It wasn’t long ago that Fulham fans were bemoaning a midfield which to describe as “thin” would be generous beyond recognition. Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey were no longer an asset on the Fulham FC books, Mahamadou Diarra’s injury left a gaping hole in front of the back 4, and Danny Murphy’s ability to dictate the pace and direction of play in the center of the pitch was a role left unfulfilled.
Fast forward to now. The club has picked up 7 points in their last 4 matches, and while there is still an obvious gap in the creativity department, Martin Jol has figured out how to position his players to utilize each one’s best attributes and scrape by despite the missing cog between midfield and striker.
More importantly, he’s taken rusty old parts and shined them up like new to revitalize careers.
It’s already been mentioned numerous times here how Steve Sidwell’s career has flourished once again now that the Dutchman has moved Ginger Iniesta a touch further back and charged him with running the defensive midfield department. Since Diarra’s transfer to the physio room, Sidwell has performed admirably, and one could argue the knee injury to the Malian is one of the better things to happen to Sidwell’s career. Sidwell’s made 76 tackles this season, which is up there for most of anyone at any position in the Premier League.
Speaking of rusty old parts, Martin Jol plucked Giorgos Karagounis off the free transfer market from Panathinaikos and has turned the 35 year old into Danny Murphy 2.0. Even Jol admitted, “Giorgos is not the youngest at 35 but I miss him every game I play the other players.” In a sense, Jol admits Karagounis has played his way into the starting lineup, not just by what he brings when he plays, but what the team misses when he sits. More gaffer on the Greek, “against Stoke I knew that we needed someone, who could play and make us tick in midfield and I think he did that.” Seriously think to yourself, when was the last time Fulham fans have been able to say that about a midfielder? Hasn’t been since Danny Murphy.
Karagounis’s performance in the Stoke match was fantastic. 67/71 passing (94%!), and not only was he spot on, he distributed his passes in a way that kept the Stoke defenders completely off guard. 22 forward passes, 26 backwards passes, and 23 square passes. With that kind of distribution, it’s obvious Karagounis was running the offense, deciding where the next attack would come from. Check out his dashboard:
The Greek’s heart, desire, and most of all work rate are second to none, and it’s obvious by this dash. Look how all over the pitch he was! He was concentrated a bit on the left simply because that’s the side of the midfield he played on (Sidwell was on the other) but he ended up just about everywhere. In fact, Karagounis was involved in 3 of the top 4 highest passing combinations in the match. He sent it to John Arne Riise 17 times, to Ruiz 13 times, and got the ball from Hangeland on 11 occasions.
And when needed, Chris Baird has filled in admirably, using his skills as a defender in conglomeration with pinpoint passing, which is the theme under Martin Jol’s possession scheme. Passing success this season as a whole: Baird: 84%, Sidwell: 85%, Karagounis: 91%, Diarra: 90%, Frimpong: 90%, Richardson: 86%. For the type of game Jol likes to play, those numbers are perfect fits.
The wing play has been fantastic as well recently. Damien Duff just got his new contract (and deservedly so) and once again has shown quality on touch. His 7 assists are his highest single-season total since his Chelsea days, and we’re only in February. In addition, 4 of those assists have come in his last 9 matches, which shows he didn’t pad his assist stats early in the season when Fulham were banging in goals left and right. They have come more so since the goals have somewhat dried up for the team.
On the other end, Ashkan Dejagah has impressed in his last few starts. The Iranian has struggled to stand out in his first season in the Premier League, but most recently against Stoke, he was fantastic on the offensive end. He created 5 chances, and completed 91% of his passes (40/44), including 22/26 in the attacking third. He provided linkup play on the right side, noted by the fact that Sascha Riether passed to Dejagah 14 times, good for the 2nd most effective passing combination in the match.
While the situation isn’t ideal, and there’s still a long way to go, the overall state of Fulham’s midfield isn’t as dire as was once thought. Though reinforcements have been brought in in the forms of Emmanuel Frimpong and Urby Emanuelson, just about the time they’ve gotten here the players already in place have stepped things up. Once Diarra returns, Martin Jol is going to have a real selection situation on his hands. Against the next 4 opponents Sunderland, Chelsea, Tottenham, and QPR, the midfield will become even more important, hopefully these guys can keep up their good form or it could be even more of a tough stretch than it already looks.