Mark Hughes has stated, in the wake of Fulham’s respectable draw at Ewood Park, that his side is no longer a soft touch on the road. It is true they are unbeaten from three difficult away trips, but the flip side to that argument is that not one of those matches ended with three points to the Whites.
But, the differences in the way Hughes sets his team up to play away from home and the way Roy Hodgson used to are vast. Vast enough that it would be hugely surprising if Fulham ended the season without at least a few wins on the road. An away win must usually go down as a bonus point, particularly for the clubs expected to finish between seventh and mid-table, as Fulham are. Yet Hughes sets his team up in a way that, should the game end in a draw, then they have had to settle for that point, whereas Hodgson’s aim was to play for the share of the spoils. This new strategy has led to the new Fulham usually being the side pressing for the win as away games head to a conclusion, rather than hanging on for the 0-0 as Whites fans have become accustomed to in recent years.
Not that there is anything wrong, as such, with playing for the point, it just means an away win becomes a very rare occurrence. Indeed it is a riskier approach to take the game to the home team as Hughes has shown he likes to do, as there will be times where a point will be lost in attempts to take more from a match. But going out to win fixtures such as the weekend’s tie with Blackburn means, on many occasions, three points will be taken instead of one, which is worth the gamble, considering a defeat in the face of a draw is just the one dropped point. At the end of the season, the handful of games that were turned into three points will be more telling than those where the result was a narrow defeat. Recent performances suggest Fulham’s away games could easily go either way, and that a first win on the road in more than a year appears not far off – which could not be said during Hodgson’s tenure.
Tonight’s Carling Cup fixture with Stoke, then, brings an interesting dilemma for Hughes. Does he give his full first-team another shot at one of the trickiest possible away days, in order to provide them with more practice in the new, attack-minded away philosophy, or does he take this competition – as so many top-flight managers do – as an opportunity to rest his first-string and give experience to those waiting in the wings? There is little to go on, but the early suggestions – and evidence such as his strong selection in the last round against Port Vale – are that the Welshman intends to take seriously the chance to win silverware with Fulham. That, and the fact this competition has in the past been an easy route into European competition means that the likelihood is Fulham’s line-up tonight will be a strong one. One or two players – such as Moussa Dembele, who took a battering from Vince Grella at the weekend – could have the night off, but Hughes will want to win the game, and so will put out a side he believes can do just that.
Facing a Sam Allardyce wrestling XI – complete with illegal challenges on the goalkeeper – happens to make for good preparation for a visit to the Britannia Stadium. On the whole the Whites dealt well with a 90-minute aerial bombardment from all angles, and can expect another 90 of similar threat. Tony Pulis is expected to be without a couple of his more creative players – who have brought a different approach to Stoke’s attack so far this season – which means should Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes be able to deal with the threat of the Potters’ big men, the attacking contingent could well cause a somewhat lethargic defence some problems.
Hughes will pick the team he believes can go out and win tonight, which could well be a similar side to the one he picked at the weekend. Of course whoever is picked and whatever the result, the Stoke test is an excellent one for the Welshman to see just how close his side are to nailing his tactics away from home.