I was going to write this Saturday, but I decided it was best to sit on my thoughts for a good 24 hours before committing anything to the long-remembering hive mind of the interwebs. Best to consider one's words, thoughts, and approach before expressing anything foolhardy or letting slip say, a sound bite that rings like a concrete bell and winds up being the one perfectly awful thing one could say on an occasion such as dropping two points to West Bromwich Albion at home.
Lest anyone missed it or was relayed some horribly distorted version of what Jol actually said, here are the choice cuts causing the most gnashing of teeth:
"It's hard to fight expectation levels and maybe a minority feels we should be in the top four."
"If you play in a European Cup final, then the expectation levels are too high. But that was three years ago. I played two semi-finals of the European Cup and I've forgotten about it now, you know?"
"We are 12th in the league and that's maybe where I feel we could finish. Maybe 9th or 10th. I think we are doing OK. Realistically, we should think the same as a lot of other teams: stay in the league and then hopefully once all the players know each other, gel together, then we should be in the top 10. I think I have managed to collect together a strong group of players."
I stand by what I wrote about Jol prior to the West Brom match and I'm still fuming about the incompetent display he organized at St. James' Park over a fortnight ago, but I can't help but feel a little sorry for the Dutchman after Saturday's disappointing result. The above quotes, so dissected and vilified; the source of such rancor and vitriol, don't come off to me as intentionally provocative and inaccurate as much as they do just horribly obtuse. What Jol said is technically accurate and I mostly agree with his current appraisal of the side, but pressing the issue after a series of disappointing results is ham-handed at best and self-destructive lunacy at worst.
Prior to egging on the malcontents (and by malcontents I mean pretty much anyone who supports the club) in Saturday's post-match interview, I think Jol was seated squarely in the hot seat, but not quite near the chopping block. The club's malaise dates back to last campaign and although one would have expected performances to have reverted back to the mean by now, Shahid Khan, a big believer in the wisdom of analytics, would have been averse to pulling the trigger on Jol in reaction to a decidedly un-purple patch. Give the guy some time and let's see where we're at in January. After Saturday's post-match bumble-fest however, Khan has to be wondering how much slack to cut the beleaguered gaffer.
To be sure, Saturday's performance was markedly better than anything that's come before. Fulham completed 88% of their passes, bossed possession at 56.3%, completed 91 of 130 passes in the attacking third, and had 3 goals pulled back for offside. The intent was clearly there, just not the luck.
What was alarming about Saturday's draw was the lack of adjustment. Fulham only had 3 successful crosses to West Brom's 11. Granted, the Baggies were packing it in so there wasn't much space to get in behind, but Fulham also managed only 2 shots on target and Dimitar Berbatov completed as many passes in the attacking third as Liam Ridgewell and fewer than Billy Jones. The attack, even when given the chance to compromise West Brom's bunkered defense with a swift counterattack, seemed typically ponderous and devoid of a cutting edge.
Jol seemed to approach the waning moments of the match as if all of the disallowed goals had gone in and the 3 points had been collected. How else do you explain the bizarre like-for-like substitutions of Kieran Richardson and Dimitar Berbatov and the reticence to adjust the side's shape and approach?
Still, the performance overall was encouraging, at least more so than the previous three matches this campaign. West Brom is not a foot of the table side, especially given Steve Clarke's transfer window activity, and dropping points at home to a 20th place side in September is far different than doing so in April. Additionally, Jol wasn't blessed with an incredibly versatile bench on Saturday. Damien Duff, Giorgos Karagounis, Fernando Amorebieta, Hugo Rodallega, Adel Taarabt, and Elsad Zverotic were his non-goalkeeping options.
Richardson got pulled early because he was coming off a hamstring injury. Zverotic has only just arrived and is a right back so Amorebieta was the default choice and probably the only one of Jol's three substitutions that was planned. Berbatov had a hamstring complaint and Jol was likely loathe to bunker in and concede an outlet up the pitch with well over ten minutes remaining and a 1-0 lead. Duff replaced Ruiz due to injury. In retrospect maybe Karagounis could have come on for either Berbatov or Ruiz to add a little steel to the side, but that's really splitting hairs.
Where Jol went wrong, and I mean. really, really wrong, was in the post match interview. In truth, a draw at home to West Brom with a limited squad just after the transfer window has closed isn't the worst thing in the world. However, Jol turned up the heat on the hot seat and inched himself closer to the chopping block by creating a two way conflict between the supporters and himself, or at least the appearance of such. As frustrating as it would have been to the supporters, turning the other cheek and proffering the normal post-match managerial platitudes would have been far better than speaking his mind and incurring the ire of cradle-to-grave Cottagers.
Shahid Khan believes in analytics, but he also believes in public relations and, as a new owner, having the trust and respect of the Fulham faithful is hugely important. The last thing he wants is a besieged subordinate mucking it up for him by turning normally patient and forgiving fans against the club's leadership with his poorly considered comments. Fulham's next seven Premier League fixtures are Chelsea away, Cardiff at home, Stoke City at home, Crystal Palace away, Southampton away, Manchester United at home, and Liverpool away.
Realistically, given Saturday's post-match debacle, I think Jol needs a minimum of nine points from those seven fixtures in order to survive until January. Maybe more if he decides to reprise Saturday's post-match disaster.
Lord knows my mouth knows exactly how my foot tastes, but Jol's quotes have transformed a few grumblings into an idee fixe for a not inconsequential portion of the Fulham faithful. For now, I'm willing to cut the Dutchman a little slack. I'm more concerned with the football and I think most of the club's supporters are as well. A few solid performances and a few points gained (at least nine?) will go a long way toward mending fences and will allow Shahid Khan the latitude he needs to make a fair assessment of the manager's qualities.
Let the supporters be supporters, Martin. Defend yourself with your side's performances and let the chips fall where they may.