Fulham: the decline from peak Hodgson to the bowels of footballing hell

decline

Okay, I’m sticking with my SD scores as I like them and they feel right.

Next we’re going to look back over the time from peak Hodgson to relegation.

The first thing we see looking along the Attack line is that this team has never scored goals. Hodgson’s team was well below average in scoring but was still positive overall: the defence, and remember that this is a team thing, not just the back four, was just outside the normal defensive range for the league. Only Chelsea, Liverpool and Champions Manchester United could say the same. So if there was any doubt – and I don’t think there was – Hodgson’s team was built on defence. That’s how we qualified for Europe. Note that this side was largely unchanged all season, with Etuhu and Bullard doing half a season each.

In the European season we saw a lot of squad rotation. The team didn’t improve at the attacking end and the defending wasn’t quite as good. This is the league remember. I think we all saw the team prioritising that year. Etuhu only played 14 league games.

In Mark Hughes’ first season the attack made a bit of a jump towards normality, and the defence rebounded towards peak Hodgson. This in some ways is a natural regression: if we assume 2009-10 was compromised because of Europe, you’d expect the season after this to see some bounce back. Hughes kept his end of the bargain in this sense. At this point Fulham were fine. The age thing was starting to happen but on the pitch we were right where we should have been.

Jol’s first season saw a progression towards a more attacking team, a setup that allowed Clint Dempsey to score all those goals, but we can see the defensive dropoff immediately. The defence and the attack was now right bang in the middle of the pack, but the balance had shifted too far and the net result was that we were now a below average side. The changes here were tactical, but also personnel based: Senderos took a lot of Hughes’ playing time, and the very underrated Salcido gave way to Riise. Right-back continued to be a transition position. Etuhu was hardly playing, but Dembele was in a more central role late in the season.  The warning signs are there though: the attack isn’t contributing as much as the defence has given back.  The team isn’t as balanced as it was.  It’s lost something.

In 2012-13, Jol’s second season, the attack became a smidge better – Berbatov – but the defence went bad. This was Sascha Reither’s first season, Riise was a regular, and again Hangeland had a variety of partners. The midfield became patched together, with Sidwell and Karagounis the most common CM players, a terrible drop-off from Murphy and Dembele. This was the first season where the defence was below average, but it was still within league norms. The danger was the trend, which was now firmly in the wrong direction, and the midfield drop-off, which to be fair, Scott Parker was then brought in to remedy.

2013-14 we’ve been over enough times. The rot had set in. Everything was wrong. The club got itself into a horrible mess, confusing causes and effects, shipping out ‘luxury’ players like Berbatov and Ruiz, who may not have been helping but who ultimately didn’t play more than 10 games each.  The team began to rely on the graft of Parker and Sidwell… in retrospect it’s not at all clear where we expected the goals to come from… but very clearly the problem was in defence. As noted time and again, we became far the easiest team to play against.  Now again, I have no problem with Sidwell or Parker as footballers but clearly there’s a lack of intelligence on display here.  Hodgson knitted together players into a coherent whole, but it’s almost as if Fulham 13/14 felt that there was no obvious source of goals so they’d all crack on and do their best, and hope that they might collectively get back and do a bit of the old defending, too.  Meulensteen tried the packed defence approach and given what we’ve seen here, I suspect that this was exactly what was needed to at least steady the ship.  He may not have been the right manager, but he was sacked at exactly the wrong time.

If there’s anything new here – and perhaps there isn’t – it’s that the move to attacking full-backs under Jol clearly upset the balance of the side. The team post Reither simply couldn’t defend. I’m not laying this on one man, but stylistically he was clearly not right given how we were playing and what we needed to do. Riise was sporadically terrible, too. He was less attacking than Reither but more inclined to be neither/nor, neither bombing on nor staying back. Again, it all felt a bit ad hoc.  He’d attack if he felt like it, and defend if he was back.

The transition from gifted midfielders to limited midfielders also doomed us, as did the move away from Hughes and Hangeland: we weren’t the same once they were broken up. It’s hard to pin too much blame on attacking players as that side of the game was broadly even, although if we assume that a goal not conceded and a goal scored are of broadly equal value, the team should have received a far bigger attacking lift from the decision (?) to stop defending.  There was nowhere near enough payoff from adopting this expansive approach.

Then by the end we couldn’t attack or defend, which I guess is called bottoming out: in 2013-14 we couldn’t accomplish anything with the ball in part because we were so terrible without it. We would be playing against teams already in the lead, we were playing against teams that would keep the ball from us and indeed take it off us. We had nothing.

 

8 thoughts on “Fulham: the decline from peak Hodgson to the bowels of footballing hell

  1. All makes sense and fits my unreliable memory of what happened. Only thing is I think you might be overly complimentary of Meulensteen. The ‘packed defence’ reputation seems to relate to only the Old Trafford game, where we still conceded 2 goals, and were extremely fortunate not to concede several more. Other than that, does Meulensteen’s record really show any improvement in our defensive record?

    1. I agree in general, I was just trying to point out that he was let go just as we seemed to be ‘getting it’. There was the liverpool game, too, where we seemed a lot more solid, or at least were really trying hard to defend. It felt like a possible turning point.

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