With the 2012-13 English Premier League season on the horizon, Tezini’s crew of soccer experts is here to get you ready for all the cracking finishes, devilish challenges and unforgettable drama. Over the next two weeks, we’ll give each club its proper due in a free-flowing roundtable discussion. We continue with Fulham.
AJ: My favorite memory of Fulham is a drunk woman on the metro telling Mark and I once that they were the best soccer team in the world. ‘Memba that, Mark? My second favorite memory of them is when they put up that Michael Jackson statue outside Craven Cottage. It still stands. ‘Memba that everyone? My third favorite memory, I suppose, is the greatest professional season ever put together by an American soccer player. It was just last season, and it deserves serious appreciation. Clintius Thomas Jefferson Dempsey scored 23 goals in 46 appearances in all competitions last year. Oh, yeah, he’s not really an out-and-out striker, so those numbers are all the more impressive in that context.
As worthy of it is as appreciation, it’s also worthy of discussion, and not just because we’re a bunch of self-centered, flag-waving Amurricans. Clintius, it seems, wants out this summer, with Liverpool the most likely destination at this stage. Dempsey is on the older side and there is plenty of talent beyond him at the Cottage, but they’re still looking at having to replace a lot of goals. Summer signing Hugo Rodallega probably isn’t going to be enough.
I’m not worried about Fulham per se. After flirting dangerously close to relegation in 2008, they have quietly established themselves as a slightly poorer man’s version of Everton — mid-table stability is taken for granted and European football comes around every other season or so. I don’t think losing Dempsey will suddenly thrust them down the table, and I’m particularly expecting more from Bryan Ruiz in Year 2. But we’ve mentioned a few times already that the difference between mid-table and the relegation zone is often razor-thin. In that sense, filling the presumptive void left by Dempsey has to be a huge priority.
Mark: I do ‘memba that AJ, I do. Also, if memory serves, you and I ran into each other on that metro trip as well (rather, that we were not hanging out beforehand), making it all the more serendipitous.
Here’s a thing I’m going to say that I won’t say about many teams: I think Fulham is neither overrated nor underrated. In fact, they are simply rated. First off, they’re an incredibly efficient team. They’re really good at hitting the target; by my calculations, they were second-best in the league behind Manchester United in the ratio of total shots to shots on target. They were seventh-best (ahead of Everton, Liverpool, and Newcastle) in successful passing percentage, which to me is an impressive because they’re not necessarily a team that plays keep away in their own half like, say, Swansea. They got very little out of Ruiz, their big summer signing last season, but got an otherworldly performance out of Dempsey. Finally, were it not for a rancid start to the season (four points in six games, four of which against teams who finished down the table from them), we’re talking about a team that would have finished seventh. That said, their goal differential on the season was minus-3 and they relied a bit too much on 35-year-old Danny Murphy (since gone) and 33-year-old Damien Duff. They also somehow went an entire campaign without a red card, and the major injury of note was to keeper Mark Schwarzer for eight games, who was promptly replaced by the capable David Stockdale. They had a 2-2 record against Liverpool and Everton, the closest teams to them in the table. Ninth place just seems exactly where this side should have been, all things considered.
Deuce is obviously the crown jewel of this side, and should he ply his trade elsewhere they need to find a capable replacement, internally or otherwise. That said, I do enjoy me some Moussa Dembélé, who admittedly is a little like Dempsey in his ability to play as a second striker, on the wing, or from a more central midfield role. The most obvious worry about this team is uncertainty about where the goals come from should Dempsey leave for Merseyside or miss any time. Ruiz’s finishing was a disappointment last season, Pavel Pogrebnyak decided to bolt for Reading after an impressive second half, and your namesake, Andrew Johnson, is off to QPR, joining another ex-Fulham man there in Bobby Zamora.
If Dempsey leaves, Fulham’s top four scorers (and 79 percent of their goals) from last season are gone, replaced by Hugo Rodallega and Croatian striker Mladen Petric, who’s scored 51 times in the Bundesliga since 2007 but is also on the wrong side of 30. But my second big worry for Fulham this year is one of our running themes: age. We’ve mentioned Duff, but this team trots out a fair amount of elder statesmen in the form of Schwarzer (39), Brede Hangeland (31), Mahamadou Diarra (31), Ginger John Arne Risse (31), and perpetual injury risk Philippe Senderos. Most of those players play in a defensive position for a team that was mediocre-at-best in the back last season.
In the end, this is a solid side that had a fair amount of fortune thrust their way last term. I’m not certain the five teams behind them in the table improved enough (if at all) to put Fulham in any danger of falling too far down the standings, but boy are there a lot of things that could go wrong here, foremost being the impending departure of the Greatest American Soccer Player of our generation.
Sam: Mark, I really enjoyed when you described Philippe Senderos as perpetually injury prone, but chose to omit the fact that he is also perpetually shitty.
I just can’t fight the feeling that it doesn’t matter who Fulham loses up top (with the exception of The Deuce), or in other areas of their team, as long as they play at the Cottage. They are guaranteed results at Craven Cottage versus mid- and lower-table teams, and that virtually guarantees them staying in the middle of the pack year after year. They never have world-beaters up front — I mean, we’re seriously lamenting the loss of Pavel Pogrebnyak and Andrew Johnson? Both of those players were lost in the proverbial wilderness, along with Bobby Zamora, before they came to (or back to) Fulham. The point is, the goals will come from somewhere, and they will probably come more often at home. Not much else really matters from where I’m standing.
Ruiz is definitely the biggest question mark coming into this season, but I’m confident he’ll get much better in his first full year in the Prem.
AJ: Let’s think about this in another way, because Sam, I think we’re all on the same page as you when it comes to Fulham being good enough to finish in the rough area they have the last few seasons. What do they have to do to push on? Put another way, are they comfortable with their mid-table status? Is this it for this team? Have they already hit their peak? It seems to me that the competition around them is getting stiffer and stiffer and yet they seem to mostly be treading water. Newcastle moved by them last season. There may not be another candidate to surpass them immediately this season, but I could see Sunderland and Villa both eventually getting there.
Mark: As much as I hate to just claim “home-field advantage” as some harbinger of consistent success, Fulham at least backed you up on that one last year, Sam, with a goal differential of plus-10 at the Cottage and minus-13 everywhere else. In 2010-11, their away tally was much better with almost the exact same set of results and around the same position in the table. I guess I’m just a bit startled by this team’s consistent success, given that retreads seem to do really well and the non-Dempsey no-name strikers always seem to come through for parts (or all) of a season, and I don’t want to lay it all at the feet of a West London home crowd. You know who else had an incredible home record two years ago? Bolton. Plus tactically, this team scored an inordinate amount of long-range goals last season, and stats like that always make me a little wary in upcoming campaigns, with or without Dempsey. Again, I don’t think the wheels are going to fall off this team (far from it), but can we really be expecting them to contend for European football year after year?
So to your point, AJ, it’s really hard to see Fulham making a Newcastlian leap forward — which admittedly wouldn’t be that large of a leap — due to the stiffness of the competition and the fact that they don’t seem to be a squad composed of young, mostly foreign, talent ready to burst onto the scene. Just the opposite, in fact. There’s no shame in riding the wave of European football that is harder to come by than we’re appreciating, but I can’t see a universe in which Fulham is a whole lot better this season, if at all.
AJ: I’m fairly disappointed by their lack of ambition, I suppose, though maybe there’s something to appreciate about a club that appreciates where it is vis a vis where it was. Mostly, I’m just more entertained by a league with a lot of contenders at the top, and it doesn’t look like Fulham is ever really going to get serious in that sense.
Mark: Again, to run with the home-field theme, we have the following from earlier this year:
Since August 2006 to now, Manchester United have conceded 9 penalties at home. That spans 110 games, meaning they have conceded 0.08 penalties per home game.
Ironically, Fulham have conceded 8 over the same time period and number of games, a record of 0.07 penalties per game. So despite claims that it is tougher to win a penalty at Old Trafford than other grounds, analysis shows it is actually harder to win a penalty at Craven Cottage.