Cogs in the System: Musings on Martin & McCormack

22nd December 2016

I’ve seen a lot of debate recently about the role Chris Martin plays in Fulham’s side and exactly what it is that he brings to the team.

He has his detractors still, albeit fewer than he did at the outset of his Fulham career; and there are those who maintain that a move to return our iconic No44 from the last two years, Ross McCormack, would be the mainstay of a push which would see the Whites reach the playoffs at a minimum.

Obviously opinions are always going to differ amongst the fanbase, but it appears that the way Chris Martin plays football is crucial to the way that Slavisa Jokanovic has set up his Fulham side to work. In the dynamic 4-2-3-1 that Jokanovic prefers, the twin turbo engines of Ayité and Aluko are constantly interchanging down the wings and through the middle, whilst Tom Cairney provides the finesse as he marauds around behind the striker.

The fact that all of their positions are interchangeable (to a certain extent) means that they are hard for defenders to track, with Ayité in particular seemingly able to disappear and reappear at will, something that’s been evidenced in his recent goalscoring streak. From the two behind, McDonald looks far more composed with Johansen alongside him than he ever did with Parker, because as we’ve pointed out numerous times, it takes the creative impetus away from the Scotsman, allowing him to do what he does best – shielding the back four and breaking up play.

It’s all very well lauding these players, but what makes this possible is the fact that we can make the ball stick up front. Martin might not be the fastest, but he’s enormously strong and his movement is exceptional. In games such as Wolves and Reading, the way in which he twisted the opposition centre-halves this way and that, was the primary basis for creating the opportunities in which everyone else thrived, affording time and space to the likes of Cairney and Johansen, who were then able to get their foot on the ball and dictate possession and play from the midfield.

When Fulham played Ross as a lone striker, there were increased amounts of time where Fulham could not hold the ball up and bring other players into play. Consider for example, that Tom Cairney is already more than 60% of the way to last year’s target, and that no other midfielder scored more than two goals across the entire 2015/16 campaign. In 2014/15, when Ross led the line alone for large parts of the season, the highest scoring midfielders were LVC with 5, Hoogland and Ruiz with 4, and Parker with 3.

When you consider that in comparison with this season (where we’re only half way) – where Johansen and Cairney already have 5 each, Aluko and Ayité have both scored 4, and even Kevin McDonald has 3 – then it’s easy to see that something has changed. That something is that no longer reliant on a single or dual goal source, with goals coming from all over the pitch, and that’s due to the fact that we now have a striker who holds up and links play, rather than one who comes from deep and does things on his own.

“Martin is an academic, intelligent striker who is as happy to do the dirty work.”

The McCormack brigade would also do well to remember that at this point in his first season, Ross had only scored 5 league goals for the club, one less than Martin’s current total, despite playing more games than our current frontman. Granted, the team McCormack had around him was a weaker one, but it’s impossible to consider the situation without remembering that this was a team built almost solely around the strengths of Ross McCormack.

Ross comes deep to get the ball, and drives from deep at players, which is what he’s best at – at no point here am I suggesting that McCormack isn’t an exceptionally talented Championship footballer. But if he were to come back into the current system, I’d suggest he’d have to take the place of a certain Thomas Cairney, playing behind the striker; or else we’d lose the aerial presence and strength up front that’s crucial to allowing Fulham’s dynamic three-behind-the-striker to assert their presence on games.

This is where Martin’s quality is paramount. The loanee is by no means enjoying his best spell of form, and yet his ability to bring other players into the game is absolutely crucial to the best parts of Fulham’s game. Against Reading and Huddersfield, Martin was electric, and Fulham, in turn, were as well.

Some people wanted another Ross, but he was never going to be that – Martin is an academic, intelligent striker who is as happy to do the dirty work, winning the ball and laying it off, as to be the one on the end of crosses. Martin doesn’t do as much bending the ball into the top corner from 30 yards as Ross did, and never will; but he’s a massive team contributor, and his movement and elegance of touch have not gone unnoticed, even amongst the noise that sometimes threatens to drown out debate amongst the Fulham ranks.

“Fulham are now no longer reliant on a single or dual goal source, with goals coming from all over the pitch – and that’s due to the fact that we now have a striker who holds up and links play, rather than one who comes from deep and does things on his own.”

Slowly and surely, Martin appears to be winning his Fulham critics around, if the messageboards are to be trusted. It’s probably worth noting that the man is still the club’s top scorer for the season, and also, to borrow a point from Mr. Jarman on the podcast, that his goals tend to come in bursts, where he’ll score for two or three games on the bounce. There’s a feeling in modern football that your striker is there purely to score goals, but Martin’s game has so many more dimensions than simply putting the ball in the back of the net, and with the ability of the players around him, it’s his unselfish support work that really ought to be drawing the praise from Fulham fans.