Martin Jol will go into Fulham’s game with Stoke on Saturday knowing that only a win will likely be good enough to save his job. The Whites have won just one of their opening six Premier League fixtures, now totalling only three wins at home since the start of 2013.
Often when teams are struggling, like Fulham were last season, they rely on cliques or partnerships on the pitch to get results. Apart from the constantly disjointed right-flank of Ashkan Dejagah and Sascha Riether, there was nothing but an occasional moment of brilliance from Giorgos Karagounis or Dimitar Berbatov to carry them through games. Jol was the first manager to really take apart the 2010 Fulham team and attempt to mould his own squad and style, but the Dutchman has failed to find that grouped consistency that made Hodgson’s sides so difficult to beat.
Under Roy Hodgson, the entire team was constructed around numerous sets of players that complimented each other perfectly. Firstly, the formerly named ‘Thames Barrier’ — consisting of Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes — played a significant part in the Cottagers only conceding 34 goals in the Premier League during the 2008-09 season — the fourth best defensive record in the division. Hodgson famously said upon appointment at Fulham that everybody in his squad was the same size; there was no commanding defensive presence to slug away in a relegation battle. Sure enough, he solved the problem by bringing in the 6 ft 5 Norwegian, forging one of the best centre-half partnerships outside of the top four in recent memory. Hughes provided the athleticism, pace and conservatism that Hangeland lacked, whereas the latter’s sheer size, strength and aerial consistency compensated for the Northern Irisman’s flaws. It was a running theme in Hodgson’s system: start players that have one or two outstanding strengths and team them up with their near polar opposite.
Another example of Fulham’s balance was exemplified in the centre of midfield. Dickson Etuhu’s contribution towards getting the best out of Danny Murphy shouldn’t go without praise. A 2008 summer signing from Sunderland, Etuhu came to Fulham with just a season’s worth of Premier League experience under his belt and a fiery reputation. Similar to the strengths in Hangeland’s game, the Nigerian added a physical and ubiquitous presence to Hodgson’s new look midfield. His job was to break up attacks before they had a chance to bloom, collect the ball, give it to Murphy and let him ‘do his thing’. Mark Hughes’ attempts to convert Etuhu into a rampaging box-to-box midfielder were admirable, but it was his role as the enforcer that suited him best.
Those two pairs were Fulham’s spine for a good three-and-a-half years. Other notable duos included Bobby Zamora and Zoltan Gera’s exploits in the Europa League, and the connection between Zamora and Damien Duff — their trademark being a one-two coming in off the right-wing, sometimes leading to a goal (Everton 2009). The problem with Jol’s time at the club has been failure to establish, or continue, successful partnerships.
Developing understanding has been toughest in the centre of midfield. Fulham fielded thirteen, yes thirteen, different midfield pairings over the course of last season. Those ranged from Moussa Dembele and Mahamadou Diarra — who started the Whites’ first two matches against Norwich and Manchester United — to then loan signings Eyong Enoh and Emmanuel Frimpong lining up against Swansea on the final day of the season. To comprehend the sheer number of variations Jol used, Steve Sidwell, who started more games than any other Fulham central-midfielder, lined up alongside five different partners.
Partly down to the departures of Dembele and Danny Murphy, along with the incessant injuries of Diarra, the inconsistent midfield selection caused games to be won and lost in a matter of minutes. There was no similar harmony of playmaker and powerhouse for long spells until Enoh and Karagounis started together. But, of course, the following week a brand new and unbalanced midfield would wipe out any chemistry built the previous match. The standard and type of player that the club needed to bring in during the summer was painfully obvious. Fulham lacked, and still do, a central-midfield playmaker who can pass the ball well under pressure.
Bryan Ruiz, Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele were starting to show that said chemistry midway through the 2011-12 season, but the departure of the latter two saw the Costa-Rican struggle to work equally well enough alongside the remaining Fulham squad. Jol’s attempts to accommodate Ruiz have stretched as far as deploying him in a wide midfield position — a role the Costa-Rican unsuccessfully played in for much of his debut season — causing the split of the aforementioned partnership of Dejagah and Riether.
Even this season, with Jol under immense pressure from fans and, more recently, the media, team selection is still too varied. The 2-1 victory over Everton in the Capital One Cup was supposed to be the turning point of Fulham’s season, but instead of starting the same eleven that won the game, Jol made five changes for the following must-win match against Cardiff. If he survives the encounter with Stoke at the weekend and is given a vote of confidence by the board, his first port of call ought to be establishing the side that works the best. Hodgson proved that he didn’t need luxury players like Dimitar Berbatov or Bryan Ruiz to make the team tick. Relying on favourites now rather than in-form players and maintaining the law of divine right would be Jol kicking the chair away.