The international break. A time when club managers pick up the phone to shout at their global counterparts for injuring their prized assets. This is not something Roy Hodgson needed to do much last season – his first XI remained largely untouched the entire campaign. This year, however, even before players started touring the globe, the Fulham manager has needed to rotate his team and turn to the dreaded b word – the bench. Injuries to key players has caused many teams to struggle in the past, and with Fulham being such a well-oiled machine, a missing cog could be even more damaging – especially considering the success of 2008/09.
Ipswich had a similar achievement in 2000/01. The Tractor Boys barely missed out on qualification to the Champions League, coming fifth after their promotion to the top flight before going down the very next year. Reading came eighth in their debut Premier League season, and then got relegated 12 months later. Obviously, last season’s seventh placed finish did not directly follow promotion, but it brings up demons of Hodgson’s last campaign in the English top flight. When manager of Blackburn, Hodgson guided the club into Europe in 1997/98 with an equally hard-to-beat side as the Whites have now. At Christmas the very next season, with Rovers struggling in the league, he was sent packing – albeit by the mutual termination. Of course, it is far too early to say Fulham – and Hodgson – are going the same way as 10 years ago, but there are warning signs that must be nipped in the bud by the manager.
Back then, Hodgson’s stubbornness when asked to resign got him the sack. Now, despite being very often right, he must prove that when he is wrong he does not allow that same stubbornness to get in the way of the glaringly obvious. One way would be to drop players who are out of form. Zoltan Gera is undeniably talented – and he may well impress on the training ground – but everyone can see he needs a swift kick up the proverbial to reach the standards he set at West Brom. It is human nature that if you are guaranteed something without having to work for it you will not give 100%. Perhaps Gera would give more, then, if his proverbial was firmly placed on the bench, alongside the Leon Andreasen-shaped hole that is now a part of the Craven Cottage furniture.
Football teams have squads for this very reason, and not all players in it are happy keeping the (now extremely hot) bench warm. Bjorn Helge Riise recently endeared himself to his teammates by taking a swipe at fellow new signing Damien Duff – who he believes is in front of him on name alone, telling Sky Sports : “I don’t think they’ve done all that good, but they have a good reputation and come from bigger clubs than me. He is not that much faster than I am, and I have a better technique, a better touch and deliver better passes than he does. And I can be used in different roles.” Fans might well be pleased to see some grit coming from a squad which has been worryingly short on such a trait in recent games.
It might be worth trying the Norwegian from the bench in matches where technique, touch and passing matter (i.e. every game of Premier League football) and give Gera a chance to show his claws. Although Hodgson – and this is another area in need of improvement – is often reluctant to bring players off the bench early. Even less successful managers gain points each season by turning to their substitutes. Phil Brown’s replacement players often combine to score vital goals – none more so than last season’s game at the Cottage, where Richard Garcia set up Manucho to help keep the Tigers in the Premier League. Even when his early substitutions have proved a success (remember Manchester City 2007/08? – Diomansy Kamara came on in the 64th minute), it is used as a last resort rather than a tactic in his portfolio. Instead, a result is often inevitable long before 90 minutes is up as players come off the bench with 10 or 15 minutes to overturn a two-goal deficit. Plan A – well-oiled machine. Plan B – anyone’s guess.
Three points from nine, however, is hardly a cause for concern, and a trip to Villa Park and a home tie with Chelsea were not at the top of most fans’ ‘three pointer’ lists. Speaking of the other team in west London, as they continue to find themselves in trouble over the poaching of young talent, lessons can be learned from the Whites, who financially donated to Chris Smalling’s – and indeed Hodgson’s – old club Maidstone. Hodgson may have his faults, but a gentleman of the game he remains.
Fulham Club Focus
Long season ahead – July 29
Confirmed: Zamora’s foot does fit in his mouth – August 5
Fulham needs Brede to survive – August 12
How do Fulham push on? – August 18
Roy Hodgson raids the Post Office queue – August 21
Lethargic Cottagers slump to derby defeat – August 25
Makeshift Cottagers shuffle into Europa League – August 28
No ammunition from midfield as Cottagers continue to fire blanks – September 1
Window shut firmly for Fulham – September 4
Hodgson must adapt to rid closet of skeletons – September 8