We're now two games into Rene Meulensteen's tenure as
Manager Head Coach, and already the team has displayed a vast improvement. Although the squad suffered a mid-week defeat against Tottenham, they performed admirably against a strong team and were unlucky to come away without any points. Coming into this match, the hope was that the team could build off the form they displayed against the Spurs, and, truth be told, a win was an absolute necessity with an away match against Everton and a home battle with Manchester City looming.
Heading into the match, Meulensteen opted for the 4-2-3-1, which had also been favored by his recently-fired predecessor, but the difference in play couldn't have been any more stark. Scott Parker and Giorgos Karagounis manned the central pivot, but it was clear that Parker was under orders to hold back and operate defensively. By placing Parker in this role (which, it must be said, Andrew has been advocating for for some time), it freed Steve Sidwell, Alexander Kacaniklic, and Ashkan Dejagah to press forward into the opposition's final third. More importantly, by assigning each midfielder specific duties, Fulham was actually able to comfortably control possession for much of the first half, which is maybe the first time this season that this can actually be said (don't forget that even during our thrashing of Crystal Palace, they were able to dominate possession for large portions of the match).
Also worth mentioning is the play on both wings. Dejagah, fresh off his mid-week goal, was a constant threat on the right side of pitch, getting behind the opposition and linking with Sascha Riether, whose perfectly-timed runs are always a pleasure to watch. The Kacaniklic-John Arne Riise pairing on the left side was equally dangerous, and though Dejagah was guilty of several poor crosses, the same could not be said of Kacaniklic who routinely put the ball into the 6-yard-box and nearly had a few assists to his name.
Considering that Fulham spent the first 20 minutes knocking at the door, it was only a matter of time before something found the net. Oddly enough, that something came from Sidwell of all people. A beautiful first touch from Dimitar Berbatov allowed him to reach the left post. Leandro Bacuna and Brad Guzan were able to force him down, yet he still managed to get off a very odd scoop-flick (for lack of a better word) over Guzan and into the right side of the net. Sidwell will never be thought of as a spectacular player, but you can't help but appreciate his uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time.
Another beautiful touch from Berbatov found a streaking Kacaniklic, who was able to get into the box behind Bacuna. Bacuna did manage to recover, but was a bit clumsy as he bumped into Kacaniklic, who immediately went down. Admittedly, it was a fairly questionable penalty (Kacaniklic put his hip into Bacuna as he approached him), but very few players in the world would have stayed on their feet in that situation. Berbatov's penalty was a thing of beauty as he tricked Guzan into committing with a slow run-up, only to coolly tap the ball into the opposite side.
The Bulgarian was really on form today and his class was evident throughout the match. Although he often gives me the desire to rip my hair out, I always find myself admiring his incredible first touch and composure on the ball. Unlike earlier in the season when his forays into the midfield hurt the flow of the offense, here it actually enhanced it because Sidwell, Kacaniklic, and Dejagah would rush forward, confident that Berbatov would find them. When he's engaged and when the whole team is playing as well as they did Sunday, you can really appreciate what a luxury he is. In an ideal world, we'd be less dependent on his good play and be free to simply enjoy him work his magic.
In the second half, Villa seemed determined to come back, and Christian Benteke quickly got a shot off, which Stekelenberg managed to save. However, just as quickly, Fulham were able to regain control of the match and the Fulham keeper spent most of the remainder of the match as an observer. At the risk of sounding cliche, Fulham dominated this match because they wanted it more, and it was a true pleasure to see the other squad look beaten and defeated.
The defense actually acquitted themselves well. I groaned a bit (as I always do) when I saw Senderos' name in the starting XI, but he played well and even had a nice header off a set-piece in the second half which Guzan barely managed to fight off. One of the most encouraging takeaways from the game was the team defense. For the most part, the team did an admirable job of preventing Villa from getting good shots. Also, I didn't have a heart attack every time that the opposition took a set-piece, so there's that. That being said, there were several silly mistakes that led to free kicks just outside the box, and Aaron Hughes was fortunate to have avoided giving away a penalty.
Overall, this was a strong showing. The next few weeks should make it clear if this was merely a fluke or the beginning of a true turn-around in form, but, regardless, it's not hard not feel like Rene Meulensteen has managed to turn a corner at Craven Cottage.