2 August 2015

Fulham FC 2015-16 Season Preview

 [ED: After reading this, I've come up with a drinking game. Have a shot of vodka every time René Meulensteen (or some variation thereof) is mentioned and see if you can get to the end still sober. Good luck.]

Well, here we are. 12 months ago my season preview comprised of a scathing attack on Felix Magath, then manager, and why he had to go. What a difference a year makes. I'm actually quite optimistic about this season. 

Now, unlike proper previews, I'll just write this where the wind takes me and throw pictures in later.

I often make the case for why we should have given René Meulensteen more time, and I'm writing a blog post that will explain, blow-by-blow, what René Meulensteen would have done differently to Felix Magath and translate that into moments on the pitch that would have been different to how they occurred under "Qualix".

But whenever I mention on Twitter my belief that we should be giving René Meulensteen a second chance, I get a lot of comments thrown back at me that say we should never have sacked Martin Jol. I don't actually understand this comment. I never liked Martin Jol from day one. I don't know what it was, I could just never associate with him. I mean, credit where it's due, he signed probably my favourite ever player in world football and childhood hero Dimitar Berbatov, but his tactical stupidity and his... constant... er... stubborness - actually, obstinance is a better word - ensured that we were heading in the wrong direction in 2013-14.

Which is why the wins against Stoke City and Crystal Palace meant that he got too many lifelines. If he hadn't won those games (and he probably shouldn't: the Stoke win only came because of a Berbatov injury which meant Jol put Darren Bent on, who ended up getting the winner; the Palace victory was a game of two completely capitulating sides, and as it turns out Kasami and Sidwell inspired the rest of the team to get their act together), he would have been sacked straightaway, or at least before the horror show at Upton Park. Now, René Meulensteen provided a breath of fresh air and the style of play changed somewhat dramatically. With three solid wins and several games where we should have got more but had terrible luck (Tottenham, Everton, Man City, Arsenal, Man Utd, Liverpool, all of which we could have won on another day), I feel that he was sacked too soon. Add to that the fact we'd turned a corner by picking up a point at the "Theatre Of Dreams" and we looked like we'd stay up. When you see this video on Meulensteen, it's even more stupefying.

How is this relevant? Well, for me, Kit Symons is an odd amalgamation of Jol and Meulensteen, with factors of Roy Hodgson. How is he like Martin Jol? Well, his team selections are the same, week in, week out, which sometimes causes me to have Jol-like reactions against him. In a sense, the England cricket team are similar, in that the selectors believe that one good performance sweeps under the carpet all the issues and so stick with the same XI if possible. This is not the case with England anyway (looking at you, Adam Lyth) and Kit is worried of making changes in fear they may not work.

How is he similar to René Meulensteen? Well, his style of play, certainly. Please take a look at the following diagram (primarily because I spent far too much time on it, and had to edit it four times).

"But Rhys," I hear you say, "what does it mean?" Well, simple. This is an overlay of the average touch positions for Fulham players in Meulensteen's and Symons' first home wins in charge of Fulham, against Aston Villa and Bolton Wanderers respectively. What we've highlighted in the red boxes are instances where the players are close enough to be considered to be in the same position in both games, despite completely different formations. Obviously, the goalkeeper and centre backs aren't worth mentioning (except the line appears to be slightly higher under Kit). Now, the full backs are probably close enough to each other to be considered to be in the same spot. What's even more interesting is that, on paper, you should have five out of the eleven in the same place, or seven at a push. But we count nine. We'll use their numbers to help you understand where I'm referring to on the map. Scott Parker (8/28), Steve Sidwell (7)/Lasse Vigen Christensen (21), Giorgos Karagounis (14)/Bryan Ruiz (10), and Dimitar Berbatov (9)/Hugo Rodallega (20) are the culprits here. What should be happening is that in a three-heavy midfield, the right and left centre midfielders will find themselves a little closer to the wings than in a two-heavy midfield, but Kit goes even wider than Sidwell (7) and Karagounis (14) were that day. Christensen (21) and Sidwell (7) are just about comparable, whereas Kostas Stafylidis (3, yellow circle), playing at LCM, is all alone in the diagram. Hugo Rodallega (20) has operated during the game as a deeper forward, and Ross McCormack (44) as a player up top. With this in mind, I'm not too bothered about marking Hugo Rodallega (20, RS) and Dimitar Berbatov (9, ST) in the same place. 

There will be some people who argue that Christensen (21) and Stafylidis (3) were used as wingers that day. Well, if that's true, then they should be "in and around" the players marked in a red circle: Ashkan Dejagah (24, RAM) and Alexander Kacaniklic (11, LAM). Clearly, they weren't. They were closer to Sidwell (7) and Karagounis (14).

Therein follows a weakness about Kit Symons that has popped into my head: the lack of wingers - or a bad use of them. I don't know what it is about using a forward-thinking winger, but going back to that map, look at Dejagah (24) and Kacaniklic (11), playing on the wings that day for Fulham against Aston Villa. Now, it will be interesting to see if Kacaniklic or Pringle do come forwards more often, as Symons has, so far, at least, used a flat 4-4-2 in pre-season.

"Pringle? Who's he?" I'll tell you, which brings me nicely onto the next "thing": the transfer market. The comparisons with Meulensteen do not end here, I'm here to tell you. Whilst Meulensteen clearly had money to spend with Shahid Khan, since relegation, both Magath and Symons appear to have their hands tied behind their backs in that they will not be allowed to spend until funds have been freed up. If you play Football Manager, it's like having a transfer budget of £0, but you're allowed to keep 100% of the money generated from player sales. Difficult for Magath and Symons, certainly. I don't liken him to Magath on this, though, as "Trialist A" isn't a key player for every pre-season fixture as it was 12 months ago. Anyway, Meulensteen. They both appear to bring in a lot of players in one go, with Meulensteen making six signings in the final two days of the transfer window, and making eleven pieces of transfer activity in all. Kit Symons, after a quiet January, has made funds available by releasing Hugo Rodallega, and making difficult decisions in selling Bryan Ruiz, Patrick Roberts, Lyle Della-Verde (OK, maybe not a difficult one), and Ryan Williams (ditto). If the transfer fee rumours are to be believed (Fulham label them all as "undisclosed"), Kit's still got £8m plus whatever he saved with the wage bill left in the tank, and sounded positive in the post-Palace interview that he'll make a few more signings.
But looking at the squad (finally), what do we have here? Well, certainly more options in goal, but again, still thin on the ground in defence. But with Kit seemingly open to the idea that "Mitrogoal" will stay, perhaps maybe the option for him is to be "you score five, we'll score six". Risky, certainly. But with a £23m-rated strike force, if we see "MitrogMack" up front this season, you can be sure Fulham will not be happy unless they can fire at least one goal in per game. 

Now, Kostas Mitroglou has been at Fulham since (yes, him again) René Meulensteen in January 2014, and 18 months later, a big question mark still hangs over his ability. I blogged about Magath's shenanigans with him, titling it "another fine mess". And, well, what can we do? He looked positive in the 90 minutes he played against Cardiff City... and that's basically it. I'm told by my sources he was good in the friendly against Crystal Palace, but this season is make or break for not just Fulham's point of view, but for Mitroglou's career. If he wants out, he has to prove his worth to other clubs, which should, in turn, help Fulham. 

But at the back, whilst the full backs have been addressed in Jazz Richards and Luke Garbutt, Shaun Hutchinson still looks a bit iffy, and Dan Burn is a solid but inexperienced player, and appears to be number one choice for Symons. Are we signing Lewis Dunk from Brighton? Don't ask me. But if we are, DunkBurn (which sounds a bit like a protest for equal rights for ducks) is a huge question mark. We haven't seen enough of Dan Burn after a poor run of form forced Symons to drop him for a long period in 2014/15, but he did play very well under Meulensteen (drink!). We shall see.

In midfield, with Scott Parker being phased out, it seems (aw, bless), then it's time for Lasse Vigen Christensen (a key player last term) and Jamie O'Hara to impress, with Emerson Hyndman waiting in the wings. Ben Pringle vs Kacaniklic on the left wing should be an interesting selection headache. On the right, we have Blackburn's Tom Cairney... and that's about it. So Kit will need to use some of that money to buy a new backup right midfielder.

In goal, Bettinelli or Lonergan? Probably Bettinelli. But Lonergan will give Bettinelli competition this season. And no, I'm not referring to Pat Lonergan, who beat me on Countdown. I'm talking about Andy Lonergan, Fulham's new goalkeeper.

Now, expectations. I think we are going up. We've been playing well in pre-season against superior opposition (unlike Magath, who scheduled our friendlies against nobodies... and Rangers, who we lost to), and we have done very well against Premier League opposition. We are going up - and Symons uses the phrase "we are all set to go up". 

Anyway, I've been stumped for the exact position, but I've changed by mind on what I said three weeks ago and I'm going for 2nd. No lower than 7th.

I'll leave you with the Fulham squad in full, using some of Benjamin's Blog's finest graphics. 

Come on you whites!!!!

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