Fulham’s knack of providing out-of-sorts strikers with the confidence they require continued at Craven Cottage on Saturday, as Gabriel Agbonlahor was handed two goals courtesy of the Whites’ centre-backs, Brede Hangeland and Chris Smalling.
For the first goal, both players combined. Hangeland, caught in no man’s land trying to leave the ball to his goalkeeper, decided not to make a decision and the ball went out for an Aston Villa throw in a dangerous position. From the throw, Stiliyan Petrov swung the ball in, and Smalling, taking Roy Hodgson’s advice to respect the opposition too literally, stepped aside to let Agbonlahor out-jump him to nod past Mark Schwarzer. The game was lost a few minutes later and this time Hangeland can take the full blame. Agbonlahor, known usually for his pace rather than his strength, swatted the Norwegian aside to create himself a good five yards of space – the rest was history. Such mistakes from the centre-backs are rare, however, and the real issue lies with the fact that Fulham were never going to get even one goal back with two more centre-backs playing on the right and left of defence. Having to replace both marauding full-backs with out-and-out defenders has nullified any attacking width and has put a stop to the team’s creating of chances.
Before January, the need for another striker was the prominent issue. However, with the faces of John Pantsil and Paul Konchesky not likely to be seen for another couple of months, combined with the incredible loss of form since the pair’s injuries, switched this emphasis to finding cover for both full-backs. Hodgson seems prepared to give Stephen Kelly the nod to replace Pantsil on the right (although he has been played out of position on the left in recent fixtures, to little effect), but the manager has apparently identified the need to cover Konchesky by bringing in Villa’s Nicky Shorey on loan. In a window where Fulham generally opt for loan deals over full transfers, the capture of Shorey, while it isn’t the ideal of bringing Konchesky back, represents a solid deal and a definite strengthening of the side. At the very least, Shorey will go beyond the half-way line when attacking and provide options for whomever Hodgson selects on the left wing. More importantly, a full-back who is competent going forward will provide vital width and take the pressure off Danny Murphy as the sole source of attack. Although Konchesky is prone to the odd lapse of concentration, the side is far stronger with him in it, and Shorey should at least compensate for his absence.
This has not stopped Hodgson pursuing his interest in Stefano Okaka and the loan deal was finally wrapped up yesterday morning. The details seem to give Fulham the opportunity of extending the deal for next season too, if, of course, Roma do not want him back instead. Okaka is a good prospect who sealed his move with a stunning back-heel effort for Roma at the weekend, but the deal appears to be far better for the Italians than Fulham. There are two ways the forward’s next few months can go. Either he sets the Premier League alight and fires Fulham to a comfortable top-half finish, or he doesn’t adapt quickly enough and ends up with few, if any, goals come May. If it is the former, Roma will snatch him back for their first team next season, and with the latter, the Whites send him back and that is the end of it. Whichever way it is, there is little chance of Okaka playing for Fulham next season.
Both have been signed in time for the visit of Portsmouth on Wednesday night, although knowing Hodgson the two will likely be blended into action slowly. Of course, things can hardly get worse than the current defensive situation, so this writer will be interested to see whether the manager puts his faith in the left-back from the off. Having lost a hot prospect in Smalling this window, the club has snapped up 17-year-old German wing-back Christopher Buchtmann for a nominal fee. Recognised as a strong European prospect, the German could be one to watch for the future, but his signing doesn’t represent an immediate improvement to the squad.
That concludes a somewhat unconvincing window in which several players left and not many came the other way. Time will tell if the squad’s issues have been fixed, but at least Hodgson didn’t panic. He can leave that up to the fans.