Fulham season review - Difficult start ends just short of record points tally
FA Cup: 4th round
League Cup: 3rd round
Europa League: Group stage
Another new manager, another new philosophy. This was the story of the first half of the season as Martin Jol’s side - the man who Chairman Mohamed Al Fayed “wanted all along” - struggled for consistency until the New Year. While never truly in the heart of a relegation scrap, Fulham seemed unable to put two decent halves together, which culminated in a surprising early Europa League exit, having been 2-0 to the good against Odense.
Indeed, slow starts and strong finishes are becoming a common occurrence for the Whites, but the sudden inconsistency at home and shaky defence hadn’t been seen since the days of Lawrie Sanchez. However, even with the frustrating first half of the season there were enough glimmers seen of the new, exciting, attacking Fulham that was to hit top-six form for most of the second part of the season, in particular a 6-0 routing of local rivals QPR.
Jol’s influence in the transfer market, and indeed Al Fayed’s willingness to back his new manager, was seen in his first window as Fulham boss when he brought in Bryan Ruiz from FC Twente for an eyebrow-raising £10.6m. However, only flashes of the Costa Rican’s magic was seen with goals against Everton and Bolton, as he struggled to adapt before getting injured, and so it was to be Jol’s business in January that would truly stamp his mark on Fulham.
Reports of unrest in the squad, mainly around Bobby Zamora, were appearing thick and fast around Christmas and the New Year and Jol’s dealing with this situation would end up transforming the Whites from frustrating underperformers into a real threat for any defence in the league. Zamora was shipped out on deadline day for around £4m, his performances to that point had never hit the heady heights of the previous two seasons, during which he became a regular England squad member. On the same day, coming in the other direction, Russian international Pavel Pogrebnyak joined until the end of the season. There were doubts, but these were erased early on as the commentator’s worst nightmare hit five in his first three games, which started Fulham’s propulsion up the table.
With the window closed, there was still time for Jol to pull a rabbit out of the hat. At the end of February, former £22m Real Madrid midfielder Mahamadou Diarra joined on a free, having been without a club after leaving Monaco the previous summer. He quickly proved his fitness and became a vital part of the purring three-man central midfield engine with Danny Murphy and the recently repositioned Moussa Dembélé.
Giving the Belgian star a role in the centre was to be the tactical decision of the Whites’ season. Dembélé quickly became the attacking point of the midfield, allowing Murphy more space and pressing Fulham into dangerous attacking positions with his almost unrivalled skill on the ball, and linking well with Clint Dempsey who himself bagged a phenomenal 17 goals.
Early exits in Europe and the FA Cup were disappointing for fans, however these were part of the early-season struggle, and few will be able to complain about the season as a whole. This will be arguably Fulham’s biggest summer since arriving in the Premier League, with Dempsey and Dembélé strongly linked with moves away. Should Jol keep them both, then a Newcastle-style season is a distinct possibility for 2012-13.
Manager - Martin Jol: Arriving in the summer, Jol quickly tried to bring his own style of Total Football to Craven Cottage. However with players used to 4-4-2, it turned out to be a much slower process. However after a strong winter transfer window, this Fulham is very much the Dutchman’s team.
Player of the season - Clint Dempsey: Just as he did last season, Clint Dempsey proved how vital he was to Fulham by finishing fourth in the Premier League goal rankings with 17 strikes. His contribution cannot be understated; the American’s 17 strikes and six assists mean he was involved in an astonishing 48% of the Whites’ overall goals.
Turning point - Zamora leaving in January: The departure of a key player from the previous system, who was largely the sole outlet, allowed Fulham to play with more freedom and less reliance on the big man up front. Goals can now be created from any angle and while another striker is needed, Zamora’s leaving had the opposite effect as many expected.