The View From South Texas -- Fulham FC v. Reading
Today, Fulham played the least talented side in the Premier League and lost to them 2-4. Questionable team selection, early lethargy, late disorganization, and the abject failure of fan favorite players to play well all contributed to Reading winning only its second road match of the season, and its first three points anywhere in at least three months.
Fulham began brightly with Damien Duff giving Reading LB Stephen Kelly a quick lesson in how to play out of position. Twice within the first 90 seconds, Duff mastered the Reading left side and, on the second occasion, whipped in a cross that Bryan Ruiz met with a hard volley. It was well saved by Reading’s 23 year old Irish keeper McCarthy – a continuing theme throughout the day. Immediately after, Jol had Duff swap wings with Emanuelson and Fulham’s early pressure was relieved.
For the next 10 minutes or so, Fulham did their best imitation of 11 guys strolling around on a green expanse with little or no understanding why. At that point John Arne Riise attempted a routine clearance which, instead, only cleared the ankle of Hal Robson-Kanu. Robson-Kanu – who we’ve been told repeatedly is not good enough to play for Fulham – coolly converted as Reading assumed a lead it would never relinquish. Fulham seemed content with that lead and continued to loll around in the almost summer almost sunshine.
On the whole, I’d rather we played poorly and got the three points, but an undermanned Fulham showed Arsenal and much of the football world how to play for 80 minutes with only 10 men. I can’t remember a time this season when I have been more proud of the mighty Whites. The final score was 0-1, but this was a million miles away from a boring match.
If there was any doubt who would come out on top when the opening whistle sounded, the mystery essentially ended in the 12th minute when Steve Sidwell, fresh from a three match suspension for a straight red card, earned another with a reckless, two-footed, over-the-ball tackle. There were chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing” aimed at referee Andre Marriner from the Hammersmith End, but if there ever was a clear red, this was it. It’s a shame that Sidwell will end his very best season in the Black and White with only 12 minutes of play sandwiched between six days of suspension.
Despite the fact that Arsenal were in complete control of the ball inside the first 10 minutes, Fulham could have actually been ahead well before Sidwell left the field of play. After some very good work on the right wing by makeshift RB Stanislav Manolev, Urby Emanuelson missed a clear opportunity to play in a wide open Dimitar Berbatov for what would have been his easiest goal of the season.
To get the details out of the way, Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker got the only goal of the match when Bryan Ruiz fell asleep while marking Lauren Koscielny on a free kick. Arsenal had two other shots on target, and Berbatov, Emanuelson, Ruiz, and Kieran Richardson all had creditable efforts repelled. Arsenal found themselves down to 10 men in the 90th minute when Olivier Giroud autographed Manolev’s ankle.
Okay, Hatter, what exactly was it that made you so proud in losing the match? Didn’t you notice that Arsenal had more than ¾ of possession? Yes, I did notice that. I also noticed that we counter-attacked with gusto – and, for perhaps the first time this season – with pace from the wings. Kacaniklic started on the left and ran at and turned defenders with aplomb. Emanuelson played on the right wing and bedeviled Arsenal’s Monreal the entire match. Richardson was put in to counter the pace of Arsenal’s right-sided attack and did well, while still managing to get forward on occasion. Manolev had the most difficult job on the pitch, that of replacing Fulham’s player of the season, Sascha Riether. Not only was his defense excellent, but he slipped into Riether’s role of primary attacker quite seamlessly. He even put the ball into the net late in the match, but he was one of two players who were in offsides position at the time.
As the match went on, Fulham became more aggressive in their counter-attacks using both wings and excessive speed – all this while maintaining good defensive shape and organization. Arsenal’s defense was not happy, and resorted to fouling to slow Fulham down as they continued to wonder why they couldn’t score against what should have been a depleted and dispirited team. When Martin Jol finally got around to resting his exhausted warriors, the two substitutions – Mladen Petrić and Kerim Frei – didn’t miss a beat in pressuring the Gunners. And the spirit! For me, Fulham’s attitude was exemplified by the much maligned Philippe Senderos in the right winger’s position[!], crossing into the penalty area and winning a corner, and then taking up his attacking position with a roar and a pump of that giant left fist.
I have a few moans, but none of them were the cause of anything that determined the points distribution. Once Sidwell left his mark on Mikel Arteta and the match, the points were essentially decided. If there was one player who disappointed me it was Berbatov. If he expended as much effort in moving his legs as he did waving his arms in disgust at his teammates, he might not have been caught offsides so much. At times it looked as if he wanted to be known as the Bulgarian Collins John.
On the plus side, I really am warming to Eyong Enoh. He was lucky not to get a yellow early in the first half for repeated fouling, but he looks like he’s going to become an excellent central midfielder. I don’t know his contract status, but I think he’s one we should hold on to with a contract longer than one year. Emanuelson also looked very good, but he’s only got four more matches left in our colors. Richardson looked a natural left back today and played with a lot of spirit and heart. As I said before, Manolev played a great game. I hope we keep him as well. Senderos was strong in central defense and partnered well with the man whose name I heard more even than Arsene Wenger’s: Brede Hangeland. His brief two-match slump is over.
The gaffer selected a good squad and starting XI, and the lads did a great job of work today. With special mention to our giant Norwegian Texan, HatterDon’s Man of the Match goes to Martin Emanuelson Manolev Enoh Kacaniklic.
Today, Fulham hosted a match-weary Chelsea at The Cottage and, before a nearly packed house allowed the visitors to stroll to the easy victory they sorely needed in their drive to finish in the top four. Three goals by Chelsea’s two central defenders – only one of them from a set piece – did the trick, and with the loss, Fulham have now garnered one point from their last three matches. The Whites are the Premier League’s form team no longer.
Ah, but it might have been so different. For the first 20-25 minutes of the match, Chelsea looked toothless – little cohesion between defense and attack, and giving the ball away all too easily. They looked listless and cautious. By contrast, Fulham were spraying the ball all over the park and creating chances. Ruiz, Berbatov, and Karagounis scorned full or half chances, but Fulham looked to be in an attacking mood, with the always impressive Sascha Riether the most potent force up the right wing. One could have found himself wondering what Fulham could do in this mood with Ashkan Dejagah prowling the right in cahoots with Riether. But then … .
Totally against the run of play, Fulham found themselves behind. David Luiz, certainly the most interesting central defender in the league, looked to be no danger to a well-organized Fulham midfield and defense when on the half hour he launched a screamer from fully 40 yards into the upper right corner of Mark Schwarzer’s net. Nobody was at fault with the goal. You kind of hope that opposing central defenders will decide to shoot from that range. And Fulham were behind 0-1.
Fulham So Close to Stealing a Point at St. James’s
If there is a team that Fulham can feel confident playing away, it’s Newcastle United. If there’s a team that Newcastle do NOT want to play with relegation in the conversation, it’s Fulham. Add these two sentences to one pointing out that Fulham are in the best form in three seasons, and you figure that the Barcodes are going to be in for long day. And they were.
Fulham started calmly and efficiently – challenging everywhere on the pitch and stringing together passes in the double digits. Berbatov, who has been in choice form himself, had Fulham’s and the game’s first opportunity to score after 5 minutes. He slapped a shot with the outside of his right boot that beat the keeper but not the cross bar. Fulham had a couple of other “almost” chances for a goal, both involving Berbatov. The first came from a cross from Riether that only a single toe of an extended boot stopped from rolling to our unmarked striker. Another chance came with a cross from Duff that looked to be cleared by a Newcastle defender. Berbatov saw this and moved quickly to challenge for the second ball, only to see the defender miss it and the ball fall exactly where he’d been standing.Specified thread not found
Fulham Steady, Tottenham Unready
Fulham made the short trek to North London today to face the Tottenham side who had demolished them 0-3 earlier in the season. There was little hope that the Southwest London side could get anything from the return fixture. Spurs were at home, in the top four, and their best player – Gareth Bale – did not participate in their midweek Europa League tie. Add to that the fact that Fulham have been a woeful eyesore on the road this season, and the match promised to be the Tottenham walkover that most pundits, including the South Texan writing this report, predicted.
But funny things happen on the way to the final whistle, and many of them occurred at White Hart Lane today. In the first half, Fulham displayed the football that has driven so many of their supporters nuts this season. Each possession featured multiple sideways and backwards passing until, eventually, the ball was surrendered to the team in white. It’s hard to moan about these losses of possession. If your [apparent] game plan is to get from your penalty area to the opponent’s penalty area in no fewer than 27 passes, chances are at least one will go awry. And so it was that Steve Sidwell took Fulham’s first shot in the 41st minute, and arced it a good 40 yards above the crossbar.
If J.M. Barrie were reincarnated as a sports journalist, he might be tempted to refer to AFC Sunderland players in today’s match as “The Lost Boys.” Time after time throughout this very entertaining match, the players in red and white demonstrated their basic inability to accomplish routine football tasks. Thankfully, for them, the very organized and smoothly efficient team they were facing were Fulham FC, and so they paid very little for their sins. As usual, Fulham were calm, passed well, played passable defense, and only dropped by The Black Cats penalty area every now and again to make sure it was still there.
There were goals, though, by gum. Each team received and converted a penalty, courtesy of Mark Halsey. In my judgment, each incident was a foul in the penalty area. In my experience, on most days, with pretty much all other referees, neither of them is called. Fulham scored first. Set free by the endlessly creative Bryan Ruiz, Ashkan Dejagah was busily tying Craig Gardner into a knot, when the frustrated number 8 kicked him in both shins. Dejagah’s over-elaborate fall made it look as if he were diving, but he actually was fouled. Berbatov executed a passable military two step before rolling the ball into the net as Simon Mignolet looked as if he didn’t know whether to go blind or do the alternative. Fulham had scored in the 16th minute and they were still quite a while away from their first actual shot on goal.
That first shot on goal came in the 34th minute courtesy of Dejagah who was set free on a quick break away by a long accurate clearance from Mark Schwarzer [yes, Don, you really just typed that]. Fulham broke upfield rapidly while Sunderland did not. As a matter of fact, the only defender who raced to the Sunderland penalty area was Sascha Riether. As Dejagah pulled the trigger, Mignolet made an excellent save but could only parry the ball to the German RB, now playing left winger! Our very best player all season scored his first goal and either waved to God or to the Fulham supporters who were seated just a few yards below Him.
In Roy Hodgson's day, Fulham would approach a league match at an inferior opponent's ground with the idea of stationing 10 players in their own half and going for the 0-0. This was usually a successful tactic and only resulted in a few suicides by bored home supporters. Things are different now that Fulham are playing Martin Jol Sexy Football. Now we do our sideways and backwards passing further up the field. Instead of overtly playing negatively as under Hodgson, Fulham now appear to want to make attacking forays, but find it incapable of stringing more that three passes together. Under Hodgson, we had a well-drilled unit where everyone on the pitch knew his role and those of his teammates – all the better to execute the away boredom efficiently. Martin Jol Sexy Football differs as his Fulham have as little interaction among defense, midfield, and attack as possible. Furthermore, it is necessary for the team to appear to be composed of eleven highly skilled players who first met earlier that day.
And so Fulham traveled to Carrow Road to play a dispirited and ragged Norwich City. If there is a team more ripe for the taking on the road, I have no idea who it might be. Lacking two legitimate goal scoring threats, and fielding a defense that is easier to rip apart than a lovesick teenager’s heart, Norwich were almost begging to be trampled underfoot. Fulham, not satisfied with disappointing its own fans, also ruined Norwich’s date with destiny. Instead, Fulham dropped two points and handed Norwich one they never came close to deserving.
Fulham’s lineup featured three changes from their spirited and ill-deserved loss to Manchester United the previous weekend. Coming back from injury was the enigmatic Dimitar Berbatov, and with him two of our January loanees – Stanislav Manolev and Emmanuel Frimpong. The latter was rushed into action just hours after receiving his work permit due to the illness of our ever-present season-long loanee Sascha Riether. Frimpong replaced The Ancient Greek and looked to create a strong midfield partnership with Steve Sidwell.
The match started interestingly. Berbatov was kicked in the face after only 70 seconds. There was no yellow card, naturally, since the game was less than 15 minutes old. It took a few minutes to stanch the bleeding and give the Bulgarian striker a few stitches. It was only 3 minutes later when Mark Schwarzer was called into action FOR HIS ONLY SAVE OF THE MATCH. The strike was from Norwich’s January transfer Luciano Becchio. The Argentine striker obviously had been taking extension courses in platform diving at Leeds University, and could not wait to demonstrate how well he learned this craft to his new teammates and supporters. How he escaped a yellow for “simulation” is a mystery. He dived more often than a panicky U-boat skipper.
Fulham began the sideways and backwards passing drills they’ve perfected almost immediately. So successful were they in showing no aggression towards the Canaries’ shell-shocked defense, that it wasn’t until the 19th minute that Damian Duff took Fulham’s first shot.
Other highlights of the first half was a weak yellow for Frimpong and, in the 42nd minute, the sight of Berbatov actually chasing after one of his errant passes. I can’t remember seeing him do this since Christmas.
Steve Sidwell was enjoying having a strong center mid partner and “put himself about” all over the park. He looked every inch the box-to-box midfielder he can at times be. In the 48th minute it was Fulham’s only English player who took the first shot on goal. It was an easy save for Mark Bunn, but still it was on target, and there was still 42 more minutes left for Fulham to have a second SOG. Two minutes later, Bryan Ruiz let loose a pile driver of a shot that completely clocked Sebastian Bassong. The Norwich defender is a tough geezer, but he was seriously shaken by the event. The first really attractive multi-pass move from Fulham occurred in the 67th minute. Of course, it came to naught, but it was nice to see guys – you know – passing the ball upfield to teammates.
Norwich, getting into the spirit of MJSF, managed their second shot on goal in the 70th minute. There was some activity in both penalty areas as the minutes dwindled down to a tiresome few, but it was obvious that if there was any justice in the world, this match would end 0-0. Neither side was able to come up with the coherent play required to make a serious attack on goal.
And, so, I was left with looking for oddities:
1. The television announcer saying of Hangeland, “His long legs were tangled in the heels of Snodgrass,” which left me wondering if this was the original first line to “The Sound Of Music.”
2. A classy turn by substitute Urby Emanuelson. I believe it was the singular highlight of the second half.
3. Simeon Jackson raising himself on his tiptoes to grab on to Hangeland’s shoulders.
So, yeah, it was a dire display by both teams, but we gained a point when pretty much all the strugglers lost – except for Southampton and Norwich of course. We moved up a position in the standings, and we’re a game closer to the end of the season. We also now have logged a grand total of THREE wins in our last eighteen league matches. We’re still not giving a team display anywhere near as good as the quality of the individual players. We’re still refusing to take hold of our own destiny, never mind 90 minutes on a Saturday – except on very rare occasions.
Who looked good? Sidwell excelled, Frimpong looked strong and – with his partner – faced up to Norwich’s attack and stifled it. Nobody Norwich sent to challenge our back four got any change out of Riise and Manolev. Senderos’ 100th league match was very strong, and Hangeland looked as dominating as we’ve seen him for a long while. The thing is, as easily as Fulham contained Norwich threat after Norwich threat, as dispirited as The Canaries and their fans were, it is almost inexcusable that Fulham didn’t come away with a win, and that’s the rub. That’s the reason for the negative review of a point gained on the road.
HatterDon’s Man of the Match award goes to Stanislav Manolev. Yes, Sidwell and Hangeland had better individual matches, but this guy has played a total of ONE league match for PSV Eindhoven this season and, still gutted out 90+ minutes with a bunch of guys he barely knows. It was a hell of a Premier League debut, regardless of the result.
Next Up? A weekend off to watch Luton Town play Millwall in the FA Cup. We play our next league match against Stoke City Wrestling Club on February 23rd at the Cottage. COYW
Well, That Was Refreshing
Fulham picked up three vital points at the Cottage today at the expense of fellow strugglers West Ham United. With Norwich City, these two London sides are suffering through the worst form in the league. Today put an end to that – hopefully for a long period of time. And it wasn’t a matter of “we sucked less than they did.” West Ham came in ready to fight and fight they did. Jarvis, Joe Cole, Diame, and Demel were everywhere. They attacked strongly and defended weakly. So did we.
It was nice to see an attacking formation and an attacking attitude. Why it has taken three managers the better part of four seasons to start Damian Duff on the left wing is a continuing mystery to me, but he started there today and he was the main difference maker. It was also nice to see Dimitar Berbatov so active in front of goal. After the team managed a total of one shot on goal over our last two matches, Bryan Ruiz announced that things would be different with a screamer in the 8th minute. Two minutes later Berbatov celebrated his birthday by being the THIRD Fulham player who might have converted Duff’s tasty free kick. I don’t think he realized that he’d scored on a header from the narrowest of angles, but there it was.
The rest of the half was back and forth relentlessly. Brede Hangeland had, perhaps, his best half all season, commanding the air almost unchallenged and supporting the attack effectively. Hugo Rodallega ran and ran and ran. It was refreshing to see a Fulham player spring into the penalty area when we had just SURRENDERED possession. The Columbian doesn’t have a great touch, isn’t a particularly adept passer, and is not possessed of a good shot, but he is strong, resolute, and tough as nails. He may have also had his best match.
Fulham should have scored a second and perhaps a third, but Berbatov and Rodallega both shot fractions of inches wide. And so it was that we came out for the second half with the barest of one-goal leads. West Ham put on the pressure and, three minutes into the second 45, Nolan and Jarvis got the better of Sacha Riether and Philippe Senderos, and Nolan equalized from as narrow an angle as Berbatov had. Two years ago, Mark Schwarzer handles this one with ease. Today, he just had a great view of it.
And then, something miraculous happened. For the first time since early Fall, Fulham reacted to conceding a goal by charging up the field with venom. Duff received a long clearance upfield, drove to the dead ball line, and fired in a strong left footed cross. Ignoring the three West Ham defenders who looked capable of clearing it, Rodallega steamed in and headed home. West Ham’s parity lasted 33 seconds. Fulham retook the lead. More to the point, Fulham REACTED – something we’ve not seen in a very long time.
The rest of the match was a series of interesting battles – Diame and Steve Sidwell, Jarvis and Riether, Carlton Cole and Hangeland. West Ham had their chances – substitute Andy Carroll took two snap shots either of which could have been a second equalizer.
Fulham’s third goal came after a series of timely interceptions and accurate passes from distance from, of all people, Philippe Senderos. Ashkan Dejagah – who looked excellent coming on in the second half – looked to be hugging the sideline killing time as the match slipped into stoppage time. He flicked the ball to Riether who obviously didn’t understand that Fulham were trying to run out the clock. The German cut into the penalty area and let loose a shot that was parried into the path of Mladen Petrić. Once again, a goal resulted from the narrowest of angles left of the goalmouth. Petrić’s effort was fumbled over the line by West Ham’s O’Brian, and that was that.
I really enjoyed this match. It had many things we’ve been missing. First, there was a clear game plan designed to exploit an opponent’s weakness. Second, the team played creative attacking football. Third, we reacted to adversity not by pouting or rolling into a ball, but with purpose and aggression. Fourth, the substitutes enhanced the play by taking off players who were weakening and replacing them with stength. Dejagah and Chris Baird impressed mightily in their short stints.
Big Sam is going to complain about handballs that didn’t get called and the hint of offside with Fulham’s first goal, but I don’t really care what that fat, ugly geezer has to say. The better team won on the day. The two goal margin did not flatter us, and if we play with that kind of spirit the rest of the season, I think we’ll all be happy.
The only major concern on the day was Berbatov’s limping off the field at the end – a sore hamstring perhaps? I wouldn’t object if they rested him for the United massacre on Saturday. A nice 4-4-2 with Duff on the left, Dejagah on the right, and Petrić and Rodallega leading the attack would work just fine with me.
I haven’t had a look at the table, but I know we move up above West Ham. It’s been a while since we’ve created some distance between us and the bottom ruck. Nice going.
HatterDon’s Man of the Match: With strong performances, by Berbatov, Rodallega, Sidwell, Hangeland, Riether, and Schwarzer, it was tough, but for me the best player on the pitch today was the ageless Irishman. Damian Duff had two assists and ruled the left wing like he has done for so much of his career.
Well played, Fulham. COYW