Rene Meulensteen is the most popular man in West London at the moment (at least among Fulham supporters). Under his tutelage, Fulham seem a side transformed. The club, even in its undeserved loss two weeks ago to Tottenham, is full of verve, purpose, industry, and grit. Ashkan Dejagah and Giorgos Karagounis in particular have, through their recent performances, injected life into a side that seemed to have turned and started to smell with Martin Jol at the helm. Onward and upward, right?
Although I have been impressed with Fulham's latest efforts, I'm left wondering if it really can be this simple. In The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, Chris Anderson and David Sally provide compelling statistical evidence that changing managers is not the panacea so many supporters and owners believe it to be. Soccer is a player's game, and the merits of one professional level coach over another are statistically less significant than the merits of individual players over their competition. In other words, teams perform at the level of their mean ability and prolonged periods of good or bad results are anomalies that, over time, are smoothed out by increasing sample sizes. According to Anderson and Sally, Fulham's recent positive displays have less to do with Meulensteen v Jol and more to do with players rounding into form, coming back from injury, and simply reverting to their mean abilities.
That said, I'm not sure I've ever seen a more stark contrast in performances pre and post manager sacking. Two matches is not a large enough sample size to draw substantive conclusions, but it's certainly a large enough sample size to form hypotheses. I'm inclined to believe one of three things has happened.
1 - Fulham are simply rounding into the side they ought to be. Ashkan Dejagah is back from injury and providing the sort of pace and width the team has thus far lacked this campaign. A merry-go-round cast of defenders is finally beginning to find focus and familiarity with one another. Rough edges are finally beginning to smooth themselves out and individual performances are improving as a result. Jol was simply the victim of an exceptionally rare bad run of form.
2 - Rene Meulensteen is a master tactician and man manager. All those matches spent as Alex Ferguson's understudy are bearing fruit and Shahid Khan, with the ironic assistance of Martin Jol, has uncovered a diamond of a gaffer and Meulensteen's footballing acumen and discerning eye are spurring Fulham's playing staff into the best collective form of the past year-and-a-half.
3 - Martin Jol is a galactically incompetent manager; the Peter Principle made manifest. He's a charlatan of the highest order and even a modestly talented manager was bound to enjoy success when stepping into the gaping maw of Jol's idiocy.
Option one is sensible. Option two is not out of the question. And option three, should it prove true, would ensure Martin Jol's next managerial position is somewhere like, but not necessarily, Kolkata Camelians.
I'll reserve judgement until the end of the season (Fulham still sit in the relegation zone, after all, and Meulensteen's reign is still in its early infancy), but I admit I'm at a loss to explain Fulham's startlingly positive recent displays.
If Meulensteen does turn out to be the managerial wizard of option two, he'll have to prove it over the Christmas season. Fulham travel to Goodison Park Saturday to take on Roberto Martinez and an Everton side the Cottagers have never taken a single point from in the Premier League era, and then face Manchester City at home, Norwich away, Hull away, and West Ham at home. Throw in an FA Cup fixture with Norwich on the back end, and one can imagine the wear and tear of such match congestion taking its toll on one of the oldest and not especially deep sides in the Premier League.
That said, it's not an awful series of fixtures, and a positive display against Everton could imbue the side with the sort of confidence necessary to collect a healthy number of points and finally escape the desperation of the relegation zone.
Minus Fernando Amorebieta and Brede Hangeland, Fulham are not encumbered by any injury concerns and Meulensteen will have a healthy stable of first teamers from which to select his side for the trip to Goodison Park. In his pre-match interview at FulhamFC.com, Meulensteen said, "I explained to the players that as much as the victory [against Aston Villa] was important and two goals were scored, even more important was the clean sheet. That's one of the things you need to get right and correct, first and foremost. If you get clean sheets then you always get points on the board."
Fulham have certainly looked much more capable in the defensive third of the pitch under Meulensteen, but much of that success has come from pushing the pace at the opposite end of the park and not allowing the opposition to settle into any attacking rhythm. In an away match against Roberto Martinez's fluid Everton side, this approach will be tested.
Everton are coming off an away win at Manchester United and an away draw at Arsenal and Roberto Martinez is surely in the early running for Premier League Manager Of The Year honors. The challenge for Fulham will be to limit Gareth Barry's time on the ball and suffocate service and space to Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas. It's a tall order, but as with the recent loss to Tottenham, Fulham's showing is potentially more important than the result.
"Good performances build confidence, good results build confidence and the team is in very good spirits," Meulensteen said Thursday. "It's a process...It's not something that's easy to turn on and off, but do the basic things right, build from there and hopefully more good results will come our way."
Whereas Jol might have, not incorrectly, suggested that Everton and Manchester City are not the sides Fulham should be straining to take points from, Meulensteen approaches each match from a performance perspective and urges his players to not focus on the outcome of a particular match.
Although Chris Anderson and David Sally argue in The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong that managers do not make that much of a difference, broadly speaking, they do allow that soccer is a game of razor thin margins and that managers do make some difference. Perhaps Meulensteen's process focused approach is just the razor thin difference the Cottagers have needed.
Here's to a positive performance at Everton.