BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
Our next Premier League season preview takes in Fulham, as a new era gets underway at Craven Cottage after Mohamed Al-Fayed sold the club to American billionaire Shahid Khan.
Comfortably mid-table, never in danger of getting relegated and unlikely to challenge for the European spots. Thus has been the story of Fulham Football Club the past four seasons. On their day with all their attacking players switched on, Fulham are capable of playing exquisite football resulting in exciting wins. They are also just as likely to go through the motions and lose at home to a team in the relegation zone. However, compared to where they were before Al-Fayed bought them, almost all Cottagers would take Premier League obscurity any day.
Shahid Khan’s takeover has overshadowed any transfer business in the pre-season, and maybe it’s a sign from the new owner to manager Martin Jol that money will only be invested after more consistency is added to the team’s performances. Pre-season saw a successful trip to Costa Rica, and some good run-outs against experienced European teams. Fulham should once again be too good for relegation, but it will be interesting to see if Jol can bring more consistency this season instead of just letting the team stagnate in lower mid-table.
On defence: Mark Schwarzer has joined Chelsea after years of stellar service as Fulham’s goalkeeper. The Australian’s experience will certainly be missed, though if a judgement was made on a purely technical basis, an argument could certainly made for Dutch international keeper Maarten Stekelenburg being an upgrade between the sticks. Jol will hope the signing of his compatriot brings the same success that came with Edwin Van der Sar’s arrival at Craven Cottage. David Stockdale remains a reliable back up and worthy understudy to Stekelenburg.
Captain Brede Hangeland is the rock on which Fulham’s defensive unit is built. The Norwegian has been one of the most underrated centre-backs in the league, and that Fulham have been able to hang on to him for so long speaks highly of Al-Fayed’s stewardship of the club. Hangeland is a complete defender in every sense of the word, equally comfortable defending through smart positioning or defending balls into the box, while also being a veritable goal scoring threat from set pieces. Aaron Hughes and Phillippe Senderos alternate partnering Hangeland, with the Ulsterman preferred when playing against physical forwards. Despite still being prone to the occasional gaffe, Senderos is effective against teams who rely on passing to breakdown defences. Venezuelan international Fernando Amorebiata has been bought in to add much-needed depth to the centre-back position. If the former Athletic Bilbao man adjusts to the demands of the Premier League quickly, he could easily be in the reckoning for a place in the starting line-up.
Sascha Riether was amongst Fulham’s best players last season, and making his loan move permanent was an important bit of business done by Jol this summer. The German was ever present in the team, solid at the back and very hard to beat in one-on-one situations. He also contributed positively to Fulham’s attacking play with well-timed forays further up the field to deliver good crosses and intricate passes. John Arne Riise props up the other flank, and while the Norwegian has lost some of his attacking verve recently, his experience is reliable at the back. Kieran Richardson can deputize at left-back when needed, and young Englishman Matthew Briggs will also be given opportunities to impress this season.
The midfield: Steve Sidwell has been contributing with goals consistently in pre-season, and the midfielder will have a key role to play for Fulham this season. Sidwell is tidy in possession, and links play well between midfield and Fulham’s attackers. Ghanian international Derek Boateng’s acquisition brings a much-needed defensive presence to the midfield. Boateng has been playing well in pre-season, even doubling up as a makeshift centre-back when needed.
Sidwell and Boateng form the base of midfield, but Jol needs an additional creative player to keep his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation ticking. Giorgos Karagounis is still going strong at the age of 36, but his style relies more on doggedness rather than flair, and Jol has to start trusting his younger midfielders more often, especially the talented Swede Alexander Kacaniklic who impressed last season and can only get better with experience.
This might also be the season when we finally see Kerim Frei and Pajtim Kasami come to the fore. The duo were brought in with much fanfare, and after failing to adapt to the physicality of the Premier League two seasons ago, they were loaned out last season to get experience under their belts. Frei and Kasami will have to contribute, especially if Fulham’s starting midfielders get injured or suspended. Both are capable of playing lovely cushioned passes and have trickery in abundance, and if Jol can improve their decision-making with the ball, it will further enhance Fulham’s creativity in attack.
On the attack: Without a doubt, Fulham’s most potent attacking threat is Dimitar Berbatov. The Bulgarian’s languid style combined with the ease in which he can create chances for himself and his teammates is simply breathtaking to watch. At times last season it was evident that Berbatov is of a clearly superior ilk to anyone else in attack, and when he is focused, he single-handedly elevates the team’s level of play.
Berbatov scored 15 goals last season, but unfortunately the next highest scorer chipped in with only five goals. Mladen Petric and Bryan Ruiz tied for that dubious record, and while the former has left the club, the latter remains. It is harsh to judge Ruiz simply by the goals he scores, as the Costa Rican serves a better purpose with his lovely turns into space and sublime short passes with the outside of his foot. Jol will count on Hugo Rodallega improving on a very poor first season at Craven Cottage. Rodallega’s pace and directness should ideally complement the more nuanced styles of Berbatov and Ruiz, and if the Colombian gets a few more goals, then Fulham will benefit by reducing their dependence on Berbatov.
At the age of 34, Damien Duff still provides consistent performances on the wing, though like other wingers north of 30, the Irishman can probably have a more decisive impact if he doesn’t have to start every match. Kieran Richardson is an option, but after plenty of seasons for different teams, the winger is still unproven, and cannot be relied upon to perform consistently against shrewd fullbacks.
The onus then falls on the Middle Eastern duo of Adel Taarabt and Ashkan Dejagah. The signing of Taarabt on loan from QPR is a real wildcard. Just as moody as Berbatov, this could be the Moroccan’s last opportunity to make a mark on the Premier League. If Taarabt plays to his potential consistently, then his interchanging with Berbatov will have Fulham fans salivating while opposing defenders have nightmares. Dejagah had a breakout season last time around, adept at playing in creative triangles and with a nice turn of pace to beat defenders. If the Iranian can contribute with some goals and further improve his final ball, then Jol can have the luxury of rotating his attacking options.
Conclusion: When selling the club to Shahid Khan, Mohamed Al-Fayed apparently included a clause forbidding the removal of the Michael Jackson statue outside Craven Cottage. The playing squad had no such clause, yet one of the oldest squads in the Premier League remains intact at Fulham.
There are whispers about Martin Jol being under scrutiny from the new owner. It’s highly unlikely that Khan bought the club only to witness beautiful football every other game. Jol will somehow have to cajole the best out of his mercurial players by inspiring them to get out of their comfort zone. When Fulham play well, Craven Cottage can challenge the best of them in terms of creating a wonderful atmosphere. Whether Fulham can improve on the solidity of lower-table will depend on the team replicating their home form on their travels. It wouldn’t surprise many if ultimately, Fulham’s season once again ends up being more of the same.