In a brand new column for Fulhamish, Middle Aged View From the States, Adam Seessel introduces himself as one of the latest additions to the Fulham family and pens some thoughts about the strange goings on down at the Cottage over the last couple of months.
I’m a middle-aged white guy from NYC, and although I’ve been a Fulham fan only since December I think it’s fair to call me “long-suffering” already. Friends from the neighborhood during a recent vacation brought me to Craven Cottage and I was entranced – only to see us give away a 1-0 lead to draw with Leicester.
From the States I have since watched us lose an FA cup match to a team 58 spots below; lose 2-1 to a team despite outscoring them 3-0; and then lose to a depleted Tottenham 10 seconds from time. As Casey Stengel once famously said about the hapless 1962 New York (baseball) Mets: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
I was part of “Cosmos Generation” and grew up playing the sport in New Jersey, where thanks to our immigrant population it was the dominant sport – we didn’t even have an (American) football team at my school. I remember seeing Pele, Beckenbauer and even George Best between the sticks. So I have some (original) football chops, and as a former journalist (now investment manager) I have some writing chops as well.
But back to the haplessness – or is haplessity?
As I see it from 3,450 miles away, our problems lie both with the players and with the manager’s system. The two are related, of course; the system affects player attitude and behavior; and I have to say that much of the blame lies with Ranieri, who is deploying his players in a defensive system that doesn’t match well with our players’ natural skill and finesse.
Five at the back is the central problem. It leaves us flat at the back with not enough midfield players to contest the ball. In addition, Seri is a poor playmaker. He is an excellent controller of the ball and an excellent short passer, but he plays negatively – short passes, almost always laterally or backwards, never forwards. By making him the midfield general, we confine ourselves to an uninspired, negative performance – today at Crystal Palace is a perfect case study.
Now – let’s take Christie off (I believe the English-ism is “shambolic”) and move Odoi to right back – he is hard-working and reliable too small to handle big strikers (look how Batshuayi manhandled him late in 2nd half). Ream and MLM as center backs for back four – then have Chambers and Seri as defensive double-pivot sitting in front of them. Chambers and Seri work well together, just not as an attacking force.
If you put them in the defensive midfield to both contest possession and distribute to the attack, that would work well – especially if you put Kearney, who is our most talented player on the ball by far, as a central, attacking playmaker. Easy from there – with Mitro the Bull up front and Babel/Sess running off his left and Vietto off his right.
This was essentially the formation during 2nd half vs. Brighton – Seri set back and let Kearney boss things – and the results speak for themselves. It’s not just that the formation was right; because the formation was right, the players felt comfortable, confident and above all empowered.
We have a skillful team – not strong (except for the Bull), but skilled, and we need a set-up that feeds that skill rather than stifles it. No wonder we had zero shots on goal and one corner. The whole set-up was uncomfortable for the players – you could see that. To be sure, we were outmuscled and out-toughed off the ball much of the game, but much of that has to do with the fact that the players were not feeling natural and on the front foot.
There are other problems, of course – where was Sess for an exhausted, yellow-carded Babel? – but this is the central one. From what I gather, they have called Ranieri “the tinkerman,” but unless he sees what’s clearly in front of him I’m afraid that the answer to Casey Stengel’s question is this: Yes, the players can play the game – but the manager won’t let them.