There aren’t many better opportunities left this season for Fulham to pick up that yet-again overdue away win than Sunday’s trip to Ewood Park.
The signs looked promising on day one, as the Whites picked up three away points which would usually not arrive until the spring. Since then, however, Roy Hodgson’s men have struggled on their travels.
Nor is there a Premier League ground of all 19 that would provide a more satisfying victory for Hodgson than his old club. His opposite number, Sam Allardyce, is under similar pressure that Hodgson was slightly over 11 years ago. It was a home defeat to a side from the south that put the final nail in Hodgson’s Blackburn coffin in December 1998, and the Londoner could hammer the first into Big Sam’s this Sunday. Despite always insisting he bears no grudges towards the Lancashire club, a victory is bound to feel good, and with Rovers having played in the Carling Cup last night, it is more than possible, too.
With no Bobby Zamora to attempt to bully the Blackburn defence, Hodgson must think about his tactical approach to this game. With Clint Dempsey the most likely to replace Zamora in attack, there is a danger that with two up top – the other almost certainly will be Andy Johnson – a Fulham player that will look lightweight and be prone to intimidation from a physical Allardyce side. The best way, in this writer’s opinion, to combat the effectiveness of powerful opposition is to drop one of the front men to the bench and replace him with another ball-winning midfielder thus giving the wingers more freedom to attack. In the Whites’ case, Kagiso Dikgacoi is looking for a starting position in order to be selected for the South African World Cup squad, so including him in front of the back four to throw his weight around and allow space for those ahead of him could be effective against Rovers.
Just as at Craven Cottage, on their travels Fulham like to get the ball down and play it, and there is no reason an extra combative midfielder would disrupt this, but there must be a tougher base in certain fixtures. If anything – and if recent away matches are any indication – it would allow the likes of Danny Murphy and Damien Duff more time on the ball as the dirty work will be done by another player, leaving them to concentrate on through-balls and crosses to the front man. Even with the brawn of Zamora, Fulham are often outmuscled and harassed on the pitch in away games – the most recent game at Stoke being a perfect example. So with the same set up as prior matches on the road, it is likely to end with the same result. Against Stoke, Murphy’s threat was nullified by the home side’s high-tempo, pressing game, and Blackburn are likely to employ similar tactics, so why not try to beat them at their own game? After all, a non-hassled Murphy should be the difference in such an encounter, so it is surely worth sacrificing one forward if Fulham are to see the best of their captain.
Of course, without Zamora – and with the Stefano Okaka deal still in limbo – there is not another natural choice to play alone up front. Certainly Johnson does not have the strength, Erik Nevland – despite having played that role for a few games at the start of Hodgson’s tenure – is a far better player when linking up with another forward, and David Elm, well, supposedly he is a target man but he will not be in reckoning. It would leave Clint Dempsey to lead the line, and even he is likely to be swallowed up by the mighty Rovers defence. Away from the Cottage Fulham are not afforded the same time on the ball, so they must learn the art of winning ugly against the ugly sides – if that is what it takes – and not being oppressed by powerful sides is the start of that. When sides don’t allow for attractive football against them, another option must exist, and that option should be extra support in the midfield.
The fact remains – something must change if the Whites are to pick up only a second league away win. Blackburn will be tired and there is not a better time to grab a travelling victory, so why not fight fire with fire and battle Blackburn off the park?