Fulham Club Focus – Slow start, but positive signs

Fulham’s opening-day 0-0 draw with Aston Villa will likely go down as one of the most forgettable games of the season, but it was a good opportunity for those who have been unable to follow the Europa League qualifiers to see any tweaks Martin Jol may have made to the team and tactics.

Of the Whites’ starting XI, there was just one new face from last season – John Arne Riise – who was arguably the best performer on the day. His performance, marauding up and down the left flank, looking to cross at any opportunity, gave some insight into Jol’s tactical ambitions for the season. A keen attacking philosopher, Jol enjoys using width, and overlapping full-backs, to add another dimension to his forward play. Riise certainly fits this bill, and was even guilty of spurning arguably the best chance of the game early on, which would have capped a truly memorable league debut.

Having such a mean defence – the joint-fifth tightest from the 2010/11 season – is an excellent base from which to launch a more attacking approach. Even so, his selection at the other full-back spot, where Aaron Hughes was moved to the right and replaced by Philippe Senderos, seems odd, especially considering Hughes is not known for playing as a wing-back, as Riise is. It is possible Jol wants to sign a new player for that right-back slot, however breaking up the excellent partnership between Hughes and Brede Hangeland is a very bold move indeed.

Indeed Senderos did look somewhat shaky in the first-half, and was guilty of allowing Emile Heskey to drift behind him for an excellent chance, as well as misplacing several passes in the opening exchanges. After that, however, he and his defensive teammates restricted the Aston Villa attack to only very few half-chances, even if the attack did not create a huge amount themselves.

Even so, if not for an excellent Shay Given debut, Fulham could well have escaped with all three points. Bobby Zamora was foiled twice from close range either side of half-time, and in the second half it was Fulham doing all the pressing. Jol has stated several times he intends to bring in new players, particularly in attack, and the Aston Villa performance will be proof to him, and importantly Chairman Mohamed al-Fayed, of the need to spend a little to improve the squad in a few departments.

A draw was little surprise, considering nine of the last 14 meetings between the two sides have ended with spoils shared. The key factor for Jol and the fans is that in no area were his players overrun, and they all showed a willingness to work for the team. It was a typical season curtain-raiser, with both sides sparring rather than delivering genuine blows, but there was more than enough shown from the team as a unit to suggest with a few tweaks to personnel and tactics, the Whites should once again be looking for a top-10 finish.

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