Some things are just too easy to predict. Jimmy Bullard was always going to score the opener, Fulham were never going to break the away-day curse – even against a side that prior to Saturday had not kept a clean sheet all season – and as much as most Whites fans wanted to see the fringe players given a chance, they were never likely to grab it against a battling-for-their-lives Hull City.
But despite the result being far from unexpected, the manner of the defeat leaves a bitter taste, and the need for far stronger back-up players is evident. Every man who replaced a regular starter on Saturday, ignoring Nicky Shorey at right-back and Clint Dempsey at centre-forward – as they were brought in to play out of position – did nothing to warrant any consideration for future selection and, in fact, only reaffirmed exactly why they are seen as squad players as opposed to the named XI. The reality is that the three who came in to play in their strongest positions – Chris Smalling for Aaron Hughes, Kagisho Dikgacoi for Dickson Etuhu and Bjorn Helge Riise for Damien Duff – were the three worst players on the pitch – Jonathan Greening, had he started, would probably be included too. Unless the replacements for first-team players can fit into the system without too much disruption the whole team will suffer, and Saturday’s miserable trip to Hull caused a whole lot of anguish.
Several times this season the weekend’s aforementioned villains have done an excellent job of replacing those above them in the pecking order, but Saturday’s fixture showed how lack of match sharpness can be a real hindrance. Smalling has had to cover for injuries to Brede Hangeland a handful of times this term and, despite looking a little iffy early on, he has shown more than glimpses of why Manchester United were willing to take such a gamble on him. However, playing alongside the Norwegian against Hull the young centre-back seemed a bag of nerves. He was second to most balls against both Craig Fagan and Jozy Altidore and demonstrated his true age by bringing down the latter for a penalty having let the forward get goal-side. While Riise is not as young as Smalling, he too is inexperienced in such a strong league, and this stood out – only two times did he force his way into a decent crossing position, but on both occasions he prodded the ball out of play for a goal-kick. In the middle, both Dikgacoi and his substitute, Greening, failed impressively to spark any attacking football and reminded all involved with the Whites just how important the captain, Danny Murphy, is.
At least the weekend’s result does provide a couple of more positive points. Firstly, it gives Roy Hodgson, and everyone, a clearer idea of exactly where the squad needs to be improved – or purged in some cases – if Fulham are to continue making the progress they have recently. Although he has shown flashes of crossing ability and pace in the Europa League, Riise demonstrated his ineffectiveness as a starter against Hull and Hodgson certainly took notice – hauling the Norwegian off just after half-time, long before the manager’s substitutions usually happen (around 70 minutes). Flashes of quality, particularly in a competition that Fulham could well not be in next season, is not nearly good enough, and Hodgson has an army of players who can play on the wing. So while the wings need sluicing rather than strengthening, the same cannot be said for the middle of both the defence and midfield.
Smalling is off soon, which leaves Chris Baird as the only real cover for both Hangeland and Hughes, and Saturday made clear the need for at least one player who can replace either starter without disrupting the understanding between the defence. Easier said than done, but more centre-backs are vital as wrapping up the current partnership in cotton wool is unfortunately not an option. Similarly, there is no creative midfielder to step in for Murphy, whose ageing legs cannot be expected to last a full season without missing any games. Greening is on loan and has not done enough to warrant a permanent deal, so an effective replacement for the captain must be a priority in the summer. In fact, a centre-back and centre-midfielder should already be lined up, or else the gaping hole left by the absences of Hughes, Hangeland or Murphy will provide more free points for relegation-battlers such as Hull.
The second positive? That the majority of the strongest XI have been rested and will be match-fit for Thursday’s visit of Wolsburg in the quarter-finals of the Europa League – that is more like it.