Fulham Disappoint As Rovers Earn Draw
Blackburn earned a point with a resolute defensive performance at Craven Cottage on Sunday, although Fulham will rue a lacklustre opening half hour, numerous misplaced crosses and a lack of a cutting edge throughout.
The Whites began their second home league match of the season somewhat tentatively, sitting deeper than expected for a team that has lost just one league encounter at the Cottage in 2011. Given Blackburn’s current struggles and Martin Jol’s purported penchant for attacking football, midfielder Steve Sidwell’s post-match admission that the Whites ‘were sitting back, waiting for the game to come to us’ becomes all the more surprising.
Throughout the opening half hour Fulham’s ball retention was unusually sloppy. Debutant Bryan Ruiz was especially guilty, but as substitute Stephen Kelly acknowledged afterwards regarding Ruiz, the fact ‘you don’t get the chance to take two or three touches on the ball’ in the Premier League undoubtedly counted against the Costa Rican.
However, by no means was Ruiz the only guilty party. Danny Murphy was lethargic in the middle, Damien Duff wasteful with numerous crosses from the right, and striker Bobby Zamora largely anonymous bar a valid penalty claim after being bundled over by Míchel Salgado.
For Rovers, David Hoilett stood out; full of running and showing an adroit touch when on the ball. At the back, Scott Dann – one haphazard back-pass aside – seemed to be fitting in nicely to his new club, adeptly extinguishing a number of threatening situations in the Rovers area.
Just as Fulham appeared to be taking control of the game, Blackburn took the lead through a quite stunning Rubén Rochina strike. Ruiz once more dallied and surrendered possession, Rovers broke, and eventually Rochina arrowed a pacy shot into the top right corner from outside of the Fulham box, with Ruiz again at fault for standing off the young Spaniard. A fine goal undoubtedly, albeit eminently preventable from a Fulham perspective.
Not that it was against the run of play. If anything Blackburn had had the better chances to that moment – David Goodwillie firing an impressive overhead kick just wide as well as offering a tame shot to Schwarzer’s left having found himself well placed in the Fulham area.
Unfortunately for Rovers, this appeared to spur Jol’s charges into action, and a near-instant reply followed just six minutes later. Danny Murphy, so often Fulham’s key creative force, allowed himself to work higher up the pitch, and slotted a delightful through-ball to Zamora, who all-to-easily negotiated Gaël Givet’s tame challenge before smartly curling past Paul Robinson into the far corner. It remained all-square at the break.
Into the second half and Jol wisely replaced the ineffective and, frankly, often lost-looking Ruiz with Moussa Dembélé. The Belgian gave Fulham enhanced ball retention coupled with a much needed offensive impetus [see graphic below], and consequently the Whites dominated the second period, attempting almost double the number of passes to their rivals (330 v 177) in contrast to the even first half (236 v 218). As if to emphasise his impact, in just 45 minutes of action Dembélé completed more passes (28 from 33) than all-bar-two of the Rovers team managed in the entire game.
As Fulham pressed, Rovers went into a shell, dropping almost everyone behind the ball and leaving goalkeeper Robinson little option but to boot the ball as far down the pitch as he could muster. This often surrendered possession straight back to the Whites, and when Blackburn tried to play it on the ground they rarely last more than five passes.
Nonetheless, Steve Kean’s team defended resolutely, successfully repelling thirty-three of thirty-five Fulham crosses into their area as the Whites sought to make their dominance count [see graphic below]. In total Rovers attempted a staggering fifty-three clearances and made a further six blocks as they fought admirably to keep Fulham at bay, something Sidwell attested to afterwards when he noted that the Whites found it ‘hard to break down two banks of four, or nine players behind the ball – it’s tough.’
Robinson made two excellent saves from long-range efforts by Murphy and Clint Dempsey, but ultimately the Cottagers were made to rue the lack of a cutting edge as the match petered out to a 1-1 draw. In the succint words of Brede Hangeland, ‘I’m extremely disappointed. We dominated completely and should have won.’ Martin Jol felt Fulham ‘deserved more,’ whilst Steve Kean appeared simply happy to have ‘dealt with the Fulham threat’ and earned his first point of the season.
For the Whites, there was plenty of build up, but no end product, and until Jol restores Andy Johnson to the starting XI, the same might well continue – his pace and movement in the final third were conspicuous by their absence on Sunday. However, quite who he sacrifices out of Zamora, Dempsey, Dembélé, Duff and the £10m new signing Ruiz is a conundrum I am glad not to have to solve.
Elsewhere for the Cottagers, Philippe Senderos looked every inch the disaster waiting to happen that you would expect from a former Arsenal defender; restoring the almost telepathic Hangeland-Hughes (when fit again) partnership is surely a must for Jol. Having replaced Hughes in the twentieth minute, Stephen Kelly enjoyed a solid outing at right-back – he got forward well and was dependable when it came to defence. As per usual Sidwell displayed his great energy – and executed a brilliant last ditch tackle – but gave the ball away far too readily for a team that tries to play passing football.
In the Rovers camp, Dann’s defensive solidity (alongside Christopher Samba) will play a big role in their survival aspirations. Hoilett impressed with his pace and trickery, but elsewhere options look decidedly thin on the ground. Only Salgado and Steven N’Zonzi appeared capable of passing repeatedly and accurately, which results in pressure on them and vulnerability the rest of the time.
Furthermore, Robinson’s unaesthetic and ineffective long-ball distribution [see graphic below, comparing his style with that of Manchester United’s David de Gea this weekend] will not only frustrate fans but will heap unrelenting pressure on his team as it regularly hands possession straight back to the opposition.
Rovers undoubtedly defended stoutly and effectively, but on another day the opposition will not be as generous as Fulham were on Sunday. Steve Kean has pleaded with fans for patience as well as their backing amidst numerous calls for his dismissal, but the truth is that Blackburn appear destined for a gloomy season as long as Kean remains in charge. A win percentage of just 22% renders his claim that ‘the top half is certainly achievable’ fanciful to the point of hilarity.
Fulham however will undoubtedly improve, providing such lacklustre starts can be eliminated and a proverbial end product can be delivered. Once Ruiz has adjusted to the Premier League he will be a valuable addition, having displayed ‘some great touches’ in his otherwise disappointing Fulham debut. For now their attentions turn to the Europa League – perhaps a welcome distraction to what has undoubtedly been a disappointing and frustrating start to the domestic campaign under Martin Jol.