Sunday, February 24, 2013

Pump The Brakes: A Closer Look at Fulham's Win Against Stoke

No one wants to be That Guy.

Your buddy asks out the girl of his dreams, she says yes, and That Guy chimes in with the who, where, and when of everyone else she's ever slept with.

You get the job of your dreams and That Guy can't help but remind you of the attrition rate and low pay.

You and your wife get pregnant and That Guy takes the opportunity to relay to you the frequency of autism cases in today's newborns. 1 in 100, father of Rainman.

Basically, That Guy pisses on your leg and calls it rain, shits in your hand and calls it a free lunch, and generally shoots a hole in every dream you've tentatively floated to the heavens.

I don't want to be That Guy. Really and truly.

Regular readers of the blog are no strangers to my feelings regarding a one Dimitar Berbatov and his importance to Fulham Football Club. For those less informed, I proffer the following: Dimitar Berbatov is a silky conductor of a game written in a time signature known only to him. His genius is unparalleled. His touch is a whisper in a smoke filled speakeasy. His brilliance is a noble rot appreciated by only the most discerning of palates. His treatment of the game is urbane, arrogant, stubborn, and beautiful in a way that Van Gogh, Poe, and Cobain would applaud between quaffs of absinthe and knowing nods in recognition of another artist's genius. In short, Dimitar Berbatov is a superlative talent in a fallible construct. He's Will Hunting in South Boston. Banksy in Bristol. James Agee in Knoxville, Tennessee.

He's Dimitar Berbatov in West London.

A virtuoso in a garage band. 
I write this a number of hours after Berbatov's genius strike sank Stoke City on the banks of the Thames and consigned Tony Pulis's army of Uruk Hai to a Saturday without points and sent Fulham fans into an ecstasy of plaudits that has yet to die down. All day I've read tweet after tweet and article after article and headline after headline recounting Berbatov's quality in Saturday's match and his primacy to a Fulham squad stuck somewhere in the liminal zone between relegation contenders and Premier League competents. I remain unconvinced.

I recognize that this position is unpopular amongst Fulham fans and respect the points and counter points posited by the Cottagers faithful, but I also cannot quietly acquiesce to the status quo even in the aftermath of a much needed, appreciated, and delicious three points gained.

On Saturday Stoke City began the match at Craven Cottage playing three at the back. Geoff Cameron, Stoke's usual right back, was deployed by Tony Pulis as a reserved striker supporting Peter Crouch while Matthew Etherington and Jonathan Walters were deployed as left and right wing players respectively. I'm no fan of Stoke's traditional style of leg breaking, long ball attrition, but I respect Tony Pulis and his record as a manager and I have to give a begrudging measure of respect to a side that has managed a healthy run in the Premier League despite playing a style of football most fans of the game consider anathema to common decency. Pulis succeeds with what he's been given and maximizes his side's strengths with savvy personnel decisions and tactical nous. For a manager of Pulis's pedigree to run out a side such as the one he deployed on Saturday, he must have thought two things. One: The further back I can push messrs Ruiz and Berbatov the more I limit their effectiveness. Two: Fulham lack the pace and guile to warrant me playing anything but three central defenders across my back line.

As we now know, Pulis's gamble didn't work, but it didn't work in part because Matthew Etherington pulled up lame in the opening salvos of the match and Steven N'Zonzi found himself with a broken nose and a spot in Lee Probert's book midway through the first half. Pulis then had to readjust his formation after he was forced to bring on a Premier League debutante in Brek Shea who, until the second half, looked considerably off the pace and then, after Berbatov's wonder strike, was left chasing the game and threw Cameron Jerome and Kenwyne Jones onto the pitch in an effort to limit the damages.

How many saves was Asmir Begovic forced to make in Saturday's match? Other than Berbatov's game winner and Karagounis's set piece screamer, was there a single strike that significantly troubled the in demand Bosnian?

Stoke are a known quantity. They sit deep, hoof the ball forward, and kick and gouge their way to respectable finishes year after year. After Etherington's departure Saturday, Stoke sat deeper than they probably would have before Etherington left the pitch. Fulham were allowed to ping the ball around in front of the Potters' defense and carry it into the attacking third mostly because Stoke allowed them to do so and were trying to scrap a draw out of an away fixture after they'd lost an attacking player to injury and seen a needed covering player booked for a momentary loss of his wits. Berbatov's goal didn't come from any particular genius in attack, build up play, or pace, but rather from a violent moment of artistry from a gifted but horribly flawed albatross.

Aside from the goal, I would suggest that Fulham's play in the match was somewhat limited to clever passes in the middle third with very little end product. Additionally, the most dangerous moments in the match came courteous initially of a pressing attack made up of makeshift frontrunners and then, after Etherington's departure, of a strong, physical side pressing for an equalizer. What does this narrative look like if Schwarzer doesn't save Walters's penalty or if Crouch finishes the gilt edged chance gifted to him by Senderos?

Fulham have yet to play Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal, Everton, and Liverpool and six of their remaining eleven fixtures are away from home. Berbatov was able to finish his glorious goal on Saturday in part because Stoke were essentially conceding the pitch to the Cottagers all the way to their own penalty area and N'Zonzi, Shawcross, and Wilson all had found their way into Probert's little black book. I doubt injury and cautions will be so kind to Fulham in the remaining fixtures.

Berbatov is an incredible talent - a Champagne footballer - but all is not yet right with the Cottagers and tougher challenges await. The need for a penetrating striker and/or pacey wingers to stretch a defense remains unaddressed and Martin Jol thus far appears content to roll out a side incapable of producing anything other than a prayed for Berbatov master stroke. 1-0 against a Stoke side depleted through injury and cautions does not safety make.  


  1. True, but considering N'zonzi should've been sent off we would have won this comfortably

  2. Possibly. But he wasn't and we didn't. Regardless, I don't think a hoped for slap to the back of Bryan Ruiz's head by a temperamental French opponent is an intelligent or repeatable strategy for breaking down opposition.