In my preview to today's match, which I'm sure you all read twice, I suggested that this could be the most important match of the season for both Fulham and Sunderland; a sign that Fulham is actually resurgent under Rene Meulensteen and will not drop back into the mire of the relegation zone, or a sign that Sunderland have a real chance to capitalize on their fine cup form and scrap their way out of the Premier League basement.
Unfortunately, my opinion on the matter hasn't changed and Fulham look for all the world like a side that will struggle to achieve the lofty goal of finishing in 17th position. The side remain too unbalanced and too encumbered with a melange of players who lack the versatility to adjust to the tactics required in any given match. Don't misunderstand, Rene Meulensteen doesn't escape blame, but he can only work with the players at his disposal.
If Fulham go for goals and all three points, they wind up dreadfully exposed at the back. If they try to keep a tight defensive shape and play on the counter, they lack the pace to get out of the defensive third, support any hold up play, and are invariably broken down.
Meulensteen's team selection today was decidedly Jol-esque, and I don't mean that necessarily as an insult. You have to feel for both the current and former Dutchmen; the players are simply not there. Wanting to find a way to get Dimitar Berbatov, Adel Taarabt, and Clint Dempsey on the field at the same time, the third central midfielder Meulensteen has recently deployed to positive effect was sacrificed in an effort to possess the ball in the Sunderland defensive third and create opportunities through solid build up play.
Can you blame him really? Sunderland's defensive frailties are well documented and a home fixture against a struggling club likely to be content with a draw seemed a fine chance to employ this strategy. For a while, it worked. How would this match have finished if Berbatov had been able to finish either of the fine chances he fluffed in the first half? Unfortunately, he didn't, and as the first half progressed, Fulham's tactical deficiencies were laid bare.
What Meulensteen has apparently not yet learned, and what cost Martin Jol his job, is that Fulham lack the balance and personnel to play this way. Both Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff were apparently tasked with making outside/in runs, possessing the ball, and finding the feet of Dimitar Berbatov and Adel Taarabt. Ostensibly, this leaves John Arne Riise and Sascha Riether with the unenviable task of providing width and service from the flanks while Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell are left to mop up counterattacks and cover the central defenders.
After a few early runs, Riise was put in his place by Adam Johnson's pace and commitment to stay out wide. He could no longer get forward effectively and Fulham's attacking play become more and more narrow. This was compounded by the fact that Dimitar Berbatov remained rooted in the middle of the park, incapable or unwilling to drag a central defender wide to create space for the runs of Dempsey, Duff, and Taarabt.
As the central attacking third became more and more congested, Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell found themselves farther up the pitch in an effort to provide an outlet for the tangled mass on the edge of the Sunderland penalty area. When possession was inevitable lost, Sunderland did a fine job of finding Fabio Borini and Adam Johnson in space and the counterattack was on. Neither Dempsey or Duff were then in a position to help out the exposed back line having made runs inside and lacking the pace necessary to respond to a defensive emergency.
Fulham's only answer to this in the first half was to foul - they committed 12 in the first half alone - and one, committed by Steve Sidwell moments after he hurriedly sprinted back in to cover Adam Johnson after he found more space on the Fulham left flank, led to the game's opening goal.
I fully expected Meulensteen to make half time changes, push the pace of the game and provide much needed width with the likes of Alexander Kacaniklic and Ashkan Dejagah, and allow Riise and Riether to tend more to their defensive duties. Another central midfield player would have been welcome as well, but there were none on the bench. Meulensteen opted instead for the more conservative approach and it seemed to pay off when Sidwell pulled one back at the beginning of the second half after some bright play from an unchanged XI.
The goal gave false hope however, and as an encouraged Fulham side pushed forward even more, the warning signs were there. Sunderland's own counterattacking incompetence was all that saved Fulham from an even more embarrassing score line as Marcos Alonso and Ki Sung-Yueng both wasted opportunities to put their teammates in on the Fulham goal.
Having played all of his cards, still needing a goal, and without the likes of Derek Boateng or Giorgos Karagounis on the bench, Meulensteen was left to hope for the best, a position Martin Jol found himself in all too often before he was finally given the ax. The best didn't happen and Fulham were shredded for two more goals after Philippe Senderos, Fernando Amorebieta, and John Arne Riise were left cruelly exposed by finally competent Sunderland counterattacks. Riise will deservedly receive criticism after today's performance, but he was left on an island against a pacey, in form winger. Senderos looked plodding and clumsy when giving up the penalty to Jozy Altidore, but Altidore was able to receive and control a long ball in the Fulham penalty area with one defender to beat.
A 2-1 loss would have been disappointing, but a 4-1 hiding at home by the worst team in the league in a season where Fulham look to be reborn relegation candidates and cannot possibly rely on goal difference to bail them out at the end of the season is soul-crushing.
In a match where Fulham had 17 attempts on goal, spent 18% longer in Sunderland's half of the field, completed 140 passes in the Black Cats' defensive third, and enjoyed 58.8% of the possession, the lack of balance in the squad caused a 4-1 pratfall of monumental proportion. Attack and they're exposed, defend and they're exposed. Martin Jol must be finding a silver lining somewhere.
Fulham must spend in the transfer window, and they need to buy players who, even if of a modest reputation, have the versatility to provide cover in a variety of roles. A fast left back, a commanding center back, and a replacement for the 134-year-old Giorgos Karagounis must be at the top of a long overdue spending list.
Fulham had a chance today to kick on to something approaching safety, but this leopard proved it can't change its spots, not without transfer window genius anyway, and Fulham are back in the scrap.