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Fulham 2-1 Sunderland – Fulham’s dominant midfield trio & O’Neill’s changes…

May 9, 2012

Martin Jol’s side ran out 2-1 winners on Sunday, although in truth the hosts will be disappointed to have only scored twice whilst the visitors will feel they could have grabbed a point. This was due to the game being characterised by two clear periods: the first hour (prior to any changes) when Fulham were dominant and Sunderland fortunate to be just one goal behind, and then the final half-hour where Martin O’Neill’s personnel and structural reshuffle saw the Black Cats come back into the encounter and nearly secure an equaliser.

Phase 1: Fulham’s Dominant Midfield Trio (0-6omins)

The Cottagers lined up in a vague 4-3-3. I say vague because although the midfield trio was fixed (and prominent), left-back John Arne Riise was more of a left-winger and left-midfielder Clint Dempsey spent so much time centrally that Fulham essentially had two forwards. It was 4-3-3, albeit distorted. Sunderland, meanwhile, were aligned in a classic Martin O’Neill 4-4-2, albeit without a typical target striker, but rather with two #10s (Ji Dong-Won and Stéphane Sessègnon) who drifted back towards their midfield and consequently afforded Fulham’s centre-backs a mostly quiet opening hour.

The most telling aspect of these two formations however was that Fulham’s midfield triumvirate of Danny Murphy, Mahamadou Diarra and Moussa Dembélé were repeatedly able to overload and bypass Sunderland’s central-midfield duo of Lee Cattermole and Jack Colback. The trio showed excellent composure and distribution as they controlled the game with an uncanny amount of ease. Although the numerical advantage undoubtedly helped, their touches and vision were superb and the Cattermole-Colback pairing struggled to make an impact on proceedings as a result.

Murphy sat deepest of the three, operating in the manner of Xavi or Andrea Pirlo, calmly and repeatedly stroking the ball between his centre-backs, linking with his fellow central-midfielders and spreading the ball to Fulham’s wide-players. Murphy was the central pivot around which Fulham built most of their best play, and the Englishman would complete and attempt the most passes (79/90) on the pitch on Sunday. He was was also the most significant prompter of Fulham’s attacks, making a game-high 21/29 attacking third passes.

Diarra and Dembélé contributed similar roles to each other and Murphy, whilst also adding thrust to Fulham’s play and not just control when in possession. Diarra covers a lot of ground and there is a real hunger to his play, though perhaps his strongest suit – other than his understandably excellent footwork and distribution (Madrid paid €26 million for him in 2006) – is his reading of the game, averaging 3.5 interceptions-per-game, secondly only to Stiliyan Petrov in the league this season. Against the Black Cats he made another three interceptions as well as winning all three of his aerial duels, helping to protect Fulham’s back four whilst also linking well with his midfield counterparts.

Dembélé’s ball retention (74/78 passes, 95% accuracy) was extremely impressive, giving credence to reports that he was once again watched by Manchester United’s scouts – his season-long pass accuracy of 88.5% is only bettered by seven midfielders in the league (25+ apps). What also caught the eye was his ability to effortlessly glide past challenges – the Belgian won all seven of his take-ons at the Cottage on Sunday in what was another dynamic display from the talented 24-year-old.

The trio offered greater mobility and were more secure and clinical in possession than their counterparts, equally happy to pass in patient triangles until the right gap emerged as they were to break with pace and power. They gave the Whites a platform for which they deserved a lead of two goals or more – the Cottagers had sixteen attempts in the opening hour to Sunderland’s six, and but for Simon Mignolet’s legs and a couple of Martin Turner blocks such a lead would have arrived. Indeed, both Fulham goals would appear courtesy of this numerical advantage and said dominance. The free-kick from which Clint Dempsey opened the scoring was won when one of Diarra’s powerful central runs was unlawfully ended (by Cattermole, unsurprisingly), whilst Dembélé’s strike moments after Sunderland’s equaliser came after quick, short passes on the half-way line and an unchallenged surging run up the middle.

Sunderland’s shape and personnel were clearly ill-suited to the challenge. Their two central midfielders desperately needed assistance from either Sessègnon or Ji, but neither tracked back far enough when out of possession to help Cattermole and Colback out. When in possession however, both Ji and the disappointing subdued Sessègnon sought the same areas, trying to play in-between Fulham’s defence and midfield. This meant that Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland had little direct threat to deal with and were afforded a very comfortable opening hour. In essence this meant, bizarrely, that Ji and Sessègnon were too high-up in defence and too deep in attack. [It was telling however that Sunderland’s goal came about when Ji pushed up to the edge of the area and offered a Zamora/Bendtner-esque back-to-goal lay-off that Phil Bardsley was able to emphatically rifle home.]

I’m very pleased at the way we played, but we should have scored more goals.

– Fulham manager, Martin Jol (via independent.co.uk)

Consequently, the above combinations sparked a cycle of events from which Fulham repeatedly emerged with possession, momentum and the greater goal threat. Cattermole or Colback would spread the ball wide, play eventually broke down without Ji or Sessègnon threatening Mark Schwarzer’s goal, and then Fulham would break (either with pace or precise possessional play) through Murphy, Diarra and Dembélé’s passing, utilising Riise for width on the left and Duff for width on the right, with Dempsey able to play around the pivot of Pavel Pogrebnyak up top. It was a joy to watch at times and indeed there was little surprise as to how Fulham’s goals came about, the only real surprise being that after an hour they still held just a slender single-goal advantage.

Phase 2: Sunderland’s Changes (60′-FT)

After an impressive turn-around in fortunes since taking over at the Stadium of Light, Martin O’Neill has every right to set up his team in the same manner (4-4-2, or 4-4-1-1, attack with width etc), but it wasn’t working at Craven Cottage and as such he should perhaps have realised the match was slipping from Sunderland’s grasp sooner than the hour mark. Regardless, eventually he made a change or two and it brought Sunderland on to an even footing with their hosts.

Nicklas Bendtner‘s introduction (for Ji) on 60’ gave the visitors an attacking pivot around which they could operate in attack. His presence occupied Hughes and Hangeland far more readily and consequently gave more space for Sessègnon to play in, stretching Fulham’s defence vertically. His presence also helped to bring the best out of James McClean on Sunderland’s left. The subsequent 71st-minute introduction of Fraizer Campbell in an attacking RM / RW role added the threat of pace and ‘in-behind’ movement that Fulham struggled to deal with (especially with Riise’s high-up role as sole left-sided outlet), with Campbell and Bendtner enjoying two of Sunderland’s best chances in their impressive final half hour.

The two subs, Bendtner and Campbell, both had very good chances and missed them. Sometimes that happens. There’ll be times it goes the other way and if they had gone in our favour and we would have reversed the scoreline.

– Sunderland manager, Martin O’Neill (via safc.com)

Firstly, Bendtner’s through-ball knock-down sent Campbell free in Fulham’s area, and although he beat Schwarzer when one-on-one, his effort rolled tamely past the far post. Secondly, with Campbell and Sessègnon occupying Hughes and Hangeland, Bendtner was able to find himself one-on-one but wastefully fired a curled effort high and wide to the disappointment of Sunderland’s travelling fans. As he graphic below illustrates, Sunderland had a better minutes:chance ratio after the changes, with these chances being closer in proximity to Fulham’s goal and of better quality.

As such, it can clearly be seen that O’Neill’s changes had a positive effect – Sunderland were a far improved side after the hour mark, although not to the extent of being dominant however. Fulham still enjoyed some excellent chances of their own – Dembélé was superbly denied twice, Stephen Kelly came close to a rare goal, and a further Dempsey effort was headed off the line. Whilst the Whites had dominated the opening hour, O’Neill’s changes brought the two sides to parity over the final half-hour.

Resulting Conclusions…

Sunderland will feel that they should have grabbed a point for their final half-hour endeavours, however the truth is that Fulham should have been long out of sight by then. But for Bardsley’s against-the-run-of-play strike and some impressive last-ditch Sunderland defending this would have been the case. The Whites were very impressive in possession, with their midfield triumvirate of Murphy, Diarra and Dembélé controlling proceedings for the most part. If they can keep Dembélé for next season (and Dempsey too, for that matter), then on such form Fulham could well be in for an eye-catching campaign…

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