Struggling Fulham travel to the Emirates on Saturday, desperate for points, and with the fresh enthusiasm of our new management team being called into question.
Fulham are only two points off the bottom of the Premier League table, and in the eight league games Rene Meulensteen has overseen, our goal difference tally has dropped by 15. It doesn’t sound great. But even so, most Fulham fans would probably admit they are rather enjoying Meulensteen being at the helm.
He greets the press after each game with the energy and enthusiasm typical of a new manager: drawing a surprising amount of positives following a 6-0 thrashing, or accidentally spilling too much information regarding Fulham’s transfer exploits. But perhaps that naivety is what you need at a club whose confidence could not get much lower. A fresh face who can walk into the dressing room after a drubbing from a mid-table team, and tell them that we are not going to let this dampen our spirits. He seems wet behind the ears compared to his predecessor. But then again he hasn’t faced the years of board meetings and fan abuse that inevitably result from poor performances. He seems like the over-excitable foreign exchange student who, despite not quite ‘getting it’, still turns up for school everyday with a large grin on his face.
Despite these public relations though, we are also being entertained ON the pitch. Whereas Jol was trying to mimic Arsenal by playing four CAMs, Meulensteen has taken us back to basics. He has brought an end to what was perhaps the laziest front four to have ever graced the Premier League (Ruiz, Berbatov, Taarabt, and Bent) and installed a solid base to midfield (Sidwell, Parker, Karagounis) with some pacey wingers (Kacaniklic and Dejagah). Meanwhile, Taarabt and Bent have been sent on personal fitness programmes, whilst Ruiz has been loaned to PSV. It is only Berbatov (for now) who remains, as our creative indulgence. Astute moves from the ex-Manchester United first team coach, and alleged mentor of Christiano Ronaldo.
So why are Fulham in such a tense position? Well firstly, because of the competition. At the time of writing, there have been five new managers re-appointed in the bottom half of the table. Another two look like they could be gone in a month. All squads seem to have responded impressively to fresh appointments, and all of these so called six-pointers have been impossible to predict. An audience of Gooners are unlikely to believe this, but some of this season’s most exciting football is coming from the other end of the table.
Secondly, the issue that is of greater concern: Fulham’s truly woeful defending. For all of the improvements going forward and pressing high, Fulham are so quickly undone by basic errors at set pieces, or the centre-halves being caught out from counter attacks. The number of times that Hughes, Senderos or Amorebieta have been in the wrong place, at the wrong time, is getting a bit silly. “Unfortunate” deflections my arse. The return of Hangeland this week was a relief, but it pains me that one of our other centre backs will still have to partner him. Joleon Lescott would be the perfect buy this January, but he doesn’t seem tempted. And who can blame him.
In fact, a centre-back, left-back, long term striker, and box-to-box midfielders are desperately needed. This might sound like I’m calling for a squad overhaul in January, but leaving it to the summer may be too late. New owner Shahid Khan, has thoughtfully twiddled his moustache and brought in Alan Curbishley as Technical Director, and Ray “I’m ‘ard” Wilkins as Assistant Manager. But otherwise, there has been no real evidence of him opening his wallet for some new players. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
So what can you expect at the Emirates this weekend? Well, probably a really good game from your point of view. I imagine we will give it everything going forward, and waste some good opportunities in the first 10 minutes, only for Ozil to punish us, as he effortlessly provides a through ball for someone that can’t believe they were not being marked. We have a knack of scoring after half time at the moment (good signs, Rene), but even when you play Arsenal with a tight defence and fit midfield, you eventually succumb to that pressure. An informed prediction might guess a 3-1 victory to Arsenal. But there’s no fun in that, so I’m going to say 2-2. Arsenal with many more attempts, but denied by a surprise return to form by the Fulham defence, whilst Parker initiates a quick Kacaniklic/Kasami counter attack. Berbatov coolly finishes, reminding Arsenal why you don’t need to run around in order to warrant a January bid from Arsene Wenger.