In footballing terms, the loosening of reins from an attacking point of view can often cause damage defensively. If a player is allowed more freedom over his movement on the pitch, this tends to upset the balance at the back. After two league games this season, this appears to be the instruction new Fulham manager Mark Hughes has given Dickson Etuhu.
For many, Etuhu is one of the last players who might be expected to assist more going forward. Since joining in 2008, the Nigerian has been exclusively used as a wall to protect the back four. And looking at him and his abilities, there is a reason for him being given that role. Walls are, by definition, solid, and so is Etuhu. What’s more, he is strong in the tackle and his stride means he can cover an awful lot of the pitch throughout a match. But, as Hughes has realised, covering the pitch does not have to be limited to solely its width, and Etuhu has been recognised by the manager as being able to do damage lengthways too. It is one of the interesting, subtle tweaks Hughes has made to the Roy Hodgson set up – and it could well reap rewards.
The downside, as mentioned, is that it could lead to Etuhu being caught up field, meaning more pressure on the defence and inevitably more goals conceded. However, if the ex-Sunderland man can weigh in with his fair share of goals and assists – especially away from home – then the minor loss of defensive stability could well be worth it. After all, the back four, for now at least, is still the same group of players as Hodgson gelled together. The Manchester United game proved that they are still an effective unit – there was little any of them could have done about either of United’s goals on Sunday, and there were many examples of astute defending from each. The defensive line, far higher as it now is, essentially means there is no longer a gap for Etuhu to fill, and if Sunday’s performance is anything to go by he does appear to be relishing his new-found freedom.
The 28-year-old should really have had a goal for his troubles at the weekend. A run towards the end of the first-half was timed to perfection, and after being played through excellently by Clint Dempsey, forced Edwin van der Sar into two very good saves. That opportunity in itself went some way to justifying Hughes’ faith in his big midfielder – the extra body going forward was enough to trouble the United defence – and it was a chance that would not have been created had Etuhu been asked to hold his position. However, it did take most of the first-half to begin to have an effect. At first, United’s midfield were dominating possession, and it was not until Damien Duff and particularly Simon Davies came inside slightly that Etuhu was able to break free and have his say on the game. Danny Murphy, too, took a while to come into the game, and his years combined with Etuhu’s box-to-box role meant his tactical set-up needed also to change.
The captain, for at least the first 20 minutes, was wasteful in possession without the guarantee his bodyguard would be on his shoulder throughout the 90 minutes. But he, just as the Nigerian did, grew into his role, dropping slightly deeper with the comfort of his wide midfielders having come inside, and began to dictate the game. Indeed the second-half was all Murphy, Etuhu and Davies linking with the front-man, Bobby Zamora, each man playing far more assured football and in turn creating many problems for the Red Devils defence.
Although a very capable enforcer, Etuhu has in the past been used as a box-to-box midfielder, his ability to hound the opposition could be equally useful on defenders as it has been on attackers. Last season and the one before that, Etuhu’s role was absolutely transparent – win the ball and lay it sideways to a more creative teammate. That worked as Fulham consistently had one of the meanest defences in the league, but so too could his liberation from Hodgson’s handcuffs.
Perhaps Fulham will concede a few more goals this year, which remains to be seen, but even if they win just a handful more games away from home with the freedom to attack Hughes has instilled, then Etuhu’s role reversal will be worth it indeed.