The new era continues to make us happy.
What I quite like with Meulensteen is that he appears to be in the business of fixing issues, rather than hoping they might go away.
A good example here is his midfield setup yesterday. Midfield has been our unspoken horror this year: everyone’s been piling on the defence and the attack but neither of these units can make a fist of things without some support from midfield. It’s why midfield is a very hard place to play; failure here can be unforgiving.
We’ve all been calling for Derek Boateng to come in and help out but Meulensteen’s opted for Giorgios Karagounis instead, which is fine. Having three men there means that if Sidwell goes wandering it’s not Scott Parker against the world; if Parker decides he can only really give 150% by attacking as well, there’s more chance of someone being able to defend if there are three men in midfield than two.
It’s also quite fashionable these days to talk about ‘winning’ an area by having more men there. By deploying three central midfielders we don’t cede control of the pitch like we have been all year.
It plays to Sidwell’s strengths as well. We have been quite negative about our curious looking ballwinner but he has one big strength that the team needs: he can score goals. His strike, or shovel, on Sunday, was a fabulous example of pure Sidwellian drive: a) he got beyond the last defender, b) he got to the ball first when doing so looked pretty tricky and c) he managed to slide and divert the ball into the far corner of the net in one delicious manouever. It won’t win goal of the month but in its own way it was dead impressive.
Now, would Sidwell have made that run as part of a midfield two?
We also have a balanced attack. I have been a bit critical of Dejagah and Riether in the past but there’s no doubting that they work well together. Yesterday the top passing combination in the game was Riether to Dejagah, 30 in all, double the next highest combo. On the other side Kacaniklic and Riise don’t really work together directly, but both offer a bit of directness and vim. Between the two flanks we’re now giving teams a bit to think about, and of course, and this is the huge thing, this’ll open up more space in the middle of the pitch. (a feature of Jol’s teams was their ability to create congestion in exactly the areas where you want a bit of space). The diagram below also shows how Karagounis was playing quite an aggressive interpretation of his role: if Parker was patrolling the halfway line, and Sidwell was box-to-box, then Karagounis was a sort of battering ram playmaker, charging forward like a mad thing, looking either to make the defence nervous or draw a foul.
Without even mentioning Berbatov we can see several Fulham players making constructive, QUICK attacking contributions. Again: Meulensteen isn’t waiting for some good players to gel into a team; he’s making a team and letting good players show themselves within this framework. It didn’t take long, did it?
Which is not to say we’re out of the woods. You can’t ignore a year of failure and assume that a magic wand can be waved and suddenly everything’s fine. Good though Meulensteen may be, football tends not to work that way. And Villa were in many ways a perfect opponent. It was noted before kick off that they are happy to cede possession and hit teams on the counter, which Sky Sports’ wise men thought might be a problem for Fulham’s slow defence. Well maybe but this year’s Fulham have struggled in the main with teams… well, with teams who attack with the ball (everyone). By taking such a reactive approach Villa neatly skirted our glaring weakness.
We also got a bit of luck. This season has been dire and direness brings a lot of gut punches: late winners, long range screamers, etc. Against Villa the right things happened at the right times. Benteke headed wide when well placed, Kacaniklic got a penalty when a lot of refs would have waved play on; Villa’s own shouts for a penalty were ignored. We earned luck in many ways but the referee had a big impact on the game as well.
There are lots of encouraging signs though. When things are going badly there’s an exponential ripple throughout the team: we were bad in almost all ways. Now there’s a structure and, oh look, the defence looks good again. In football context is everything and Senderos and Hughes will be sleeping easier knowing that they’re getting some help back there. John Arne Riise has a career again. You can imagine Motspur Park is a different place already.