Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Can Sanchez Surpass His Benchmarks?

When Lawrie Sanchez first joined Fulham, he suggested that Reading and Blackburn were potential role models for his team. Mindful of the resources he had at hand, this seemed a sensible and logical approach. Both of these teams had achieved decent finishes (Reading 8th, in their first post-promotion season; Blackburn 10th), despite having limited funding and an absence of “name” players. As such, they presented realistic examples of what Fulham could perhaps achieve.

The subtext of this admission appeared to be that he aimed to extract more from the squad than the sum of their abilities, by virtue of creating a well-practiced, well-organised team with a sturdy work ethic – much as he did with his Northern Irish charges. This would be allied with an astute and well-researched tactical approach. The latter certainly brought swift rewards via David Healy’s 1st minute goal in the opening game against Arsenal, the striker having been instructed to close down Jens Lehman at every opportunity.

However, this thumbnail sketch also makes them sound like they should be a facsimile of Chris Coleman’s outfit. Whilst they certainly display some of his team’s fallibilities, and a tendency to revert to type in times of panic (i.e. long-ball bingo), there has been an improvement, at times, in the standard of passing and movement. The considerable financial investment has, of course, been noted.

It has transpired that these two teams visit Craven Cottage in successive matches. Reading were beaten 3-1 in a game that openly subverted the Sky-spawned fanfare that promotes the Premiership as being “the best league in the world.” It’s fair to say that the oppressing blanket of tension (and it’s ultimate release in the 90th minute), generated by the notion of a manager on the precipice, was the game’s most engaging aspect. So, although Sanchez triumphed over one of the teams that he’s been aspiring to emulate, the quality of the victory begets reservations.

If Reading’s performance that day was typical, and their results so far suggest that it was, the transformation is a mystery. Their showing against Fulham at the Madejski Stadium last April exemplified their whole season: quick, accurate passing; feeding the wings to initiate attacks; repeatedly placing dangerous balls across the face of the Fulham goal – one of which lead to them scoring. This season they appear to have morphed into a lumpen, long-ball chasing beast of a team, devoid of their prior finesse and craft, despite being a largely unchanged side. Perplexing.

This Sunday it’s Blackburn. Last season, following the respective home games, I remember bracketing Rovers and Bolton together in my mind. I formed an impression of them both as being crude, bruising, cynically physical teams, doing as much to win by virtue of non-football methods as they were with football ones: borderline challenges, time-wasting, endless official-baiting etc.

In hindsight, this assessment of Blackburn, based admittedly on the one game, appears as unreliable as logic might suggest it would be: they cannot have attained their 10th position, and this season’s clear progression, by virtue of these ingredients alone. It is now apparent that they have acquired an image that is unrepresentative and unfair, and one they are struggling to cast off. If my lazy pigeonholing of last season is typical, this is hardly surprising.

With Sunday in mind, I keep finding myself looking over my shoulder back to the Portsmouth game, and the uncomfortable memory of how we struggled to deal them in the second half. I’m anticipating a similarly testing encounter. Even if it does turn out to be another unduly physical game, I wonder how many of our supporters would welcome the prospect of Fulham emulating Blackburn at the moment, whatever their approach?

Come Sunday evening we’ll know if Lawrie’s managed to equal the second of his role models.

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