Monday, April 07, 2008

Fulham Falls to Sunderland, Relegation Almost Certain

After Saturday's 1-3 drubbing by Sunderland at Craven Cottage, the only thing keeping Fulham's hopes to escape the relegation zone is teh fact that the bottom five teams in the Premier League table all lost, meaning their positions on the table are unchanged with five matches remaining.

While it is mathematically possible for Fulham to escape to safety, they will need a near heroic effort and some help from the soccer gods to make it. For the first time in several games, Eddie Johnson was sitting on the bench as Diomansy Kamara started up top with Brian McBride. The fact is that Fulham's current striker corps is not finding the back of the net with enough regularity and while I hoped Johnson would provide that spark up top, the fact is that he could use a season in the Championship to hone his play. The pace of play in the Premier League and his somewhat lacksadasical attitude to playing caused his failure at Fulham.

I think Roy Hodgson did as fine a job as possible given the stable of players he inherited and he made some smart acquisitions during the January transfer window, Brede Hangeland in particular stands out, but the time has to come to acknowledge that Fulham really didn't play like a Premier League side this year. But Hodgson took over a club with some real mental deficiences, particularly later in the game. Fulham have up too many late game goals, as evidenced by the fact that had the games ended at halftime, Fulham would be sitting, a nice comfortable 11th on the table with 43 points. But too many draws and too many wins were sacrificed in the last ten minutes. The defensive breakdowns were just too common and their consequences cannot be ignored.

So as Fulham face the next year in the Championship League, there are three areas where Hodgson is going to have to focus during the summer transfer window. The sad part is that with the impending relegation, players like Brede Hangeland, Clint Dempsey, Kasey Keller and Paul Konchesky might end up moving to other Premier League teams, which will to a certain extent gut the Whites' rebuilding efforts.

But here is what Fulham need to do:

1. Build a better back line, particularly in the middle. If Fulham can hold on the Hangeland they can build a solid defense around his height in the middle and his ability to lead a back line. Hangeland needs a partner in the middle though, someone who is adept at tightly marking the opponents' leading scorer or set up man. Fulham have to be able to shut down completely an opponent's offensive drive with someone who can literally mark an opponent out of the match. Right now Fulham have no such person. On the outside, Fulham need a bit more defensive minded outside backs. I like Konchesky, his speed and his energy, but he is a defender first and an overlapping attacker second. I think there are simply too many times when central defenders are called upon to cover for Konchesky who has gone forward. That means fast counterattacks, unmarked strikers or opposing midfielders breaking free against the back line.

2. Better strikers. I have like Brian McBride for years, since he was with teh MLS and the U.S. Men's National Team. It was a shame that he was injured so early on in the season. McBride may be able to provide leadership up top in teh Championship League, but Hodgson needs to develop younger strikers with speed, goal scoring ability and a strong work ethic. For most of the season, Fulham relied upon Clint Dempsey, who by the end of the season was simply knackered. Dempsey's work ethic is unquestioned and that is why he will likely remain in the Premier League. So Hodgson needs to find some strikers. A year or two in the Championship might season Eddie Johnson a little, but he is going to need a little too much hand-holding to get him adjusted. His international performance of late may get him bounced from the U.S. team, which would probably galvanize him in to better performance. Hodgson may need to go outside Fulham to find a quality striker to replace McBride. If Fulham are promoted in the next two years, it is likely that McBride will not be with the side.

3. A playmaker to replace Jimmy Bullard. Bullard is brilliant, there is no doubt about it and he has sparked some great play by the Whites. But assuming Fulham can hold on to him in the relegation, Bullard is not going to be the playmaker for much longer. This player may need to be developed as I am not sure where to get such a player right now. If Fulham stay in the Premiership, American Michael Bradley would be a prime candidate and could still be, but I suspect that Fulham will want someone with a little more experience than the 20 year old Bradley.

While I don't like to talk about relegation, the fact is that Fulham are facing relegation, perhaps not officially, but realistically. While Hodgson should fight for every point and every win, he is no doubt thinking about the Championship next year.

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