Fulham travel to The Hawthorns Saturday to face fellow strugglers West Bromwich Albion and I feel a little bit like Cardinal Biggles in the Monty Python Spanish Inquisition sketches. Fulham's three biggest matches of the season are West Ham at home, Sunderland at home, Swansea away, and...Fulham's four biggest matches of the season are West Ham at home, Sunderland at home, Swansea away, Southampton at home, and...Fulham's five, five biggest matches of the season are...
Depending upon who you read, the appointment of Felix Magath is either a bold move that will save the club from the ignominy of relegation or an unmitigated disaster in the making - a panic move clumsily made just when the side was beginning to recover from its season long malaise. The new German manager is either a much needed taskmaster who will imbue in the side the steel needed for survival or the managerial equivalent of the lead singer of Rammstein - a sinister connoisseur of sporting torture.
I'm not sure what to believe. My reticence in getting behind the move has less to do with Magath and more to do with the timing of the change. It feels for all the world like an ill-conceived final roll of the dice by a desperate man well behind the house who's looking to make up his losses with one big bet. Why back Rene Meulensteen in the transfer market, allow him to bring in his targets, and then give him his marching orders? Why judge on overhauled side and the chances of recovery against the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool?
Managerial changes almost always happen at the wrong time and managers tend not to have the level of influence on a club's performances most supporters, pundits, and chairmen would like to believe. Rather, as Chris Anderson and David Sally prove in their excellent book The Numbers Game, on field success is almost exclusively the result of luck and the quality of the players who make up a side. Extended stretches of poor performances are usually just statistical anomalies and the bump sides often experience upon replacing their manager are simply a statistical return to the mean - a recovery that would have happened anyway.
For most of the season, as I've suggested before, Fulham simply didn't have the quality and balance in the side to warrant better results. Following the January arrivals of the likes of Lewis Holtby and William Kvist and encouraging displays against Manchester United and Liverpool, they seemed finally to have acquired the quality and balance they sorely lacked for most of the season. Positive results were very likely forthcoming. But whereas Shahid Khan, himself a strong believer in analytics, showed incredible patience with Martin Jol, gathering a large sample size of matches by which to judge the Dutchman's merits, he essentially gave Meulensteen two matches to prove his worth with an entirely overhauled squad. Enter Magath and the rumors of training ground bust ups and the mythic tales of waterless training runs and another overhaul with twelve matches to save the season.
Whoever was to be in charge Saturday, the match against West Brom was always a "must win", but now it's also a match in which a new system, new player selections, and a new manager must be immediately successful. Felix Magath strikes me as the sort of strong-willed personality who will immediately reshape the side to his liking, but those sorts of overhauls, no matter the quality or table position of a side or that of their opponents, take time, a commodity Fulham simply do not have.
Based on Magath's criticism of Fulham's self-destructive generosity in the goals allowed department, I expect him to field a side predicated on being difficult to break down, but he also has a reputation for adjusting his tactics to suit the players at his disposal. Meulensteen, in his last two matches in charge, seemed to have settled on a side and system best suited to get results from the players available to him. How bizarre and unsettling would it be if Magath fielded essentially the same team Meulensteen deployed against Manchester United and Liverpool?
Fulham may still be without new boy Kostas Mitroglou as he continues to struggle to regain fitness and Maarten Stekelenburg is apparently a bit of a doubt after clashing with Luis Suarez in the Liverpool match. Fernando Amorebieta may also miss out with a knee injury.
Pepe Mel will be looking for his first win as manager of West Brom but will be without Nicolas Anelka and Claudio Yacob who have shin and hamstring injuries respectively.
I've refrained all season from saying definitively whether I believe Fulham will stay up or be relegated. I've also recently said that firing Rene Meulensteen would be insanity and only serve to plunge the club into an orgy of chaos and instability unbecoming the Cottagers' reputation. Saturday's match will go a long way toward addressing both issues. I'm hoping for the best.