For everything that Roy Hodgson did perfectly while in charge of Fulham, scoring goals regularly and bringing breathtaking football to the banks of the Thames are not included. Yes, attractive passing was the philosophy but pace and flowing counter-attacks were very much unusual occurrences. Does Mark Hughes’ capture of Moussa Dembele from AZ Alkmaar suggest he wishes things to evolve in the attacking department?
Very much the modern-day footballer, Dembele’s abilities are very different to most of the Whites’ current squad. Where Hodgson always leaned towards bringing in the honest, hard-working if unspectacular player who would fit in with his ‘just another cog in the engine’ style. While effective (as shown by Hodgson’s consistent home performances) it did often leave Fulham fans without that sense of exhilaration that only rapid, skilful and dazzling football can provide. Not that many were complaining at the time, but with a new manager comes a new philosophy, and Hughes’ preliminary signing appears very much a statement of intent.
The closest player to Dembele currently at the club is Diomansy Kamara, who was signed by Hodgson’s predecessor, Lawrie Sanchez. Capable of moments of brilliance that can bring a stadium to its feet, it was his inconsistency that led Hodgson to largely overlook his Senegalese forward. With similar, yet different, skills to Kamara, Dembele is likely to begin to break into the first-team squad as Hughes begins to set his side up the way he wants.
Currently, the club’s 4-4-2 system means the wide midfielders – at this time Simon Davies and Damien Duff – are naturally deeper on the pitch than if they were wingers, which allows equal involvement with the defensive and attacking phases. Dembele, who is arguably far more attacking-minded than many present wide men, would perhaps not fit naturally into the existing system, as his suitability to attack rather than defence could well hinder the way wide midfielders link with the full-backs. Indeed, Hughes – and this is further emphasised by his looking to bring in Craig Bellamy – when he has the players at his disposal, likes to use genuine wingers who use their pace and power to get behind defences instead of the deeper-sitting player who gets his hands dirty. Of course one, perhaps unspectacular (until more is seen of him), signing does not create the need to re-jig an entire tactical system, it does signal at least some intent to improve the club’s scoring column.
The Belgian international has been unanimously one of the best performers in the Eredivisie over the last few seasons. Although he could fit in, as above, on the left of a narrow three-man attack, he has been recognised as an excellent No 10 in Holland – his superb vision meeting his wide range of passing to carve open defences. That said, the pace of the Premier League, and the fact such playmakers have far less time on the ball, means he is likely to be used predominantly as cover on the wing, but could eventually push Zoltan Gera for a slot in ‘the hole’. Unpredictable in attack, Dembele’s signing is exciting for Fulham fans as his spontaneity in forward areas may well have the same effect on the Cottagers’ offence, which has in recent years been unheard of.
Should the Belgian make his debut at the first opportunity, he will be dropped straight in at the deep end, as Manchester United visit Craven Cottage this Sunday. Recent history of this fixture makes great reading for home fans, with five goals scored and none conceded in the past two seasons. But the new regime and new season brings a very different challenge for the home side. However, if Hughes manages again to keep the defence on form as they were against Bolton Wanderers, then the opportunity for a point or even three is not unrealistic.
Regardless, each and every player selected will need to be at the top of his game if a home defeat at the first attempt is not to be the outcome of the match. They always tended to be when at home during the last regime, and Hughes has the chance to build on the solid foundations by adding a strong attacking unit to the often-impenetrable defence. This weekend is too early, of course, for much to change in the attacking department, but at least for the fans there is hope that change is afoot in the right areas.