With the announcement Bobby Zamora’s injury is to keep him out until February at the earliest, the Blackburn Rovers game this Saturday takes on a lot of significance. Not only does Mark Hughes return to one of his former clubs, but he will also need to quickly establish his new approach to the season without Zamora, around whom much of Fulham’s attacking play revolved.
In recent interviews, the Welshman pinpointed Moussa Dembele as the man who must take on much of the attacking burden. A different type of forward, certainly, and despite his extremely impressive start to his Premier League career it would be unfair to expect the Belgian to perform the role Zamora manages so effortlessly. The 23-year-old’s game is about direct, skilful running and frightening the opposition defence. While Zamora too terrifies his opponents, the Englishman is a more recognised outlet for bringing his teammates into play. It is a shame for the Fulham faithful that the blossoming Zamora-Dembele partnership – with the Belgian roaming around the forward areas – has been stopped before it could get going, but there is enough remaining in the Whites’ squad to suggest a reshuffle could continue the momentum so far achieved.
Although Dembele cannot be expected to be the target-man, holding up play and out-muscling defences as Zamora does, with a slight change of tack and playing the ball into the Belgian’s feet, the focus could change without losing much of its effectiveness. While Dembele is the exact sort of player a manager could want playing off the big English centre-forward, he has fortunately struck up a decent understanding on the pitch with Clint Dempsey, and the victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend was testament to that. Dempsey himself has been used by previous managers as an emergency centre-forward, particularly to cover Zamora’s injuries, but he has not been effective enough to warrant replacing the big man for most of the season, which is the current requirement. Instead, a fluid front pairing of the American and Dembele could be tested, and might well be successful.
Both players have excellent footballing brains. The understanding Dempsey had with Erik Nevland – who was another very clever footballer – underlines his intelligence on the pitch. Dembele, although still early days, has already shown he can find and use space to benefit the team, and knows when to take on a man. With Dempsey picking the ball up from deep and Dembele working the channels to stretch defences, a promising partnership could well develop. Of course, with neither man a recognised out-and-out forward, such a tactic could well prove to be a risk, especially considering they are arguably not known for their physical prowess – certainly not as Zamora is. Only Hughes knows what he has in mind, but the Blackburn game will tell him a lot about the physical capabilities of whichever player or players he selects to lead the line.
Some good news from an injury perspective is Andy Johnson is reported to be only a month away from a return to first-team action. The striker has had a terrible last 12 months since being borderline-assaulted last August against Amkar Perm. He returned early from the collarbone break from that incident, which caused further injury complications. Ironically it was the loss of Johnson that forced Zamora to step up his game, and everyone knows that result. With few recognised strikers in the squad, the return of Johnson will be a welcome boost for Hughes, and although a polar opposite striker to Zamora, he will almost certainly help the team going forward with still plenty of doubters to win over.
A huge physical test awaits Hughes’ men at the weekend, especially without Zamora, and with the combined problems of Fulham’s ever-poor away form and Blackburn’s excellent home record not many will be predicting an away win. But this team have showed plenty in their two away games so far to suggest a win on the road is forthcoming. As long as those who are physical presences, such as Brede Hangeland and Dickson Etuhu, do not let Sam Allardyce’s men get away with any bullying, then there is no reason why the away-day wins account could not be opened on Saturday.
The biggest question mark is, as mentioned, what strategy is now best up front, but if Hughes gets the right answer – and soon – then the loss of star-man Zamora need not alter the season as much as it potentially might. Even a point would show that this Fulham side is up for the challenge.