton didn’t and really they weren’t doing much. Note a couple of times Baird tried to switch play quickly to beat pressing midfielders but his passes went to the opposition/no-one. At the time I thought he had the right idea, but his teammates weren’t alive to it.

          Jol’s halftime talk was almost certainly to move the ball with more tempo.

  4. The weakest aspect of Schwarzer’s game has always been taking the high ball in a packed penalty area. Sam Allardyce’s teams have targeted this as has Tony Pulis at Stoke. At Southampton he fell over to “concede” the dissallowed goal far too easily. I thought the touch was so slight that the goal should have been allowed, balanced by the fact that their equaliser should have been a free kick to us seconds before.

    In our better moments we can open up opponents like never before, but we also leak more goals (just over four per match for and against in the league) and with the present midfield uncertainties have periods when we just fail to get our game going. Assuming that Jol can sort this out (the return of Diarra will help) and that things improve on the injury front, we should be in for an exciting season. So far we average approx 1.5 points per game which if maintained would see us finish on 60ish.

    1. “At Southampton he fell over to “concede” the dissallowed goal far too easily. I thought the touch was so slight that the goal should have been allowed”. Completely agree.

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