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.