Yesterday evening we witnessed Fulham’s ignominious exit from the FA Cup at the hands of League 1 relegation candidates Sheffield United at Craven Cottage. Such was the despondency around the ground following the Blades’ one hundred and nineteenth minute winning goal, there is now a genuine worry as to whether or not manager Rene Meulensteen will be able to rally his troops in a fight against relegation but what exactly is going wrong with a club that very few tipped for relegation this term?
Fulham finished twelfth last term and last summer the club could be accused of not strengthening adequately however with the process of a board takeover ongoing it would always be difficult to free the finances to improve the squad too much although the deal was completed in mid July. The then Head Coach Martin Jol brought in a couple of players who you would imagine would have strengthened the team, Darren Bent on loan for £2million looked a bargain, as did Scott Parker at £4million. Fernando Amorebieta, who came from Athletic Bilbao with a sizeable reputation, cost Fulham nothing in terms of a transfer fee but has been a heavy disappointment since due to injury struggles and poor performances.
You got the impression that close to the end of his spell with Fulham, Martin Jol’s time with the Cottagers was beginning to look very similar to his final days at Tottenham Hotspur. Anything that could go wrong did, results weren’t too good and it was only a matter of time before his dismissal. Admittedly at Tottenham Daniel Levy had been looking at appointing Juande Ramos for a while, I don’t think you could say the same about the Fulham hierarchy with Rene Meulensteen.
There have been flashes of good football and strong performances from Fulham this term, stretching back into the Jol era and now with Rene Meulensteen. Steve Sidwell and Scott Parker look to be a good midfield pairing albeit short of mobility and genius, if you could place a third man in that midfield alongside or just in front of them, a playmaker then you wouldn’t be far off a strong mid-table starting midfield. Going forward there has been issues with scoring, Darren Bent hasn’t shown anything like the form he has at previous clubs, last season’s events at Aston Villa where Bent was frozen out of the team but was still deemed too important to sell has clearly had a negative impact.
Dimitar Berbatov has looked at times disinterested prior to his January move to Monaco and the performances of Bryan Ruiz and Adel Taarabt have been inconsistent with very few moments of magic.
In fairness to the incoming Meulensteen the first thing he did was surround himself with coach’s who had experience in the Premier League in order to assist him. Ray Wilkins enjoyed an excellent spell as Assistant Manager to Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea with the general consensus that the decision to remove Wilkins from his post taken by owner Roman Abramovich was the beginning of the end of Ancelotti’s highly successful time with the London club. Alan Curbishley was also brought in as a technical director after tallying up years of experience as a Premier League manager with Charlton Athletic and more recently West Ham United where once again the circumstances that surrounded his exit were interesting to say the least.
One of the main, if not the most significant problem Fulham has faced this season, has been their work defensively. It has been for want of a better term, an absolute shambles at the back for Fulham this season. Fulham have already conceded fifty three league goals this season which is the most by twelve goals. That is a staggering drop from twelfth last season.
It has looked at times as if the Fulham defence has been playing on a completely different wavelength to each other, the prime examples occurred in November when Manchester United and Liverpool both faced Fulham and put a number of goals past the Cottagers’ defence. Not one of the four defenders could keep a stable line in either of those matches, you would have Kieran Richardson at left-back holding far too high a line with the two central defenders and Riether at right-back all in different positions which left opposition forwards in great positions, unmarked, yet still onside.
Against teams with clever players like Liverpool and Manchester United you cannot afford to be slack at the back, you cannot afford to play people far onside as a Luis Suarez, a Wayne Rooney or a Steven Gerrard will find that unmarked striker with a clever reverse pass and there is very little you can do from that position to recover the situation, as Fulham found in both those matches where they conceded a total of seven goals.
Rene Meulensteen’s reign hasn’t seen too much more defensive solidity with Fulham conceded seventeen goals in Meulensteen’s first month in charge, including six at Hull City just before the New Year. You can’t defend that poorly at Premier League level and expect the talent in the squad higher up the pitch to get you out of trouble time after time, even more so when your talented front men are often labelled languid yet mercurial which is as great a juxtaposition as you could find.
In fairness to Rene Meulensteen the January transfer window has seen some steady purchases and departures. Berbatov, Taarabt and Bryan Ruiz have all found themselves unwanted at Craven Cottage and have been given new adventures at Monaco, AC Milan and PSV Eindhoven respectively whilst Meulensteen has replaced them with energy, hard work and individual brilliance in the forms of Clint Dempsey on loan, Lewis Holtby on loan and Konstantinos Mitroglou for a club record transfer fee of £12.4million.
Rene Meulensteen has been clever in his transfer business this past January as he has replaced what he has lost but also added deeper resolve to his squad. In Mitroglou you are going to get the fantastic technical ability that Berbatov brought, however Mitroglou is also very energetic as he has proven in the Champions League this season with Olympiacos. Lewis Holtby and Clint Dempsey can both be very creative but will work a lot harder than Taarabt and Ruiz in terms of closing down defences and possibly tracking back to help defensively.
William Kvist has been brought in as a defensive midfielder, this gives Fulham options to play three in midfield and take away the workload from one of Parker and Sidwell and the signing of Johnny Heitinga from Everton adds an experienced centre half who in his time at Everton and Atletico Madrid was a tough defender to get past as well as a good organiser of a defensive line.
So why you may ask is there still such gloom around Craven Cottage? Especially when you consider a lot of the players brought into the club late in the window were not eligible for selection in the FA Cup fifth round replay defeat to Sheffield United. Well the answer to that was the spirit of the rest of the squad last night. It was non-existent. This was a Fulham side bereft of confidence and self belief and bringing a number of talented players into a team is supposed to improve those aspects yet it appears to have had no effect. Yes they haven’t played yet but having players of that ability on the training ground should be more than enough to motivate a team, Clint Dempsey was a key member of the great Fulham team which defied all the odds and reached the 2010 Europa League final where they only just missed out on glory in Hamburg, Germany. If that doesn’t get teammates around him motivated to kick-start a fight against relegation then I’m not sure what will.
The real test is to come for Fulham and Meulensteen. Can Heitinga provide the defensive boost in quality in organisation which the club desperately needs? Will Mitroglou continue his excellent form from before Christmas and help Fulham’s goal tally? We still have to give time for the January signings to first play and then adapt to the squad however time is not on Meulensteen or indeed Fulham’s side and with Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea in three of Fulham’s next four matches, the worrying lack of commitment and self belief within the Fulham team that was displayed last night gives little indication of Fulham’s ‘fight’ for survival in the Premier League.