Riether ranks up with the best defenders in the Premier League, including Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand.
It’s been a while since Fulham has had any consistency at the right-back position. Think back through the last couple years. Stephen Kelly, John Pantsil, Fredirk Stoor, Moritz Volz (could The Electrician have restored power during the outage at Craven Cottage???), Elliot Omozusi. Then you remember Steve Finnan. Finnan is a name in the minds of all Fulham fans as probably the last established right-back at Craven Cottage, playing 5 stellar seasons and 172 matches in White, helping them blast through the lower divisions into the Premier League, before moving on to bigger and better things at Anfield.
Sascha Riether has brought back some fond memories for the home fans at Craven Cottage, and his no-nonsense attitude on the touchline has been a bright spot in an otherwise porous and aging defensive line. On loan from FC Cologne, Riether looked for a way out after their relegation to the German second division 2. Bundesliga, and found his respite in SW6. At first glance, bringing on a player from a relegated German club brought a few fans to question the decision, thinking back to the revolving door the right-back position had typically been for Fulham. However, when you look a little deeper, you also see Riether had won a Bundesliga title with Wolfsburg in a dream season where they at one point won 10 straight matches, including beating Bayern Munich 5-1, and the right-back also registered two vastly important goals. He banged in the winner at Borussia M’gladbach and also found the back of the net in a road draw with Hertha BSC.
At Fulham, it’s been no different. Although not the fastest player on the pitch, he’s brought an attacking flair down the right side, bringing pace to the touch and swinging in some fantastic crosses, as well as developing an immediate partnership with Damien Duff and his old Wolfsburg teammate Ashkan Dejagah.
However, it’s been his defensive ability that’s not only caught my eye, but been his most valuable asset. Riether’s ability to track any winger or striker on the dribble down the touchline is more than impressive, and he displays a tackling precision that allows him to take on just about anyone one-on-one, something that’s been missing elsewhere in the back 4 this year. As Lydia Campbell pointed out in her fantastic Hammy End article on Riether, I can’t remember an incident where I saw Sascha out of position, despite sometimes being in attacking positions. On the flip side, we saw just last week Philippe Senderos make a fatal mistake staying too long for a header he had no chance at winning, causing him to be horribly out of position for Manchester United’s only goal.
Thanks to the great work of the folks at EA Sports, I’ve gotten some Player Performance Index numbers on Riether, and they’re just as fantastic as you’d imagine. I mentioned his tackling precision – he has a 76.6 tackling success percentage, highest of anyone on the squad with regular playing time (Matthew Briggs is the only player with a higher percentage, and he has too small of a sample size to be in the discussion). In fact, that tackling percentage is 2nd among all right-backs in the Premier League. He has 16 clearances and 83 interceptions, both third highest on the squad behind our two regular center backs.
In fact, according to the EA Sports Player Performance Index, Sascha Riether is the 4th best right-back in the Premier League, behind household names Rafael, Branislav Ivanovic, and Pablo Zabaleta; he’s also the 12th ranked overall defender in the league. That’s high praise when you notice names behind him such as Per Mertesacker, Gael Clichy, Robert Huth, Kieran Gibbs, and Martin Skrtel (who’s having a horrible season). Don’t forget, this is Riether’s first season in the Premier League.
I’ve pulled his dossier from possibly Fulham’s best defensive performance of the season, their 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge at the end of November. Statistically Steve Sidwell was a defensive machine, but Riether was all-around our best defender that day. Here’s his dashboard:
Obviously this was a fantastic defensive display by Fulham as a whole, but aside from a few failed clearances and some incomplete long passes up the touchline, Riether was virtually perfect. Also, he took a Torres to the face:
LOOK OUT, A FLYING TORRES!
Now while his defense is by far what I’ve been most impressed with the German about, his attacking ability has also been incredibly positive to the club. With such a weak attacking midfield, Fulham have relied heavily on their ability to stretch the field to the touchlines and use their wingers to provide creativity. The club isn’t a very good crossing team, so often they use the wing-backs or wingers to serve as the link between the back and front through the middle third, and then players like Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov take it from there, feeding the strikers up top. Just look at Riether’s dashboard again from Chelsea. He doesn’t cross the ball much at all. He provides passes just beyond the midline, usually to someone like Damien Duff or Bryan Ruiz who bring it up through the middle from there. Let’s look at one of the most recent positive attacking matches Fulham played, their 1-0 loss to Manchester United. They didn’t score, but the club put on some real pressure, especially late. The clean sheet kept by United had mostly to do with a few factors at the end product up front. The buildup, Riether’s role, was fantastic. Take a look at the progression, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about:
He takes the ball from the central defense over to the wing:
Riether brings it up over the midline and then it’s off to either Dejagah or Ruiz. In fact, Riether to Dejagah was the most common passing combination for Fulham, happening 13 times.
As you can see, Riether is a major link up the right side, taking the ball from the back and feeding it into the middle from the wing. Even passing to Dejagah, a winger, is more into the middle of the pitch than up farther along the touchline.
Finally, there is one more attacking number I’d like to give you from the gracious people at EA Sports. Riether has connected on exactly 400 passes in the attacking half of the pitch – 2nd most on Fulham behind only Dimitar Berbatov. That’s how much they trust Sascha to be the connective force on the attack for Fulham. It’s also a product of the fact that he’s the only player on Fulham to have played in all 25 matches this season, so he’s seen more playing time to accumulate those passes. But it’s still a very important number to understand the trust Riether has developed from Martin Jol. Thanks in large part to this, the EA Sports Player Performance Index has Riether the 2nd most valuable player on the club behind Berbatov.
That trust didn’t come right away either. Check this out: Riether, in our season-opening match where Fulham dominated Norwich 5-0, Fulham held the ball 60% of the time, and Riether passed the ball 49 times, but only 6 of those 49 were in the attacking third. In the second game of the season, at Old Trafford, it was the same story – Fulham only held the ball 40% of the time, limiting Riether’s passes to 38, but only 2 of those 38 were in the attacking third. Now, fast forward to Saturday’s match with Manchester United, where Fulham only possessed the ball 45% of the time, and Riether only had 36 passes as a result…but 16 of those 36 passes came in the attacking third. He’s touching the ball much more up front now as opposed to dumping it off to the midfield way back in the defending half like he did in his first few forays with the squad. The trust has developed.
Now, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions with Sascha, because remember, he is 29. I wouldn’t start comparing him to Steve Finnan just yet, because he may not have the window of opportunity to play for as long with the club as Finnan did. We’ve all seen how age can break down our beloved center back pairing into shells of their former selves. But if Martin Jol can secure a permanent deal for Riether, we may have a bit of security for a few years in that corner of the pitch.
And that part is the key: securing the deal. There is a very strong argument for Sascha Riether for Fulham’s Player of the Year so far this season, and he absolutely needs to be back next year. In fact, I’d argue that if Martin Jol does not secure a permanent deal for Riether after the season and he goes elsewhere, it is quite possibly a fireable offense. He talks all the time about keeping our players, including recently being happy to keep all our players through the January transfer window. So this time, we absolutely need to keep this particular player. I don’t expect it to be a problem, especially at age 29 I doubt any bigger clubs will come calling, but you never know.
Keep up the fantastic work Sascha, it’s a wonderfully bright spot for the present and the future of Craven Cottage.