With the news that Adel Taarabt has joined the Cottagers on a season long loan deal from deliciously relegated QPR, Fulham supporters sense that the transfer activity they've waited for all summer is finally starting to hot up. Persistent rumours that Darren Bent will soon darken the door at Craven Cottage have Fulham supporters dreaming of a multi-pronged attacking juggernaut predicated on quick, creative passing and knifing, dynamic runs that will see the side ascend up, up, up the table.
Not so fast.
I hate to be a glass-half-empty curmudgeon, but I remain wholly unconvinced that Taarabt is the sort of player we should have signed and in a strange way, the possible signing of Darren Bent, a signing for which I strongly advocated back in January of this year on a blog called grassinthesky.blogspot.com - before I started writing for this fine outlet, obviously - could compound the foibles of the Taarabt signing by consigning three players to essentially one role.
The opinions I have encountered expressing support for the Taarabt singing point predictably to just a few figures. He created 77 chances last season, 11 of which were clear cut, and, were he surrounded by more potent finishers, his 4 assists would surely have been added to. I can't argue these figures, nor do I think it's necessarily constructive to do so. Taarabt is an attacking talent, and there's no denying he's capable of producing a moment of magic that leaves both home and away stands in disbelief. The narrative, so it goes, is that Taarabt was a superlative talent in a weak side; a Mozart among Ke$has.
Football, however, is a weak link game. In their book The Numbers Game, Chris Anderson and David Sally argue that it's not the skills of the stars in a particular side that ensure success, rather it's the deficiencies of the side's weakest performers that provide a more accurate measure of a team's likelihood for picking up points. Essentially, it's not the Dimitar Berbatovs who, with their nous and guile, won Fulham 43 points last season, but the Philippe Senderoses, with their ham fists and brick feet, who lost Fulham 71. Indeed, Anderson and Sally argue that "[Results show]... performance differences in weak links are 30 percent more important when it comes to goal difference, and almost twice as important with regards to points per game." Improving just your weakest link - Senderos? Sidwell? Riise? - is worth something like 13 goals a season and 9 points in the league table.
Therefore, any given team, in this case Fulham, is best served to use the transfer market to upgrade over its weakest players. Amorebieta and Boateng may prove to be improvements in the back line and midfield respectively, but they're far from known quantities and the need for a Danny Murphy style player remains criminally unaddressed.
As I mentioned previously, Taarabt is a talented attacking player, but his best position, that of an attacking playmaker with two holding players behind and goalscorers farther up the pitch, is one that Berbatov made no secret last season he wanted for himself. This left Bryan Ruiz rather adrift out toward the touchlines and created a toothless Fulham attack in far too many matches, hence the January suggestion that the Cottagers make a move for Darren Bent. If Berbatov wants to be a classic #10, so be it, just make sure the club acquire a pointy end to what was too often last season a rather dull stick.
Taarabt is not that pointy end, and if Fulham do sign Bent, the role of reserved striker and/or #10 becomes very, very crowded. Ruiz may be able to find a home on one side of midfield, but it's hardly his best position. Berbatov could be moved up alongside Bent, but that likely only leaves one central midfielder as cover if Taarabt is played as an attacking midfielder. You couldn't pay me enough for that job and if either Sidwell or Boateng were good enough to do it, they, unfortunately, wouldn't be playing at Craven Cottage.
Having Berbatov and Taarabt on the pitch at the same time seems a fools errand. For all of their individual attacking talent, neither offers anything in the way of a reliable defensive contribution, and statistically, according to Anderson and Sally, the goals a side doesn't concede are each 33 percent more valuable than the goals they score. They may score some works of art, but having both men on the pitch at the same time is essentially playing down two men when not in possession of the ball. Goals will come, just at the wrong end. Our 12th place finish last season created a rather undeserved feeling of comfort and many seem to forget that with just a few matches to play last campaign, Fulham were desperately close to being dragged into a relegation scrap.
None of these arguments address the very real and very persistent concerns surrounding Taarabt's work ethic, attitude, and ego. In addition to the numerous question marks surrounding Taarabt's role in the Fulham team, one has to wonder whether there's room for Taarabt's ego in a dressing room already stuffed to the gills with Berbatov's.
The transfer window has yet to close and there's still time to address what I believe to be more pressing areas of concern, but I remain highly suspect of the Taarabt deal. My enduring memory of the Jol, Berbatov, Taarabt trinity is of their time together at Spurs. Jol subbed on Taarabt in a match Spurs were losing. After about the third time Taarabt started to string together one too many step overs and dribble his way into a cul de sac, Berbatov stopped and stood with his hands on his hips, watching in disgust as Taarabt was inevitably caught in possession and the attack was launched toward the Tottenham goal.
Anderson and Sally would call this sort of memory "decision bias" or "motivated reasoning". I remember that incident clearly because it confirmed what I already believed about both Taarabt and Berbatov. I would say I remembered the incident so clearly because I was rooting against Spurs at the time and, for me, it was a very pleasing series of events. Schadenfreude.
Whatever the reason, confirmation of a bias or delight in another's misfortune, I remember the incident clearly. Hopefully, this season's Fulham vintage, and especially Messrs. Berbatov and Taarabt, give me reason to dismiss this memory as a statistical outlier, a mathematical anomaly. Until then, I remain respectfully unconvinced.