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Perennial mid-tablers Fulham are at something of a crossroads. After finishing 12th last season, their joint-worst position since the 2007-08 season, an ageing squad is in the process of being rapidly dismantled. Veterans like Mark Schwarzer, Giorgos Karagounis and Simon Davies are all out of the Craven Cottage door and off the Fulham wage bill, and eight other playing staff of various ages followed them. Now Fulham must rebuild, and the early signs are encouraging. Dutch ‘keeper Maarten Stekelenburg is Schwarzer’s replacement, with centre-back Fernando Amorebieta, free agent Derek Boateng and loan-to-permanent signing Sascha Riether rounding out the short list of players Fulham have acquired so far. I take a look at how they could shape up, and consider what Fulham need in order to compete next year.
Maarten Stekelenburg was set for big things at Roma. Fresh from a world cup in which he conceded only four goals on the way to the final and in his prime at 28 years old, he was snapped up by the Italian club for just over five million pounds. Roma fans, who for a long time now having been treated to such goalkeeping titans as, er, Bogdan Lobont, Doni and Gianluca Curci, greeted his arrival with enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, things fell apart. The Dutchman’s first season was blighted by his own bad form, a haphazard defence, and two red cards. In his second season his form worsened and injury struck, allowing promising young Basque Mauro Goicoechea to challenge him for his first-team spot.
In comparison to outgoing ‘keeper Schwarzer, this shows. Last year, Stekelenburg made fewer appearances – and, unsurprisingly, fewer clean sheets as a result – and fewer average saves per game and per goal. In other words, Roma’s defence allowed fewer shots that required saving past them, yet Stekelenburg still produced fewer saves per goal. His average claim success % is marginally worse than Schwarzer too, though 92% is nothing to be sniffed at. Interestingly, he does beat out the Aussie in terms of distribution success quite soundly, and his shorter distribution length gives us an indication of the different styles of football the two sides played. Roma, under the enigmatic Zdanek Zeman (though he was later replaced by his assistant Andrea Andreazzoli), favoured a high-tempo, attacking 4-3-3- that Stekelenburg contributed to by distributing the ball quickly and over short distances to his defence, who would then launch counterattacks. Schwarzer, by comparison, had both a comparatively slow tempo Fulham side and the tall Dimitar Berbatov and Mladen Petric as targets to kick to.
Boateng, a combative all-round midfielder, has been being chased by Martin Jol for a while now, but it was only when his Dnipro contract expired that Jol finally got his man. With Fulham exceptionally thin in the deep midfield area, Boateng’s signing will strengthen Fulham through default. Now at his peak at 30 years of age, the experience and intelligence Boateng will bring to Fulham will be appreciated, but his style of hard-running, box-to-box play might be a bit too similar to new midfield partner Steve Sidwell’s play to hugely benefit Fulham. Still, he’s able to fill a number of different roles, and should Jol dip back into the transfer market to pick up a more technical player to give a bit of contrast Boateng would be a useful choice as backup or off the bench.
Venezuelan-Basque central defender Amorebieta arrives in London having had a rocky 2012-13. He began the season with a hernia, before being embroiled in a contract dispute with his team Athletic Bilbao. This led to him only making 11 appearances for his club last year, missing almost the entire second half of the season. This didn’t stop him picking up his usual red card, of course.
Despite his lack of appearances, Amorebieta matches up relatively well with the experience Fulham central defensive partnership. Significantly more successful tackles and interceptions per game is outweighed by his bad disciplinary record and aggressive nature. He’s splits Hangeland and Hughes in terms of shots blocked, and gets beaten by both in clearances and discipline. All in all, he’s a decent addition to a back line lacking depth, and brings Fulham up to a good complement of four senior centre-halves. Amorebieta is at his peak, aged 28, and should give his team a good few seasons. His only real downside is his discipline, or lack of it, having been sent off six times in four seasons.
Martin Jol’s Fulham have tried out a few different shapes during his tenure so far, but mostly they seemed to gravitate towards something close to a 4-2-3-1. The three new signings would work just as well as the people they replaced for this formation, with Derek Boateng replacing Giorgios Karagounis in midfield, Amorebieta deposing the long-serving Aaron Hughes and Stekelenburg coming straight in for Schwarzer. There would be few direct changes in style as a result of these swaps.
Last year, Fulham’s most effective formation was their 4-2-3-1, as well as their most played. With Maarten Stekelenburg in goal and David Stockdale an above-average backup, Fulham are probably set in that area, and the defence looks relatively sound too. Hangeland and Amorebieta should be first choice in the centre, with Hughes their backup and Senderos fourth pick. John Arne Riise and Sascha Riether are both first choices at left and right full-back respectively, though Riether doesn’t really have a backup other than young Jack Grimmer.
In midfield, there’s talent, but it’s almost all found in the attacking third of the pitch. Steve Sidwell and Derek Boateng will start purely due to lack of other options, though Pajtim Kasami could be tried in a deep role. Their attacking band of three, however, has both depth and quality: Bryan Ruiz and Alexander Kacaniklic are likely starters, but the right wing slot will be open. I plumped for Ashkan Dejagah over Damien Duff, with the Irishman slowing down due to age, but Duff could have an Indian summer yet. Lastly, up front there’s no more nailed on starter than Dimitar Berbatov, and the other two options are sufficient: Hugo Rodallega’s a decent all-round forward, and Marcello Trotta could be an interesting option as a poacher in front of Berbatov if Jol needs to switch to two up front.
With the three additions so far, Fulham have not quite broken even in terms of quality. Though the replacements for their departed players are probably of a higher quality, there need to be additions, particularly in central midfield. A ball-playing deep midfielder would be perfect, and another would be required if Jol decides Kasami is not suited to a deep role. Finally, a new young right-back would be useful, to back up and perhaps eventually replace Riether.
Journalist at the University of South Wales. Aston Villa follower, Crystal Palace fan, and an all-round football enthusiast.
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