With Sunday's win over Aston Villa, Fulham's overall form seems greatly improved. However, conspicuously absent from the starting XI was club record-signing and perhaps the second most talented player, Bryan Ruiz. Yet, Ruiz's failure to come off the bench could hardly come as a surprise; his form has been poor throughout this season and he has struggled to find any consistency since joining the club in 2011. While the same could be said about the many of the team's midfielders, at least the others have a distinct advantage in that they can at least point to the energy that they expend on the pitch, whereas Ruiz, with his low work rate and reluctance to trek back on defense, looks especially poor in comparison.
However, as mentioned earlier, he is the the club's record signing, and a club of Fulham's stature simply cannot afford to waste an alleged £10.6 on a player who is not a permanent fixture in the starting XI. Alternatively, Fulham need Bryan Ruiz to play reasonably well if for no other reason to reduce the losses when the team inevitably sells him. Thus, it is vital that Rene Meulensteen find a way to make use of Ruiz for the remainder of the season.
The best way to seemingly make use of Ruiz's talents would be to play him as an attacking midfielder with the team built around him, which is how he has been used both at FC Twente and on the Costa Rican national team. Obviously, this solution would be both impractical and illogical, especially as the team is just starting to show positive signs of gelling under Meulensteen's 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 formation. Fortunately, based on Dimitar Berbatov's performance in the past week, a solution may have presented itself: play Ruiz as a false nine.
Essentially, a false nine is a striker who plays more like a midfielder; rather than acting as the tip of the attack, a false nine drops back and plays the ball forward to the midfielders. Some of the best examples include Lionel Messi at Barcelona, Francesco Totti at Roma, and Cesc Fabregas as part of the Spanish national team during the 2012 European Cup. Whether by Meulensteen's design or due to his own personal idiosyncrasies, Berbatov often played in this manner on Sunday, and both goals were a result of him passing the ball forward to Steve Sidwell and Alexander Kacaniklic. More importantly, for once Fulham were able to maintain possession, and Berbatov especially was key in getting his teammates into dangerous positions.
Admittedly, the tactic is not a perfect fit for Fulham's midfield--it's much easier to maintain possession and play with a false nine when Xavi and Andres Iniesta make up the team's midfield. That being said, Sidwell has (inexplicably) been one of the team's top scorers this season, and Pajtim Kasami, Ashkan Dejagah, and Kacaniklic have demonstrated enough attacking ability for it to be effective. The key would be to make selective use of this strategy.
As for Ruiz himself, like Berbatov, he has an incredible first touch and a predisposition to drop back already. Further, the most unnoticed parts of Ruiz's skillset are the simple touch passes and flicks, which he seems to do instinctively, that often place his teammates in perfect position inside the opposition box. It should be understood that Ruiz would only play in this role part-time and never alongside either Berbatov or Darren Bent. Unfortunately, this would not solve the problem of him being outside the starting XI, but the hope is that, as it is more suited to his skillset, that it could improve his form and his confidence. If he were to improve his form in the FA Cup and as Berbatov's backup, it may revitalize interest in the player from other clubs.
Playing Ruiz as a striker is not without its disadvantages; in spite of his height, he's not particularly strong and has been unable to win anything in the air. Yet, Bent, a more traditional striker, has been just as poor, so perhaps Meulensteen should discourage long balls upfield altogether when Berbatov is not on the pitch. Ruiz also has often given away possession far too cheaply. While playing him forward is a gamble, it could also alleviate the consequences of turnovers to some degree; rather than turning the ball over in the middle third as he often does now, he would instead do so in the final third, forcing the opposition to advance the ball further and allowing the Fulham midfield and defense more time to win the ball back. Continuing to assign one of the pivots--Scott Parker and Derek Boateng being the most logical candidates--to operate purely as a defensive midfielder also might help counteract this.
Until now, Darren Bent has been the default choice as backup striker simply due to his reputation. If nothing else, Ruiz would at least give him some competition for the role. Fulham's survival this season may be dependent on one of the two returning to the form that they were once capable of.