In a Fulham season of unfilled voids, back-to-back red cards and mercurial star players, there has been one shining light. Sascha Riether, brought in on loan from Cologne in the summer, has exceeded all expectations and put himself in contention for signing of the season.
When news broke of the German international joining the club in July, it’s fair to say that the reaction towards him was somewhat nugatory. Riether’s parent club had just been relegated from the Bundesliga without a whimper, and he’d spent most of the season playing as a makeshift holding-midfielder. On paper, he may not have looked like the solution to Fulham’s right-back problems. ‘Problems’ may be a harsh choice of words as the hardworking Stephen Kelly proved solid enough, but he was still arguably the weak link in the starting XI. The team was crying out for a similar full-back to Riise — someone who would get up and support their winger, whilst being more than competent defensively.
Ever since the opening game of the current season, which saw Fulham crush Norwich five goals to nil, the type of player the Cottagers had on their hands in Riether was evidently clear. The Lahr-born defender is a rare balance of attacking potency and defensive reliability. One moment he’ll be on the overlap, preparing to put a cross in the box; the next, he’ll be nicking the ball away from his man near his own penalty-area and setting off on another attack. It’s this trait that has made Riether one of Fulham’s most reliable performers. His engine is incredible, and Matthew Etherington felt the full effects of it. Despite clearly carrying a knock, he was knackered after 20 minutes during the Stoke home fixture in February.
One of the high-profile incidents in Manchester United’s title-winning effort was Sir Alex hauling off Rafael before half-time against Reading. He’d had one of those games where he’d been run ragged, picked up a silly booking early on, and looked like getting sent off. You’d struggle to find a match remotely similar concerning Riether. He may not be a match-winner like the Brazilian, but he’ll always contain the opposition threat on his side. The German’s most impressive performance actually came against the Reds earlier in the year, when United’s left-flank was completely nullified. From a neutral perspective Riether versus Nani will always sway towards the latter; however, the right-back just shut him out. It was a surprisingly dominant showing. He was first to every lofted pass and won the continuing jostling competition. He of course still made himself an asset down the other end of the pitch, supplying some fine crosses to Hugo Rodallega and linking up well with Ashkan Dejagah; making sure he got back to put a damper on Nani.
The aforementioned partnership of Ashkan Dejagah and Riether is an exciting prospect. The duo were just as vital to Wolfsburg’s Bundesliga title win in 2009 as the headline grabbers, Edin Dzeko and Grafite. The Iranian arrived in the Premier League off the back of a respectable top-half finish with the Saxony club, racking up a respectable three goals and seven assists over the course of the season. At first he looked lightweight, slower than many remembered from his time in Germany, and weak defensively, but from West Brom away onwards, he’s been a revelation. The linkup play between Dejagah and Riether truly came (back) to fruition at White Hart Lane in March, where their neat exchanges led to Dimitar Berbatov’s only goal of the game.
It’s a shame that there weren’t many people talking up the idea of Riether getting a spot in the PFA Team of the Year. The last Fulham player to feature was, funnily enough, another right-back in Steve Finnan eleven years ago. With the two favourites Pablo Zabaleta and Rafael coming from the two Manchester clubs occupying first and second place in the League, it was always going to be a tough ask — especially as Fulham have had very limited TV coverage this campaign. Dimitar Berbatov’s popularity is another reason for the German’s exploits slipping under the radar. The closing comment for every Fulham highlights slot and match report is usually something along the lines of, ” it was the Bulgarian Berbatov who stole the show”. Sure, he does all the flicks, outrageous first touches, and garners all the plaudits, but consistency has evaded him this term. The Whites would be in a dire situation without his goals and mainly positive contribution, but Sascha Riether has been the main man; the epitome of consistency. Whatever the fee, the powers that be at Craven Cottage would be mad not to sign him on a permanent deal.