The shadow of Roy Hodgson looms large over each of his successors. Under Hodgson the Fulham fans enjoyed unprecedented success, but also learned about the game, saw what it meant to be organised in defence and to construct attacks carefully through pre-configured movements, attacks in which all players knew where all other players were at all times and so could switch the ball back, forth, left and right, quickly, slowly, but always deliberately.
You’ll recall that shortly before Hodgson’s time we saw Chris Coleman’s brand of optimistic pragmatism, in which the best players he could find would be inspired into as effective a brand of coincidence football as Coleman could muster. Coincidence football is a mean and derogatory term, but one I think of as referring to teams that don’t really have many ideas, which succeed or fail based on coincidences going their way within a match. Hodgson’s control frequently took luck out of the equation: Fulham generally beat the teams they were meant to under him (not always, but usually) and failed against the teams they were meant to lose to (not always but usually), with that calibration gradually nudging upwards as we got used to better and better teams.
Coleman had his moments because football managers given any time in the job will have their moments, but his football was generally unimaginative.
Kit Symons has a bit in common with Coleman, lately in the way his team is playing. The game has moved on since Coleman was managing Fulham and now the team generally tries to ‘play the right way’, but on Friday night’s evidence is doing so without conviction, a plan, or the ability to turn the lack of these into something coherent. Symons has done so much right since given the job full-time, and I believe that on the whole his team selection has been pretty good (he has picked his strongest team, more or less, with tweaks here and there along the way that seem reasonable enough).
But equally he has had long enough now to have imprinted a style or a philosophy on the team, and frankly it’s not there. Thing is, he has been at the club since 2009, so would have seen how things operated back then. It’s not like he doesn’t know what made for a successful side, is it? Maybe he’s being his own man, doing this his own way? Maybe you can’t just copy another manager’s style. But – and I’ve said this over and over – organising a team to defend seems to be a minimal requirement, but we haven’t been able to do this for years. Why?
Symons’ ascent has been pretty quick. In late 2009 he said:
“Ever since I left I have kept strong ties here and still had a lot friends at the Club, so it was a natural move for me to come back. Barry Simmonds (Head of Scouting), who I knew from my time at Crystal Palace approached me and asked whether I would be interested in doing some casual scouting for the First Team and I was doing that up until the summer.
This year I’d started to do a little bit more and then in the last month I took the position of Academy Coach, so I’m over-the-moon at the moment. I’m working across the whole of the Academy, although predominantly I’ll be working with the U14s upwards.”
It would be unfair to say that Symons has lucked into this role. Football is full of jobs for the boys appointments and there’s nothing unusual about an old player coming back to work with the younger teams. Symons obviously performed his tasks pretty well but there’s nothing in his track record to suggest that he ought to be considered a viable candidate for what he’s doing at this moment. Yes, his audition for the role was going well enough that he seemed the only reasonable (temporary) choice at the time, but he hasn’t done anything really to make us think that his success was much more than “anyone but Magath.”
What should have been achieved? We know that Symons inherited a squad short on confidence, bemused by its leader. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Magath’s early fitness work is costing us now. But it also looked like a squad that a canny manager might have used better than Symons has.
Or are we falling into an old trap, here? Are we evaluating players on what they’ve done before, not what they’re doing now? Watching Bournemouth last night was a lesson in not judging reputations, after all. Instead we saw a well coached team playing with confidence. Fulham had a number of players with a big reputation, but nothing to knit them together.
Let’s look more closely:
Bettinelli in goal is a youngster who’s impressed many. But he’s playing because the club let David Stockdale leave for Brighton. True, Stockdale at Brighton hasn’t been a marriage made in heaven, but this was a problem that didn’t need to happen.
Tim Hoogland played Champions League football recently.
Nikolay Bodurov has played regularly for Bulgaria.
Shaun Hutchinson doesn’t have a pedigree as such but is keeping Dan Burn out of the side, an Burn has Championship experience with Birmingham in which he was generally thought to be playing well.
Fernando Amorebieta has played at a much higher level.
Scott Parker looked dead on his feet in the Premier League, but more effective in the Championship. My sense is that he’s had an up-and-down season which suggests time running out, and my suspicion remains that the good we see him do is probably outweighed by some of the negative things we don’t really see (I worry that someone with his obvious lack of athleticism can’t really perform in the role he plays).
Ryan Tunnicliffe has a pedigree of sorts and is thought to be a reasonable player.
Sean Kavanagh is a youngster making his way in the game.
Bryan Ruiz, Hugo Rodallega and Ross McCormack feel like they should be playing for a team at the top of the table, not at the bottom.
Surely there’s enough talent there to fashion a half-decent side? Or not: research in the otherwise overrated “The Numbers Game” suggested that football teams are generally about as good as their *weakest* players, not their strongest. So it’s all well and good having 5-6 really good players, but what if you have 4-5 who really aren’t up to it? You’ll lose a lot of games. I’m not sure we do have 4-5 who really aren’t up to it, but nor am I confident that this isn’t the case. Equally, the good players might not be as good now as they were when their reputations were established. In many ways this almost has to be the case: the players listed above are too good to be near the bottom of the championship.
So our diagnosis:
1) a manager who’s probably near enough to the ‘do no harm’ level that he isn’t the biggest problem here.
The chart here shows that the vast majority of premier league managers (including Chris Coleman and Roy Hodgson) win about a third of their games, and this has been Symons’ level too, albeit in the Championship. So while he’s been slightly frustrating in his inability to make more out of what looks like a talented squad…
2) the squad almost can’t be as good as we’d hoped. The fringe players haven’t stepped up, the name players aren’t what they were. It’s a bad combination, and the opposite of what we saw from Bournemouth last night.
3) the latter is perplexing. Ross McCormack’s track record is so strong that it almost felt he’d be able to get us into the playoffs alone. But again we are operating with a defence protecting a young goalkeeper (a star in the making perhaps, but a young goalkeeper nevertheless) and protected by a player whose first appeared to have gone at least 18 months ago (a great team man, a wonderful addition in so many ways, but maybe not exactly what’s needed in this team at this time?). If you can’t defend, nothing much else matters, and Fulham have shown over and over that they can’t defend. Last night was a perfect example: for one thing, any semi-competent team doesn’t concede five goals in a game, and not several times a season. The goal when the Bournemouth forward ran from half-way was the embodiment of a machine not operating properly: that simply can’t happen at any level (although it should be noted that Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland suffered against Spain in the 1994 World Cup when a forward played a through ball to himself and scored, so there’s that)
All of which leads me to wonder what Fulham needs to do next. Taking a long, hard look at the back six is a priority, but this season will have damaged the team’s reputation and ability to draw in the kinds of names attracted in the past. This may not be a bad thing, of course, and perhaps the club can develop a young core as initially expected this season. Who knows? But we’re really entering the realms of “beats me!” which in turn suggests that either the season was fatally poisoned by Magath (not impossible) or that the team/club is more broken than we realise, and that really we need to rip it up and start again again.