To the extent that I know anything about football, I think I learned it when Roy was here, so I view everything through that prism. I haven’t actually been to a match since about 2011 (kids, etc) and don’t always stay awake for Match of the Day, so my views may be less relevant than anyone’s. That said, some thoughts:
One feature of defensive play is what you do when you have the ball. This was highlighted the other day – probably after the Bournemouth match – but when Fulham lose the ball the team is not remotely set up to deal with the situation.
This is a huge issue: the best teams set up to either win back immediately or to at least have a basic shape through which to absorb counter attacks.
They also offer the back four a shield. I wrote about this in 2013, and while in retrospect this piece is quite hard to follow (I was defending Philippe Senderos, too!), the points still hold I think. Whenever I see Fulham highlights I see defenders everywhere, generally running back towards their own goal, and in no position to stop anything. The Arsenal game was awful for this. It isn’t all of the goals that get conceded – there have been many different kinds of those – but illustrates a fundamental issue with how the club is approaching the game.
This openness is weird. Usually teams that do this compensate to some degree when they attack, but Fulham currrently fall into the old “can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field” trope. There’s almost nothing going well.
This is double weird because the coach is capable and has a track record of winning football matches. But perhaps defensive organisation is simply not part of his skillset or something he’s ever needed in the past. A quick visit to Wikipedia shows a dazzling season at Watford (entirely reminiscent of what happened to Fulham last year) and a lot of work in smaller countries. There is no evidence of performance at a high level where defending has happened. Yikes. Maybe Slav simply doesn’t know how to do this, in which case he isn’t the man for the job and my thoughts about loyalty (all the screeching muppets wanting their club back deserve not to be heard) don’t matter. Core competence is missing and that’s reason enough to change things.
To that end, probably on field personnel isn’t the issue. While the defenders may not be of A1 quality, we see everyday how ‘journeymen’ defenders can be perfectly capable in a half decent system. It’s my contention that almost nobody would look good at centre-half in this team.
Just as Hodgson’s teams made our defensive players look better than they ‘really’ were (remember: Paintsil, Hughes, Hangeland and Konchesky formed a watertight unit, but three of those players were decidedly average through most of their careers, at least in public perceptions), the current system (or lack of) is making the present players look worse than they are.
Which is not to say that the individuals in question haven’t been individually culpable because of course that happens too, but we make mistakes when we’re at our limits and a good system offers safety nets and balances so these things matter less. In a good system you can slot players in and out as necessary, you can adapt personnel (e.g. Fabian Delph and Ashley Young have played top level games at full-back, young does it permanently now, and he was an out and out winger. You see this all the time…).
Put another way, constantly changing personnel isn’t necessarily the answer. A great, commanding centre-back wouldn’t be a terrible thing to happen (look at liverpool after Virgil Van Dijk signed) but equally, I suspect people will be disappointed if this is held out as a magic solution. It’s not a question of ‘if only we find the right combination’… it’s much deeper than that.
There is also a general criticism around lack of fight, bite, heart, and other such combative terms. It’s a very English reaction to blame lack of results on lack of desire, and I think this is miles off, at least in terms of what to address. These players almost certainly are not cowards lacking in moral fibre, but probably the apparent apathy is a symptom of the lack of direction they’re experiencing.
Any office staff survey measures motivation levels, and more often than not things like salary don’t have any impact at all on satisfaction or well-being. Rather, people want to feel part of something, have autonomy (but not too much!) and generally it’s crucial that they know what their role is. Without this things float, drift, and other passive words that don’t evoke biting or eating things.
This is what I’m seeing here, I think. Players are losing belief because they’re not being instructed, they’re not sure what’s going on around them. And while the crowd would respond to a bit more charging around, it’s bigger than that.
As Roy used to say, there’s no magic wand, you can’t just shout at people or feed them red meat before games or anything like that: you have to work at it and give the players a chance to shine, to deliver on their skills. This team is way, way less than the sum of its parts, which is a shame. It might change: a lot of new players coming together will take time to adjust. But the signs aren’t very good at the moment.
Afterthought: people are moaning about the Sam Allardyce suggestion but honestly he’d be perfect for this team. He’d absolutely love Mitrovic as a focal point who can score and bring others into the game, he’d get Seri firing, and he’d sort out the defence. People forget that it was Allardyce who brought JayJay Okocha to England, who featured all kinds of exciting talents in his over-achieving Bolton teams. He’d be excellent for Fulham.