Saturday, 23 February 2008

Fulham 0 West Ham 1

A blunt, impotent and tactically bemusing performance saw Fulham surrender meekly to a West Ham side that required little more than a modicum of application and functionality to secure a 1-0 victory at Craven Cottage.

The declamatory cry of “every game’s a cup final” appeared merely mock-heroic folly as it dwindled away, consumed by bemused post-match silence, simmering frustration, and no little anger from the Fulham supporters.

Some desire (desperation, even) to shore up curious tactics, or else an inspired game-plan, crafty enough to carry players lacking in confidence, may have sufficed today against limited opponents whose primary approach was a long central ball aimed towards Carlton Cole. Alas, both application and insight were lacking in the home team.

Even the recent resurgence in passing and possession, the calm midfield dominance and measured build-up play, evaporated. The team lacked cohesion, co-ordination, and were disjointed throughout. Nervousness is acceptable given the circumstances, but confusion regarding roles, and an apparent lack of rehearsal of attacking movement, is unforgivable.

Various forays were made to the edge of the opponents’ area, only for moves to break down due either to over-elaboration, hesitance, or a poor choice of final ball. Simply, it is unclear who is supposed to be scoring and how they are supposed to be doing it.

The line-up and formation yields no clues here. McBride was selected as a lone front man, with Bullard pushing far enough forward to be considered a secondary striker. Now, McBride possesses many notable qualities, but he cannot excel as a lone forward. Bullard, likewise, has ability to spare, but is not a striker of any stripe. How these two, then, were meant to combine into a potent stike force is an enigma.

Hodgson suggested recently, as most managers do, that their 4-5-1 formation is designed to adapt into a 4-3-3. However, expecting Dempsey and Kamara to combine with McBride to create some kind of spearhead when they were also being asked to play as (very) wide wingers is fanciful at best. This concept simply never materialised, and the crowd were left to witness McBride toiling away in painful isolation, unable to make an impact. The usual valiantly won flick-ons merely spun off into space for easy collection by the West Ham defence, Dempsey and Kamara distant spectators out on the flanks.

In the second half, the sole adjustment appeared to be the pushing of Andreason up alongside Bullard. The Dane toiled away, that cannot be denied, and he increasingly invokes the ghost of Sean Davis, but although he covered much ground, any impact was negated by the tactical anomalies in force. The availability of Nevland, Johnson, and even Kamara renders this approach all the more bewildering.

Frustration began to seep through the crowd as the manager appeared reluctant to tinker. When Eddie Johnson was brought on (too late for most spectators), this alleged striker was condemned to occupy the wide position of the player he replaced, Clint Dempsey. His chance of making an impact limited, a singular cameo comprised a vicious angled shot from 8 yards that rose from his boot and is rising still.

With Fulham living increasingly dangerously, West Ham eventually broke through with three minutes remaining. Despite Solano’s studs appearing to be up and in Niemi’s face, his goal was given - the final poisonous flourish of an abject performance from referee Webb. Andreasen persisted with his protests until he was dismissed.

With Nevland apparently not even considered until this point (he never made it on), Hodgson’s only other concession to attacking play was throwing Hangeland up front in the dying moments.

Relegation is now beginning to loiter around Stevenge Road like a vagrant that refuses to be moved on. Not only are the brutal and intransigent mathematical formulae beginning to stack up, but performances such as today’s fail to suggest that the resources exist to conjur anything meaningful from the scarce remaining fixtures.

Niemi 6, Konchesky 6, Hughes 6, Hangeland 6, Stalteri 6, Dempsey 6 (Johnson n/a), Murphy 5, Andreasen 6, Bullard 7, Kamara 5, McBride 6.

Substitutions: Johnson for Dempsey (75th minute).

Substitutes Not Used: Keller, Bocanegra, Smertin, Nevland.

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