Suddenly 2010 doesn’t look quite so rosy. There is no need to panic, but Tuesday night’s frankly atrocious display at Stoke has raised several questions which must be addressed this month.
The squad – behind the first XI – is perhaps not as strong as performances in the Europa League have suggested. Very few injuries last season meant Roy Hodgson did not need to call upon his fringe players too often, but this term there have been numerous key injuries, with both Bobby Zamora and John Pantsil now long-term absentees. The former’s role is essential to the running of Hodgson’s tactic, as he wins headers, stretches defences and brings his teammates into play. The latter is one quarter of the consistently successful defence over the last season and a half. With both of these integral players unlikely to appear again until at least March, Hodgson’s interest in Stefano Okaka and Roman Pavlyuchenko must be acted on, and he must now also look at a temporary right-back. There is quality cover at centre-back and plenty in the defensive midfield slot, but the options to replace Pantsil and Zamora – Stephen Kelly, who had a torrid time against Stoke, and Clint Dempsey, who is more effective out wide – do not fill the Whites faithful with confidence.
Zamora’s injury deprives the manager of his preferred forward pair for even longer, but it could possibly work as an advantage for the Cottagers. While Zamora and Johnson is Hodgson’s first-choice partnership, the absence of the latter has seemingly helped Zamora improve. Perhaps, then, Zamora’s spell on the sidelines – which is due to a collarbone injury, just as Johnson’s was – will allow his teammate to shine. Fulham fans will certainly be hoping that is the case or it is difficult to see where goals will come from – Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff can’t be expected to score in every game from the wings, as they did at Stoke. The fact Dempsey will most likely be used to replace Zamora, until a more fitting target man arrives, means Johnson’s form is essential for games in which Danny Murphy’s influence is stifled, just as it was at the Britannia.
The Potters were tactically perfect against Fulham’s playmaker and, just as Wolves did at Molineux, harassed him for 90 minutes which gave him none of the time he needs to thread a needle. The rare sight of Murphy misplacing numerous passes was entirely down to the Potters’ combative midfield, and the worry is the same might happen should Portsmouth (if Saturday’s game goes ahead) and the other teams involved in the scrap just below Fulham become wise to how to target the former England international. Fortunately, such pressing only seems to happen when the Whites are away from home, so Murphy’s influence is still often telling at Craven Cottage. That said, it might be worth having a second option – either another creative midfielder to ease the Liverpudlian’s burden, or an extra body in midfield to help the battle – in cases such as Tuesday night where Fulham’s game plan is found out, if the Whites are to stop this winless away run. There is nothing wrong with the form at home, but this writer believes the away tactics need to be addressed if Fulham are to challenge for seventh again.
With two more away league fixtures still to play this month, the performance at Chelsea will be the one to replicate, yet more will be learned from last Tuesday’s defeat. A similar game faces Fulham on the 17th, the trip to Blackburn representing an opportunity to improve drastically or else be on the receiving end of another battering. However, sandwiched between this tricky run of away fixtures is a return to the Cottage to face Portsmouth – weather permitting. Dempsey will replace Zamora in probably the only change to the line-up and the Whites will be expected to compound more misery on the south-coast outfit to reach the carrot that is 30 Premier League points. The questions over away performances can be forgotten for a weekend, but those over the squad and first-team replacements will remain. Of course, a clean sheet and a goal or two for Johnson on Saturday could re-tint the glasses of some Whites followers and make 2010 rosy once again.