Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Assigning blame for lost points at Fulham

Whenever a huge club like Manchester United drop points, it's natural to point the finger.
From within the club, though, hopefully any finger-pointing is done using the thumb; better for our favorite athletes to take accountability for any under-performance.

But on the outside, it helps for analysts and fans to pinpoint singular reasons for deficiency, if only to mass-offer changing ideas to the clubs' decision-makers or simply just rationalize our disappointment.

One of the great obstacles to analyzing a football match is determining how much of a result is due to one team's failure or the other team's success. But one is not exclusive to the other, nor can either team (or any single variable) ever be assigned total blame for whatever result in this dynamic team sport.

Despite that, after United lost the lead twice at Craven Cottage on Sunday, perhaps some opinion-makers and opinion-givers alike aren't giving Fulham enough credit for stifling the larger club on the second matchday in this nascent season.

Hodgsen's Fulham

Roy Hodgsen's Fulham—now coached by Mark Hughes—aren't a forgone three points for England's top sides anymore, largely due to the Hodgsen's influence.

The well-travelled Englishman took over halfway through the 2008-09 season and magically led the side from the absolute brink of relegation. The following season Fulham finished seventh in the Premier League.

Last season was arguably the club's most successful campaign in history. Fulham finished 12th in the Premier League, but reached the quarterfinals of the FA Cup and defeated storied sides Shaktar Donetsk, FC Basel, Hamburg, and Juventus en route to the inaugural Europa League final.

Fulham's recent resurgence from perennial top flight basement-dwellers resulted not only from their manager's wizened tactical acumen and good ol' English leadership. His signings still reverberate positively for present-day Fulham.

Center-back Brede Hangeland looks and plays like Nemanja Vidic—a compliment on both counts, their flat noses symbolizing a nonsensical, physical style. Hangeland joined Fulham the month Hodgson took charge, reuniting coach and player from an earlier stint together at Norwegian side Viking.

He's a player that is sure to garner the club at least £10 million when they inevitably choose to sell him.
Damien Duff seemed to resurge from under a rug when he joined the side two seasons ago, form that continued in the Cottagers' match against Man United.

Players he didn't sign nonetheless were clear to footballingly fuse during Hodgson's uber-successful reign in southwest London. Stalwart Aaron Hughes, the improving Clint Dempsey, somehow Paul Konchesky, and especially Danny Murphy continue to help make Fulham away no longer a plus-ROI "win-to-the-over" parlay.

And to be fair to Mark Hughes, he seems the type of gaffer who won't overthinkingly turn a cohesive unit back into a relegating pile of dogshit.

United aren't perfect

Having hopefully projected that I know more about Fulham than your average pub-fly, there are redder reasons why United only left Thames-side with just the one point.

First, let it be written that if Rafael da Silva started at right-back instead of John O'Shea they'd probably have all three.

The lack of offense the big Irishman is capable of is almost wholly unmitigated by whatever defensive special abilities are in his repertoire: seemingly mostly being big, strong, and slow.

His status as a reliable stopgap applies more to central defense than it should on the wings where his lack of pace and creativity unbalance United, especially when Park Ji-Sung is trading on one wing.

When Antonio Valencia is off-form—something that rarely happened last season, to his credit and United's need—O'Shea and Park are rarely going to be able to compensate in attack. Park is consistently average with the ball, at least at United, and his own utility was diminished, if not voided completely, when Ronaldo left the side in 2009.

Nani is only effective in-form, displaying frustratingly immature decision-making in times of lower confidence. He is also a player who changes form like a chameleon changes color, with the exception that the transformation doesn't take place when it's needed most.
United will require the added flare of a da Silva twin on the right-wing when Park is on the field or Nani is off the boil, particularly as Patrice Evra continues to recover from his soul-shattering experiences in South Africa last summer.

Vidic and Jonny Evans will also have to gel quickly and completely for this year's campaign to be a serious one. Rio Ferdinand will likely never consistently feature for United again as he toils away with high-arches and lower-back issues.

Darren Fletcher's player-of-the-year performance last season also basically has to continue into every game this year if red Manchester is to sing in glory come May. Without him defending Scholes' freedom and anchoring the core of the side, the malform of the players around him will be amplified instead of masked.

Scholes' own purely resplendent form must be taped, transcribed, and scorched into our visual memories, but they should also be tempered with reason; there should be no expectation for it to continue consistently throughout the term.

His foudroyant strike against the Cottagers Sunday hearkened back to a game two seasons ago against the same side when Scholes played like he was on some serious ecstasy. Who assumes the creative mantle during the inevitable periods his little legs leak lactic-acid and labor lethargically? Michael Carrick? Lol.

But, as ever, there is not one variable upon which all the others hinge, not in any sport, not ever; despite what pundits'll have us believe by overusing the word "key".

Not even Nani's uncomposed penalty gaffe could assume all the blame for the Red Devils last Sunday.
The English and Asian-speaking world's favorite side will need a little bit from everyone—and a lot from a few certain—to bring another big trophy back up the M-6 into Manchester in 2011.

(Especially without the greatest variable of them all, one afforded to most of their rivals: petty transfer cash)


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