Blasphemy: Is Fulham Better Without Dimitar Berbatov?

Clive Rose

Fulham escaped Saturday's match against Stoke City with all three points, but the "Keep calm and pass me the ball" ethos has consigned the Cottagers to a bottom-of-the-table scrap. Can Martin Jol adjust his tactics to get the most out of Dimitar Berbatov's superlative talents?

Before you get your hackles up and start railing at the suggestion that Dimitar Berbatov is anything but an insouciant genius, let me be clear: I like the languid Bulgarian and marvel at least once a match at his unhurried control and sheer class on the ball. There isn't another player in this Fulham side capable of producing the kinds of honied moments with which Berbatov has defined his career. That's part of the problem, and we'll get to that, but for now, rest assured this isn't a Berbatov hatchet piece. Rather, it's an assessment of the manner in which Fulham has played with the Bulgarian as its lynchpin and main conduit of creativity, an indictment of the "Keep calm and pass me the ball" ethos that has seen the club wane under Martin Jol and resulted in what looks for all the world like a season long exercise in hovering just above the bottom three.

Fulham did manage all three points against Mark Hughes' new look Stoke City side at the weekend, but even the most optimistic Fulham supporter must surely know that Hughes wasn't far off in his assessment that the Cottagers were lucky to escape the match with a win. Consider the statistics: Stoke had 16 goal attempts to Fulham's 9, out passed the Cottagers 402 to 309, bossed 55.8% of the possession, completed 11 crosses to Fulham's 5, and didn't allow a single shot on goal until Sacha Riether's effort in the 66th minute. The lone Darren Bent goal came in the 83rd minute off a fortuitous deflection that fell to the striker's feet - a poacher's goal of ever there was one - and let's not forget that Bent likely wouldn't have even been on the field if it wasn't for a Berbatov injury that forced Martin Jol's hand.

The margins between Saturday's match and the last minute collapses against Newcastle, Cardiff, and West Brom are razor thin. In spite of the win, Fulham is a club still firmly in an attacking malaise that dates well back to last campaign. Central to this attacking impotence stands the louche figure of Dimitar Berbatov.

It's not that Berbatov is an inherently destructive presence on the pitch or that his skills and style of play are anathema to a modest club like Fulham, but that the manner in which he's thus far been deployed is simply not working.

Since he joined the club at the beginning of last season, Berbatov has done most of his work in what is essentially an attacking midfield role. He drops deep, often even behind Fulham's holding midfield players, to collect the ball and distribute in the unhurried manner that has become his hallmark. Consider his statistics from this season's matches: In every match he's completed the majority of his passes in the middle third of the pitch. In the six league matches he's played, his most popular passing target has been a holding midfield player. In those six matches, he's created only five chances, has no assists, and no goals. He has registered two shots on goal all season.

The acquisition of Darren Bent, a signing I lobbied for in January of last season, was intended to provide Fulham and Berbatov an outlet further up the field, someone to stretch defenses and allow Berbatov, Ruiz, et al space to turn and play wide and forward. When Bent and Berbatov have been played together, which is precious little, Berbatov has continued to indulge his penchant to drop deep and play square and back in a ponderous manner that further isolates the England striker by distancing him from any attacking partner and killing his runs behind through the move's geologic pace. Berbatov has even demanded, such as in the Newcastle match, that Bent drop with him, further compressing the field and strangling any space the formation was intended to create.

There is a certain logic to Berbatov's pattern of play. He desperately wants to establish possession and control the pace of the match. He knows that giving the ball away cheaply to sides that are often times much more technically blessed is seemingly a death sentence for a side like Fulham; a side that suddenly finds itself uncharacteristically generous at the back.

However, the side's lack of technical nous is a double-edged sword as the terminally slow pace of Fulham's build-up play allows opposition defenses to get behind the ball and establish a solid defensive shape. Fulham then lack the technical ability, quick passing moves, and pace to break down bunkered defenders. This isn't the Emirates or the Camp Nou. This is Craven Cottage. The result is a side that looks static and wholly out of ideas playing across the face of a well-formed opposition, few chances are created, and hopeful shots are unleashed from distance.

Without Berbatov in the lineup however, Fulham have actually at times looked more decisive going forward. Jol's personnel have all the hallmarks of a counter-attacking side. Granted, there's the sticky issue of being relatively devoid of pace, but with quick enough ball movement, that issue is relatively moot. Such was the case Saturday on both Riether's shot and Bent's goal. With a more rapid and direct approach, aided by the impetus of wanting to avoid yet another disappointing result, Fulham moved the ball quickly into Stoke's defensive third and made use of the space created by Berbatov's withdrawal and Bent's occupation of space further up the pitch.

I'm not suggesting Berbatov should suddenly be relegated to the bench, but Jol must realize the pattern of play that has given Berbatov carte Blanche to dawdle on the ball in midfield is simply not working. A more decisive approach predicated on rapid ball movement from defense to attack seems to be what's needed.

It's up to Jol to get more production from Berbatov's superlative talents and it starts with getting him to play further up the pitch and significantly quicker. To be sure, this is a monumental task as the Bulgarian thus far has appeared completely disinterested in anything but reading from his own sheet of music.

If Jol can't manage this tactical revision, rather than a turning point, Saturday's win was but a respite.

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