Sunday, January 27, 2013

Why Fulham Should Be Pressing The Panic Button or Send Up The Bent Signal

If Manchester United fans needed any reminding as to why they weren't terribly sorry to see Dimitar Berbatov go, he certainly did his best to jog their collective memory in Saturday's FA Cup demolition of Fulham. There's nothing I can say about Berbatov that hasn't been said before. On a good day, his game is languid, silky, effortless, delicate, and artful. On a bad day, like Saturday, his game is ponderous, lazy, static, and soporific.

I've watched Berbatov play for years and some of the most sublime goals I've ever seen came about through the moody Bulgarian's masterful touch and incredible vision. There was that 2007 goal for Spurs against Charlton and that moment of ridiculousness to find Cristiano Ronaldo in the six yard box for Manchester United versus West Ham United. Those moments certainly encapsulate Berbatov at his best, but they came against weak opposition when Berbatov was just another incredibly talented player in sides not lacking in creative playmakers. Certainly at Manchester United, where Berbatov was the Premier League's leading goal scorer in the 2010-11 season, he was not the focal point of the team and was surrounded by strong personalities who personified United's trademark industry, pace, and team concept.

When Berbatov signed for Fulham following the departures of Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele, Fulham fans, myself included, were optimistic that his class, reunited with Martin Jol, would shine through and inspire the entire team to play a fluid, creative style full of goals and a comfortable campaign in the Premier League. Instead, it seems that the goals have dried up and Fulham are now playing an arguably more static, less dynamic brand of soccer that has seen them steadily slide down the Premier League table and begin an all-too-familiar flirtation with the relegation zone.

Obviously, this can't all be blamed on Berbatov and persistent rumblings of locker room unrest and player conflicts with Martin Jol have continued to plague the Cottagers since Bobby Zamora spectacularly fell from grace last season. However, Berbatov and Jol have made no secret of the fact that this is the Bulgarian's team and his self professed desire to play as the number 10 has arguably been more of a detriment to the side than a help.

They've got the passing part down, but now it's time to panic

Consider Fulham's first match of the season against Norwich prior to both Dembele's departure and Berbatov's arrival. Fulham ran out 5-0 winners. Mladen Petric scored twice, Damien Duff and Alexander Kacaniklic added one a piece, and Steve Sidwell finished one from the spot. With Bryan Ruiz playing in the hole, Fulham looked dynamic and creative making overlapping runs down the flanks and incisive passes in behind the defense. Martin Jol was able to play with one true holding midfielder in Mahamadou Diarra while Moussa Dembele worked tirelessly from box-to-box winning possession and distributing the ball forward to spring the attack. Granted, it was the first match of the season and first matches are always more of a one off than a bellwether, but there was enough industry and young, dynamic talent in the side to suggest that the campaign would be an enjoyable one for Fulham fans.

Fast forward a few weeks. Dembele and Dempsey are gone and now Berbatov is the undisputed focal point of the team. Adding a player with Berbatov's class on the ball should be a value added scenario, but he's hardly a like-for-like switch for either Dempsey or Dembele. Although not blessed with extraordinary pace, Dempsey, as he was often deployed for Fulham, served as a target player who could hold the ball up in transition and in the offensive third of the field and bring others into the attack. He also has a knack for popping up in the box to finish off the scraps and doing the physical work to hammer one in with his head.

The departure of Dembele meant that Jol had to play a central midfield pairing of two dedicated holding players in some combination of Sidwell, Chris Baird, Giorgos Karagounis, and Diarra. Sidwell and Karagounis have done their best to get forward and spring the attack, but they're playing against their nature when they do, and their lack of vision and quality in the pass has caused Fulham to stagnate somewhat when they go forward. Still, with a player like Ruiz playing in the hole between the midfield and a target forward, Fulham have the capability to bridge defense and attack, but it requires a target further up the field to stretch the opponent's defense and create space in which Ruiz can work and an outlet for him to play to once he's able to turn. This is where Berbatov, for all his skill and ability, has killed Fulham going forward.

It strikes me that Ruiz and Berbatov essentially want to play the same role. Consider the FA Cup match against Manchester United on Saturday. Both Ruiz and Berbatov consistently dropped well into Fulham's own half to get the ball from Sidwell, Baird, and later Karagounis. Once they were able to turn, the only passes that were on were square to either Duff or Kacaniklic and more often to Riether or Riise. This allowed Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Rafael, and Patrice Evra to play well up the pitch to pressure the ball as they did not have to worry about Berbatov or Ruiz running in behind them. Additionally, Duff and Kacaniklic were tasked with helping out Riether and Riise as Evra and Rafael looked to make runs down either flank at every opportunity. As the match wore on, Duff, Kacaniklic, and later Dejagah found it more and more difficult to get forward as the yards they'd run to track Evra and Rafael piled up on their legs. This unsuccessful pattern of play was compounded by the fact that neither Sidwell nor initially Baird are the sorts of players that can run through from deeper positions and, most unforgivably, that Berbatov himself seemed content to pick up the ball, play a square pass, and then stroll languidly behind as the recipient of his pass looked desperately for a forward option to play the ball.
Forgive the amateur diagram
When Berbatov did move in the offensive third to collect the ball, he often did so out to the right flank where, at least initially, Riether and Duff were already fairly effective at getting in behind Patrice Evra. In doing so, he killed space and often had to play square or drop the ball back to a teammate allowing Manchester United to keep the play in front of their defense. On the occasions Berbatov was able to find Kacaniklic, Duff, or Riether he seemed content to linger behind the play instead of taking it upon himself to get into United's box to get onto the end of the balls that were inevitably played to no one in particular. Fulham were essentially playing a 4-6-0.

With any other player and many other teams, this would require a relatively simple tactical adjustment, but Martin Jol seems committed to letting Berbatov essentially play however and wherever Berbatov wants. Lest I be accused of Berbatov bashing, let's consider what happened when Hugo Rodallega was introduced to the tie in the second half. I've got a lot of time for the Colombian as he's always struck me as an industrious, no nonsense player with decent speed and the ability to get some goals. He scored ten for Wigan in the 2009-10 season and scoring ten for Wigan in any season is a little like scoring twenty for any other team not named Wigan. 

In the 65th minute of the match, Fulham broke up a Manchester United attack and the ball wound up at Karagounis' feet. He played the ball to Berbatov who was checking back to the center circle. Berbatov went to play a little square flick of the ball to Rodallega who was drifting off the back shoulder of a United defender. Rodallega wanted the ball into space behind the United defense and was unable to recover the ball Berbatov actually played. As play went back toward the Fulham goal, Rodallega could be seen frustratingly gesturing to Berbatov that he wanted the ball into space. Berbatov immediately fired back with his own angry gesticulations that Rodallega should have checked to the ball Berbatov played square. Keep in mind that the match was 3-0 at this point and Rodallega was the furthest player up the pitch. 
With no one playing as a target or running in behind, Manchester United were able to keep Fulham playing across the face of the defense. 
This is where, in spite of my awe at Berbatov's skill and ability, I lose patience a la any Manchester United fan who ever shook his head at Berbatov's style of play. He's never wrong. Ever. 

Berbatov will berate a teammate for not finding him, even in the most difficult circumstances. He'll throw his hands up at missed shots or runs not made, but he doesn't even blush or hold a hand up in apology when he himself screws a ball horribly wide or fails to pick out the run of a teammate in a better position. On a team like Fulham, a team without another transcendent talent or an especially strong personality in the manager's seat, that sort of attitude and constant brow beating is a cancer that permeates the dressing room and the spirit of the team on the pitch. 

This Fulham vintage is arguably more talented than other Fulham sides that have narrowly escaped relegation, but it doesn't have the sort of leadership or infectious personality someone like Danny Murphy or Jimmy Bullard provided. At best, seasoned professionals like Damien Duff, Steve Sidwell, Hugo Rodallega, and Giorgos Karagounis fire back at Berbatov in frustration. At worst, young talents like Kacaniklic play timidly and without the confidence to make things happen lest they incur the wrath of the moody number 9.

From where I sit, Fulham are dangerously close to devolving into a relegation frontrunner. They play Manchester United at the weekend and then still have matches against Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal, Everton, and Liverpool. At this point in the season, with the transfer window about to close and dangling only six points clear of the relegation zone, I think they have to buy a striker. Berbatov has made it clear that he wants to play a number 10 role essentially free of any dirty responsibilities. This is frustrating as, even in the United match, he showed that he is capable of harrying a defender into coughing up the ball and doing the high pressure work necessary to win corners and push his team on; he just doesn't do it frequently enough to call it part of his game. Ruiz, on the other hand, is potentially a more industrious player, but he isn't suited to taking on the role of a frontrunner a la Clint Dempsey. 

So who is available? Well, the list isn't long considering Mohammed Al-Fayed only begrudgingly opens his checkbook and Fulham aren't exactly a dream destination for proven goalscorers in their prime. A good season on the Thames is finishing comfortably mid table. A great season is pushing for a Europa League spot and surviving deep into one of the cup competitions. I'd love to see someone speedy and hungry for goals like Luis Suarez or Chicharito don a white jersey, but that isn't going to happen. Given these fact, only two names immediately pop into mind and those belong to Darren Bent and Shane Long. Bent is still only 28, can't get a game with Aston Villa, and is exactly the kind of physical, big bodied striker that Fulham need to establish an attacking target.

Shane Long is the kind of speedy, hard working striker Fulham lack to get in behind defenses and would surely allow Berbatov and/or Ruiz a little more space to operate. As it stands, there is no fast enough threat to scare even the slowest Premier League defenders into playing a little deeper.

Obviously, there are a few issues with either of these choices as Villa are reportedly looking for something in the neighborhood of 20 million pounds to offload Bent, but when a guy like Michu can be signed for under 5 million pounds, there is a limit to what the market will bear. Even still, some bigger clubs are lurking around Christian Benteke and if someone comes in with an offer the Villans can't refuse, Bent could suddenly find himself back in the good graces of Paul Lambert...or whoever potentially replaces him.

Shane Long may also be a tough get as Peter Odemwingie is pushing on in years and has had an inconsistent season thus far. Additionally, Romelu Lukaku is only at West Brom on loan and the Baggies would suddenly find themselves light in the striking department if they let him go.

Having said that, if Jol continues to insist that Berbatov be allowed to play the role for Fulham that he's been playing, he needs to look to buy a viable outlet who can be fielded further up the pitch. Perhaps a lineup with Bent or Long as a target player or frontrunner, respectively; Berbatov sitting in the hole; Duff and Ruiz on either side of midfield; and Sidwell, Baird, Karagounis, and whoever else holding midfield could bring some of the dynamism back to the Cottagers' attack. Kacaniklic/Ruiz/Dejagah could come off the bench as tactics and situations dictated. 

Whether Fulham attempt to remedy their current malaise in the transfer window or on the training ground is anyone's guess, but the side needs strong medicine and fast. Looking at this transfer window, Long and Bent are just two possible suggestions that might seemingly fit Fulham's wage structure and also address a glaring need in their attack. As a Fulham fan, I hope for the best, but my Berbatov jersey is getting awfully difficult to wear.        


  1. Outstanding analysis of where it's all gone wrong for Fulham. I hope this gets picked up by all FFC followers - have been banging on about some of these issues for months on my ESPNFC blog page. btw - I personally informed Hughes in Jan 2010 that Shane Long would be interested in joining FFC after making discreet enquiries @ Reading

  2. Cheers! It's not a dedicated Fulham blog, but I'm a massive FFC supporter and had high hopes when Berba got picked up. There was a lot of talk over the summer about how much the side would miss Dempsey and his goals, and while he's certainly a loss, for me the major blow has been the departure of Dembele. He's a special talent and 1 Sidwell + 1 Baird is not equal to 1 Dembele. I'm hanging on for a nervy end of the season.