About an hour after the final whistle yesterday at St. James' Park, I just had to close up shop on Twitter; commit to not thinking about the Newcastle match; and bathe in the dual medicinal balms of American college football and Rogue's Chipotle Ale, such was my frustration, shared by the vast majority of the Fulham faithful, following the side's insipid display on Tyneside.
This morning, I spent my time wondering, "Was it really that bad?" and re-watching the match without the real-time, fomenting influence of social media.
It was that bad.
As I stated in my preview to the match, Saturday's performance gave Fulham its first real measure of where it stands in relation to the rest of the league. Both the Arsenal match and the Sunderland match were not without caveats and asterisks and in traveling to Newcastle to take on a side everyone agrees is simply not that good, Fulham, under the leadership of Martin Jol, had a chance to establish itself as a solidly mid-table team capable of scrapping out points in away matches to inferior opposition, but not quite at the level to consistently compete with the Premier League's premier clubs.
The inclusion of Darren Bent in the starting XI to play up top with Dimitar Berbatov looked a step in the right direction as the Cottagers are consistently toothless when Berbatov is asked to lead the line by himself. His penchant to drop deep into midfield to indulge his self-professed desire to play a traditional number 10 role too often leaves the team without an advanced threat to stretch opposing defenses vertically and allows the opposition to press a higher line because, frankly, Fulham lack the pace in midfield and on the wings to cause much concern running through and getting in behind. The effect of this is to compress the midfield nearly to the point of stagnation and, once possession is regained by the opposition, create an almost immediate numbers up situation as almost no gap exists between the opposition's defense and its midfield.
However, on Saturday, rather than operating just under Darren Bent in the pocket between the last defender and Newcastle's makeshift central midfield pairing of Vurnon Anita and Moussa Sissoko, Berbatov continued to drop deep into midfield, sometimes dropping behind Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell, to pick up the ball. His only real attempt to get close to Bent in the first half was to receive the ball in the center circle, drop it back into midfield, and then motion that he wanted Bent to come to him.
Bent mercifully declined the Bulgarian's invitation, but remained completely sequestered from the rest of the team for the duration of the afternoon. On the day, Parker, Sidwell, Riether, and Kacaniklic were Berbatov's favorite targets, completing passes to them 9,8,7, and 7 times respectively while combining with Bent only once. The vast majority of the Bulgarian's passes were backwards or square, hardly the work of a string-pulling number 10. Jol's 4-4-1-1 essentially became a 4-5-0-1, Bent was starved of service, and Fulham's attack once again carried little threat. Jol's boys managed only 3 attempts on goal and completed only 43 passes in the attacking third to Newcastle's 115.
In addition to the numerous sloppy passes and painfully ponderous build up play - at times both Berbatov and Bryan Ruiz appeared to be playing underwater - what made yesterday's impotent performance so hard to watch was waiting for Martin Jol to do something, anything, to affect the outcome of a match so clearly in need of a change. Until Sacha Riether went down injured, Jol seemed content to let the whole farcical display continue to its bitter end, averse to risk losing the one point on offer until Hatem Ben Arfa's wonder strike took even that off the table.
Even after the Dutchman's hand was forced by Ben Arfa's goal, the change was simply one of personnel rather than tactics, withdrawing Darren Bent in favor of Adel Taarabt who, even if he'd taken the chance presented to him by Fabricio Coloccini's wayward touch, would only have been papering over the cracks. Fulham didn't create anything and a soft goal in the game's dying minutes would not have been enough to conceal this ugly truth. Only David Stockdale's consistent heroics prevented the match from spiraling into an embarrassment.
So where does that leave us?
Well, I don't think it's too early to be alarmed. Yes, this was only the third match of the season, but this creative malaise has persisted since at least early April of last season and Fulham avoided a relegation scrap mostly through the ineptitude of the relegation sides rather than any praise worthy performances of its own.
Additionally, although positive signings and loan deals have brought in the likes of Darren Bent, Adel Taarabt, and Scott Parker, glaring needs for a functional left back and a proper creative midfielder have gone wholly unaddressed. The team's clinical lack of pace continues to compound a flawed tactical system predicated on Dimitar Berbatov sinking deep into midfield to get on the ball.
Herein lies my biggest concern with Martin Jol. It doesn't take Jose Mourinho or a UEFA A badge to see that Berbatov's insistence on dropping into midfield to demand the ball compresses Fulham's attack, slows transition, and isolates anyone who might be paired to play with him. It's a tactical approach that does not work and didn't work last campaign either, which means one of two things:
1) Martin Jol is asking Berbatov to play this way and is setting the team up accordingly with the belief that this system gives it the best chance to win matches.
2) Jol realizes, along with everyone else, that Berbatov's dalliances in midfield compress Fulham's attack, slow transitions, and isolate any striker asked to play with him but Berbatov does it anyway.
In option one, Martin Jol is tactically deficient. In option two, the gaffer's leadership has been hijacked by the ego of one temperamental genius and he's now as impotent as the Fulham side he's been tasked to lead.
Still think it's too early to be concerned?