Two minutes into Sunday’s game at Villa Park, Dickson Etuhu and Aaron Hughes combine to win a corner – for Aston Villa. In it comes and the ball drifts over the Nigerian’s head for John Pantsil to nod past the goalkeeper – Mark Schwarzer. For anyone who missed the game – firstly, you are very lucky and secondly, you only need watch that minute of play to assess Fulham’s day at the office. Yes, Hughes had an awful game – not closing down Gabriel Agbonlahor for Villa’s second his other glaring error – but the real issue lies in the centre of the midfield. Who was missing? Danny Murphy. And how he was missed. He is the sort of player who can turn a game on its head with one pass of the football. This cannot be said about any other central midfielder currently at the club, and that is a cause for concern. In the absence of the captain, Jonathan Greening made his debut alongside Dickson Etuhu. Greening and Etuhu together is clearly not a pairing capable of feeding either the pace of Diomansy Kamara, or the finishing of Erik Nevland – who both started in place of injured first choice strikers Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson.
Etuhu is in the team as the holding midfielder. Murphy (when fit) is in the team as the creative midfielder. Their roles are crystal clear – their teammates know it and more importantly they know it. Greening, for all his effort, is more comfortable playing deep and spraying passes around the park. Etuhu is only comfortable playing deep alongside a more attack-minded player. On Sunday, neither player took charge of driving the play forward and, as such, the Villa defence had a more than comfortable afternoon’s work. In fact it was so easy for Villa that the only discomfort debutant 19-year-old defender Ciaran Clark had was taking a Nevland effort full in the face. The youngster should have been harassed by balls over the top and in behind but that was never likely to happen when the only kind of attack the Whites attempted was Greening’s hopeful punt from inside his own half. Okay, he made 71 successful passes in the game, but the vast majority of those were balls square to Etuhu or back to the defence. This writer assumed it was a well-known fact, that if the football is nowhere near your opponents’ penalty area, you will not score. This must be brand new information for the Fulham midfield, who happily played keep-ball around the centre-circle, apparently waiting for Murphy to jump off the treatment table and slide one through for the malnourished strike duo to devour.
Obviously, there are more telling statistics than completed passes. One is the score column, which read 2-0 after 90 minutes. Another is three games on the bounce without a goal scored. Very worrying signs, but when you see the losing side having 57% of the possession and not a single attempt on target, you have to sit up and take notice. Through the centre is, of course, not the only way to attack, but when you have the heart of the team – the central midfielders – playing as they did on Sunday, it cuts off the option of going wide as both wingers, Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff, had to cut-in to help their floundering teammates. Dempsey’s help, however, was limited in its effect. The American looked very tired from the midweek trip to Perm, which cannot bode well if Thursday fixtures are already causing the team to struggle. After all, Aston Villa played on Thursday too and they were far from at the races against the Cottagers. To lose so easily to a side far from at ease itself is another worry. What if Murphy is out for long periods this season, and what if Dempsey is often ineffectual because of fatigue? Then having a squad of like-for-like replacements is imperative. However, with the transfer window slamming shut later today, the likelihood of having to make do with only one naturally creative central midfielder is quite high indeed.
Considering that Roy Hodgson is refusing to blame the European schedule for the recent lethargy in his side, logic says he must, then, be spending today bringing in a creative midfielder and a striker who can fashion his own chances in case the midfield continue to forget which way to pass the ball. Whether he is, however, remains to be seen. Perhaps instead he is busy reading his name in the newspapers linked to the Great Britain manager’s job? On the upside, Fulham are serial slow starters and there is now an international break to reflect on their unconvincing week. Fulham’s season officially starts in two weeks’ time.
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