Fulham completed back-to-back Premier League victories on Monday night to lift Martin Jol’s men to 14th in the table and away from short term danger for the time being. Whilst the accrual of six points out of six is a timely boost for the Craven Cottage club, are there to be tougher times ahead for the west London outfit?
Of course, you can only beat what’s in front of you, but a narrow 1-0 victory at home over shot-shy Stoke City and a 4-1 away win versus a Championship quality Crystal Palace gloss over what could potentially be a tough season for Fulham.
Their next three league fixtures are against Southampton, Manchester United and Liverpool, and it’s very possible they could find themselves back in the bottom 3-4 places come the November international break.
Having watched Fulham a couple of times this season, there appear to be deficiencies in the squad in key areas. The summer recruitment of goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg to replace loyal custodian Mark Schwarzer was an astute move, as was the permanent signing of Sascha Riether and the addition of Scott Parker.
Aside from this trio though, their transfer window dealings were uninspired and at best, can be described as ‘short-term’. In the background, Fulham’s academy squads have had success and are packed with potential talent coming through.
Jol is in charge of an ageing squad dubbed ‘Dad’s Army’ based on the number of players over 30. Despite not having access to substantial funds, the Dutchman has been criticised for not freshening up the team with younger players.
Stekelenburg, Riether, Parker, Derek Boateng & Giorgos Karagounis – all signed in the summer, are all north of 30. Darren Bent will be 30 in February, and Damien Duff and John Arne Riise are both also in their twilight years. There is a distinct lack of pace throughout the side, and there are warning signs both in defence and attack.
In front of Stekelenburg and aside from the tidy and reliable Riether, Fulham look weak at the back, particularly centrally. Philippe Senderos lacks concentration at times and is prone to error, Fernando Amorebieta has a history of indiscipline, Kieran Richardson is defensively suspect at left-back while Aaron Hughes has suffered with injury.
The biggest concern however might be Brede Hangeland. The skipper has been a pivotal figure at the Cottage for a number of years, but his powers appear to be on the wane. Never the quickest, Hangeland now appears even more pedestrian, tentative at times and less dominant against pacy, physical centre forwards.
At the other end of the pitch, talismanic forward Dimitar Berbatov has proved to be less effective thus far this season. The Bulgarian remains a threat and will contribute, but given his advancing years, his off-days are becoming more frequent. Bryan Ruiz and Adel Taarabt are talented and skilful but as with Berbatov, are inconsistent and offer little to the team without the ball. Darren Bent is a goal-scorer with a good record but is reliant on service. Whether the aforementioned players can provide this service consistently remains to be seen. During testing periods of the season, are these the type of characters you can rely on to put a shift in for you?
Now under the ownership of Shahid Khan and with some suggesting a change of manager may be on the horizon, media pressure is applied to Jol whenever results are bad. Much will depend on the tough-tackling, steady midfield duo of Parker and Steve Sidwell whilst Pajtim Kasami has been a bright spark, highlighted by his devastating goal at Selhurst Park. Fulham’s traditionally reliable home form has been poor and there are question marks over a consistent goal output. Player fitness and susceptibility to injury will also be an issue over a grueling Premier League campaign, can the likes of Parker and Berbatov stay fit over the course of the season?
As an established Premier League side and with the calm Jol at the helm, Fulham certainly have the experience to retain their top flight status for another year. There is some debate though over the make-up of their squad, particularly age, consistency and quality in vital areas. The threat of relegation has been staved off in previous years but with a long, hard winter ahead, top flight survival may prove more difficult to achieve this time around.