Thursday, 9 October 2008

Hawthorns In My Side

Humans crave certainty. We don’t like doubt and ambiguity. Not in important matters anyhow. And it’s a prevailing paradox that even football supporters, acolytes of a game ignited from within by it’s very unpredictability, are desperate to know how a season will play out, even in it’s preliminary stages.

It’s the natural tendency of the brain to organise, to categorise, to make sense of incongruent elements. To join the dots into what we believe is a cogent shape.

Fulham fans have been waiting for a sign; they’ve been searching for a pattern. Collectively, we strive to glean sufficient evidence to formulate a prospective fate for the season. This despite there being more than 30 games to be played, together with the vagaries of the transfer market, inconvenient injuries, and who knows what other whims to be visited upon a club that at times appears to be defined by such caprices.

Even after a few games we are eager to extrapolate form across a whole season, to second-guess the remaining games, and to predict our eventual standing. Do we top up our half-full or half-empty glasses, or tip the lot away and hunker down in preparation for long agonising slide into the division below?

Prior to last Saturday’s visit to West Bromwich Albion, forecasting was folly. How to assess the worth of a team that had yielded such disparate results?

A tenacious, stubborn victory against Arsenal, for so long a team for whom Fulham appeared to have been tailor-made, together with an elegant dismantling of Bolton that almost dissipated at the end. A lame surrender against a Hull team that merely dared to believe that they could win, and all-too-familiar scenes of self-destruction against a mediocre West Ham side.

Of course, such divergent swings have constituted a pattern of their own in previous seasons, the only constant being insipid away displays.

Emergent themes have already been proffered: the conceding of late goals; Hodgson’s tactical intransigence; defensive infirmity; and the Murphy/Bullard curate’s egg.

It was intrigues such as these that lured the White Lines charabanc out of London and up towards Birmingham. Pencil poised, lead licked and pointing pitch-wards, I committed the perennial error of allowing myself to feel optimistic before a Fulham game. We were going to win.

The whistle blows. Fulham pass the ball well now. The players are comfortable with the notion, they perform it almost automatically and, for the most part, successfully, even when angles are tight and space is limited.

Dempsey appears keen and, unable to breach the defence, fires off a few speculative 20-yarders. His threat, however, is nullified by opposition changes in the second-half that are not countered. Zamora is thwarted as he tries to turn on the edge of the box a few times. Gera shrugs off his cloak of invisibility to spurn a fine chance, before suffering some kind of Prodigal Son paralysis.

Micro-patterns emerge: build-up is generally patient (i.e. slow); desire for the perfect pass is inhibiting play and reducing openings; first-time crosses are a rarity - actual crosses are over-hit.

It’s a delight to see this team passing so well and with such ease, especially after the steady erosion of this aspect post-Tigana. Consequently one is hesitant to criticise, but at times it can resemble artistry for it’s own sake. There is little urgency, and forward motion is tentative. In fact, it can become somewhat soporific and, like gazing into a fish-tank, one sometimes finds oneself almost hypnotised by the graceful movements being described on the pitch below. Indeed, the players often appear to lull themselves into an almost obsessive-compulsive pattern, taking reassurance from the repetition. A comfort blanket of possession.

Individual players then appear frightened of breaking the spell, of being the weak link in the chain. No-one wants to play the probing ball that might surrender possession. When there is always a backwards or sideways outlet (usually Mr. Bullard on one of the full-back’s shoulders calling for the ball) it can absolve a player from making an offensive-minded decision.

Could it be that without a defensive midfielder we lack confidence in our ability to regain lost possession? Murphy fails to get recognition for his defensive efforts, but they are inconsistent and it’s not in his nature, while Bullard (perhaps understandably) appears happy to never engage in a tackle again. Ball-winning is thus rendered a weakness at present, and certainly dilutes the argument for the Murphy/Bullard partnership.

At the Hawthorns, this hesitance manifested itself most notably in the wide areas. Repeatedly we saw players unwilling to take a player on or deliver an early cross. Instead they check back, and return the ball to the increasingly-crowded central area. Here the recipient, usually Murphy, is then confronted with a forest of players in front of the 18-yard box, the opposition having had ample time to regroup.

Such sights recall the latter days of Tigana’s reign: exquisite passing undermined by an unhurried build-up; time granted to the opposition to re-assemble in their box and nullify all attempts at penetration; Fulham players increasingly static as the ball is passed back and forth 20 yards out.

Just as it can appear churlish to bemoan fluent passing or abundance of possession, so it may be regarded by some as sacrilege to question Jimmy Bullard. It’s his role that I query, though, for Fulham’s current squad can surely not be at a level yet where someone of his ability and drive could be jettisoned as surplus to requirements? Deployed correctly, he is critical.

Bullard enjoys a lot of possession and this always suggests a significant contribution is being made. But is it aimless industry? Much of his work on Saturday comprised fetching and carrying. Does he really need to collect the ball from Hangeland’s feet, ping it over to Konchesky, only to chase after it and demand it back again? Is he no more than a drone, a footballing drudge?

Against Arsenal he appeared to play a much more restricted game positionally, and the team appeared more robust, as they had to be. This team is talented enough to dance through many of it’s rivals, but I fear that Bullard’s insatiable roaming is dulling his creative edge, and diluting his impact.

This is a quandary for Hodgson to reckon with and hopefully resolve. He has questioned Bullard’s discipline before, and one wonders if this remains an issue between them.

Of course, it is to Hodgson that the questioning eyes ultimately return when results are amiss.

Without doubt, his measured manner and equanimity through good times and bad was a critical factor towards the end of last season. His refusal to over-react neither to lumpen defeat, nor thrilling comeback, enabled a calm self-belief to flourish. Such virtues, however, cannot co-exist with a swashbuckling, devil-may-care approach. They are not compatible. Hodgson is, in this respect, the anti-Mourinho. He maintains a stubborn faith that the right choice has been made and that the players and the tactics will come good. Given time.

Over the course of the season his creed may prevail. But supporters regularly stalked by relegation grow twitchy, and understandably seek short-term assurance. And so, as patterns begin to impose themselves, foreboding grows.


chopper said...

Excellent stuff SM15 - Welcome back.

Anonymous said...

Well done! A "nail on the head" on they say..

rjbiii said...

Wow! By far the best thing I've read about Fulham this season. Spot-on from top to bottom about all of the issues. Why don't the newspapers have writing and analysis like this?