At home against third-tier opposition, Fulham had an opportunity for little harmless escapism, with a Sheffield United team floundering at the bottom of League One more likely to give the Cottagers momentum than mount a serious FA Cup challenge. Though they’d managed to earn a replay at Bramall Lane, a place in the FA Cup’s fifth round was too much of a reach for a Blades team currently sitting 67th in English soccer.
At least, under normal circumstances it would be too much to ask. But those normal circumstances don’t account of how Fulham’s evermore atrocious form – a state that reached a new nadir on Tuesday. Held scoreless for 120 minutes against a team languishing near the bottom of League One, the Cottagers were embarrassingly escorted out of the FA Cup, with Shaun Miller’s 119th minute goal giving Sheffield United a 1-0 win in West London.
According to STATS, Inc., a team that saw Clint Dempsey, Alexander Kacaniklic, and Pajtim Kasami restored to the starting XI could only muster two shots on target, one of which was credited to goalkeeper David Stockdale. Sheffield United were only one better, the teams’ five shots on goal part of two mind-numbing hour London’s The Guardian described as “what may well have been the worst match of all time.”
Minutes before penalty kicks, Miller gave viewers a reprieve, allowing the tie of end after two ennui-inducing hours. Converting a corner with the last chance of the game, Miller’s header from two yards out secured a place in the competition’s fifth round, where Sheffield United will host the winner of Wednesday’s Nottingham Forest-Preston North End replay.
As for Fulham, Old Trafford awaits, with the Cottagers set to face fellow strugglers Manchester United this weekend. But whereas the Red Devils are trying to transcend their merely good selves, Fulham’s problems are more severe. The Whites are fighting for their first division survival, but instead of using Tuesday as an opportunity to build toward that goal, Fulham’s given another indication that relegation is closer than it appears.
Quick Six: Red Devils regress, Sunderland routs rivals, and the other headlines from the Premier League’s 24th round
When former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson claimed Charlie Adam’s corner kicks were worth £10 million, he was doing more than driving up the price of the then-Blackpool midfielder. Weighing in on the Liverpool target, Ferguson was also implicitly commenting on the limits of the Scottish international’s game. After all, how much time do we spend talking about Andrea Pirlo’s set piece delivery given everything else he can do. Pirlo, Adams is not.
On Saturday, however, Manchester United’s much-criticized midfield made the 28-year-old Stoke City distributor look like a world-class talent. With scores in the 38th and 52nd minutes, Adam’s brace book gave the Potters a historic win over Manchester United. It was the first time Stoke had beaten the Red Devils since joining the Premier League in 2008.
With all due respect to the Potters (who were fully worth their three points on Saturday), the big story here continues to be David Moyes, who showed no sign of adaptability by tossing Juan Mata wide right in a 4-4-2. For a team that has suffered because of a lack of final third creativity, it was a terrible choice, one that sets up the club’s record transfer buy as a potential waste of money. Rather than adapt to the new talent he’s bought, the first-year boss is forcing that talent into an underachieving approach.
We talked about that potential problem on Tuesday. Now, having seen how Moyes plans to use Mata when Van Persie and Wayne Rooney are available, United fans have another cause of concern. If their club ever acquires the talent to address the holes Ferguson left behind, do they have the right manager to make it work? Everything we’ve seen in 2013-14 says “No.”
2. Derby dominance fuels Sunderland’s continued climb
Given how Sunderland has been playing, 14th place actually understates their quality. Remember all that early season talk about whether they were too far gone? Now nobody thinks the Black Cats will end up in the Championship., the club having climbed out of the hole Gus Poyet inherited from Paolo Di Canio.
Instead, the story coming out of Saturday’s Tyne-Wear Derby is the Cats’ continued dominance for their northeast rival. With goals from Fabio Borini, Adam Johnson, and Jack Colback, Sunderland recorded their third straight win over the Magpies, a streak that’s transcended last season’s relegation worries, this season’s traumatic start, and generally sitting lower than Newcastle in the Premier League table since the Magpies’ promotion. After Saturday’s romp, Sunderland’s unbeaten in five against the fiercest rivals.
That was the perspective after Saturday’s win – one of dominance. The larger context casts Saturday’s win as the high point in the league’s most remarkable turnaround. This team wasn’t merely off to a poor start. They bad; like, people talking about how few points they’ll get bad.
Now? They’re one of the bottom half’s safest bets for survival. Credit of Johnson. Credit to Borini. But most of all, credit to Gus Poyet. His first Premier League job is turning into a dramatic success, at least early on.
3. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s two delivers three for Arsenal
Can we discuss this like mature adults – people who know Manchester City plays tomorrow? That’s the deal. If not, we can’t talk about Arsenal moving into first after Sunday’s win over Crystal Palace. Call it a pet peeve, but if we’re going to treat them like the Premier League’s top team before the round’s over, I’m going to eject now.
Nobody’s going to do that? (Looks around the internet.) Well, I’ll be. This is amazing. Is the discourse finally evolving? Have we really stopped overreacting to “first place” on Saturday when the team’s likely to slide by Monday?
Probably not. With so much anticipation of tomorrow’s top-of-the-table tussle, people are speeding through Sunday’s two results to start the hype of Monday’s battle. It’s a special occasion. Thanks to tomorrow’s big game, we’re being spared all the unreasonable “woo hoo” that normally accompanies a team going top.
Arsenal does deserve a few woo hoos, though. We’ve seen how much trouble teams have had breaking down Tony Pulis’s Crystal Palace. We saw it in the first half on Sunday. Yet in the second, thanks in large part to the long-awaited return on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Gunners were able to make it reasonably comfortable for themselves. Outshooting the Eagles 6-2 (shots on target) while controlling 73 percent of the ball, Arsenal went on to a 2-0 victory.
They may not end the round in first, but consider what Arsenal’s already accomplished. Nobody’s talking about whether they can stick around. The debate as to whether they’re real title contenders faded long ago. With solid (if unspectacular) performances like these, Arsène Wenger’s team has silenced the doubters, and while that doesn’t mean a consensus of experts sees the Gunners claiming the title, it does mean lingering concerns about Arsenal’s quality aren’t lingering any more.
4. Liverpool, Tottenham slips see Everton reclaim lost ground
Aston Villa left Everton empty handed, yet both teams had reason to be content after Saturday’s match at Goodison Park. The Villans continued a good run of form that began a week ago at Anfield, and while they’ve only claimed four points over the span, that haul has kept Paul Lambert’s team five points above the drop. The club seems to have stabilized in 10th place, heights it hasn’t enjoyed since the departure of Martin O’Neill.
For Everton, responding with two late goals showed the type of resilience they’ll need to stay in the race for fourth. Coming off a demoralizing loss to Liverpool, the Toffees needed to get back into the win column, particularly given the opposition – a mid-table team visiting Goodison Park. That they were able to do so without the injured Romelu Lukaku gives them hope they’ll be able to survive the big Belgian’s absence.
It was part of a near-perfect round for the Toffees, who saw the effects of their mid-week loss nearly wiped off the books by Liverpool and Tottenham’s results. Thanks to Kolo Touré, Liverpool gifted West Brom a second half equalizer in the Reds’ 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns. On Saturday, Tottenham were unable to claim full points from Hull, also held to a 1-1 result in their visit to the KC Stadium.
On the week, Everton only lost on one to Liverpool – not a terrible result considering they had to go to Anfield. They also jumped a spot in the standings thanks to Tottenham’s one-point week.
The Merseyside Derby make have been an embarrassing setback, but five days later, that effects of that setback have almost dried up.
5. Shake up no solution for Fulham
Fulham made four changes for yesterday’s match against Southampton. They were still terrible. Though they kept up with the Saints for most of the match, they lost 3-0 at home. Clint Dempsey, Pajtim Kasami, and Alexander Kacaniklic may have been dropped from the starting XI, but they didn’t take Fulham’s terrible defense with them.
And that’s the problem. Fulham may have undergone a complete makeover last week, welcoming Lewis Holtby, William Kvist, and Kostas Mitroglou (who didn’t play this weekend), but they’ve done little to address a defense that’s allowed 15 goals in its last six games. Even with all their changes, René Meulensteen somehow justified starting Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell in the middle – a relegation-worthy midfield that can’t grit and gut their way out of the bottom three (West Ham found this out with Parker three years ago).
Whether Parker and Sidwell keep playing or not, something bigger has to change at Fulham. The team’s in a free fall that’s landed them at the bottom of the table, and although they’ve already let one manager go, desperate times call for desperate measures. This team has only gotten worse since Martin Jol left, and with four straight multi-goal losses in the Premier League, it might be team to see if Alan Curbishley’s ready to return to the sidelines. Maybe he can organize a defense.
6. Relegation picture as murky as ever
Sunderland’s climb from 20th to 14th has been fueled not only by their amazing turnaround but by the traffic jam that continues to clog the table’s bottom half. From Stoke in 11th to Cardiff in 19th, only four points separate the nine teams currently in the middle of the relegation battle. One good, Black Cats-esque run could see any of them join Aston Villa above the muck. Fall on hard times, and a team starts to look like Fulham.
Stoke did the most for themselves this weekend. Not only did they move four clear of 18th but they claimed points their relegation rivals are unlikely to duplicate. Manchester United may be struggling, but they’re still capable of claiming three against most of the bottom half. Against Stoke, however, they left empty handed.
West Ham and Cariff also scored big wins, with the Hammers’ 2-0 victory over Swansea giving manager Sam Allardyce another reprieve. They may still but in the bottom three, but with Andy Carroll setting up two goals, there’s hope the return of their only real striker can carry them out of the drop. Provided stops collecting stupid red cards.
This weekend, Fulham looked like the worst team in the Premier League. Tonight at Craven Cottage, however, René Meulensteen’s team were on a different level than Norwich City – more of an indictment of the visiting Canaries than the recovering Whites. Losing 3-0 in West London, Chris Hughton’s team was escorted out of the FA Cup, failing to challenge a team that lost 4-1 on the same ground three days earlier.
The Cottagers took advantage of a weak Norwich left side to score two goals before halftime. The first, coming after 15 minutes, saw Pajtim Kasami beat the Canaries to a ball at the byline before cutting his pass back for Ashkan Dejagah. The Iranian international allowed the ball to run to Darren Bent nine yards from goal, with the Fulham striker putting his shot just wide of Mark Bunn to make it 1-0.
Four minutes before half time, Dejagah scored on a similar play, with Alexander Kacaniklic getting behind the defense before play the ball far post to his open teammate. The easy finish sent the Cottagers into intermission up 2-0.
In the 68th minute, another surprisingly easy goal put the match away, with Sascha Reiter’s cross from Fulham’s right finding Steve Sidwell at the far post. Redirecting his header home, the Cottagers’ midfielder gave the home side a lead they’d carry to full-time, reversing the three-goal embarrassment they suffered on Saturday.
Coming off a disastrous result against Sunderland, Fulham gave fans reason to believe their team is more erratic than bad. With goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg and defender Brede Hangeland’s returns producing the team’s first clean sheet since Dec. 8, there were some faint hints Tuesday’s win could be a legitimate turnaround. Even on top of a 3-0 win, there was a silver lining.
Norwich’s performance, however, prevents any broad conclusions. The ease with which Fulham produced their goals didn’t reflect superior performance or particularly clever tactics. With conventional, straight forward attacks down their right, Fulham made Norwich look inept – unable to defend the most basics play you’ll see in top-flight of English soccer.
Though they took care of business on Tuesday, Fulham will have to wait until their Saturday trip to Arsenal to see if they’ve made any meaningful progress from Saturday’s loss. Norwich, on the other hand, lip out of the Cup hoping to show more fight Saturday against Hull.
Third round matches
Charlton Athletic 2-2 Oxford United
Birmingham City 3-0 Bristol Rovers
AFC Bournemouth 4-1 Burton Albion
Third round replays
Watford 2-0 Bristol City
Peterborough United 2-3 Kidderminster Harriers
Milton Keynes Dons 1-3 (a.e.t) Wigan Athletic
Sheffield Wednesday 4-1 Macclesfield Town
Preston North End 3-2 Ipswich Town
Plymouth Argyle 2-3 Port Vale
Clint Dempsey to Fulham: A fake FAQ with real answers about the U.S. captain’s loan
Let’s pretend you didn’t know Clint Dempsey was going back to Fulham. Or maybe you’re a Premier League fan that doesn’t follow Major League Soccer, an MLS fan that can’t be bothered with England, or a United States Men’s National Team diehard that just wants to know what “Deuce” has gotten himself into. You may even be the one person who still loves a good FAQ.
Regardless, we’re here to help. With the U.S. captain returning to Fulham, this is as good a time as any to take inventory of what it means, what to expect, and what each party gets out of the deal. How does this benefit Dempsey? Fulham? Seattle, the U.S., and Major League Soccer? There are so many parties to this one, it’s hard to keep track of who has skin in the game.
In what’s likely a futile attempt to address all the issues in one place, here’s a list of real answers to imaginary questions. We start with the basics:
Well, I know who Clint Dempsey is. But I’m trying to make a point. Why should I care about this loan?
Nobody’s asking this, but you don’t have to go far to find somebody in Electron Land who referencing Dempsey’s struggles with Seattle the throw shade on the importance of this move. To that, we retort:
This is the captain of a confederation champion, a team that will be at World Cup 2014. Did we have to point this out? And if we were writing for a Japanese audience, you’d be certain we giving Keisuke Honda’s move to Milan more attention. (Seriously: I should have written something more on that.)
That team happens to be the U.S.A. People tend to pay attention. Especially around these parts.
Over Dempsey’s final three years Premier League season, he averaged 12 goals per campaign. And it’s not like this guy’s a No. 9. That’s 12 goals from what’s essentially a supporting striker/attacking midfielder. That’s a goal every 234 minutes or 14.6 during a full 38-game season. So yeah, he was kind a good at goals, and stuff.
This is a Cottagers legend returning home. Nobody’s scored more Premier League goals for Fulham. The especially bitter Fulham faithful may remember him forcing a move to Tottenham. Most are relishing the chance to get some goals back, because …
Fulham needs help. The Cottagers are in 19th. They’ve scored 17 goals in as many games, and their best attacker (Dimitar Berbatov) is a daily feature in rumor roundups in three countries.
How many games should we expect to him play?
Fulham’s announcement doesn’t specify an exact date Dempsey will return to Seattle, but let’s take them at their word and assume Feb. 24 will be his last day in West London. That makes him eligible for a whopping 11 games, starting with Fulham’s visit to Norwich on Thursday:
Dec. 26, at Norwich City*
Dec. 28, at Hull City*
Jan. 1, vs. West Ham
Jan. 4, at Norwich City (FA Cup)
Jan. 18, at Arsenal
Jan. 28, at Swansea City
Feb. 1, vs. Southampton
Feb. 9, at Manchester United
Feb. 12, vs. Liverpool
Feb. 22, at West Bromwich Albion
There are also FA Cup dates on Jan. 25 and Feb. 15. Maxed out, Dempsey could play 13 games for Fulham, though that means making an appearance at Carrow Road on Boxing Day.
* – It’s unlikely Dempsey will be registered to play these two games, with the transfer window officially opening on Jan. 1. The video below (spoiler) is iffy on it, with the interviewer hinting it’s a possibility while Dempsey only discussion traveling to the games. As one commenter astutely pointed out, however, one English outlet (the BBC) is reporting he will be ineligible until 2014, so asterisks for all!
Assuming he’ll play, where here will he play?
Interesting assumption. Where you trying to slip that past me, Imaginary Question Asker? Regardless, let’s put that aside for a second and revisit how Dempsey was being used when he left Craven Cottage.
Over his last two years at Fulham, Dempsey went from an almost exclusively wide role to somebody who began seeing more time through the middle, especially later in games. He’d start on the left, play wide until Mark Hughes or Martin Jol started making changes, then move in. Once it became clear Andy Johnson was out of gas, Pavel Pogrebnyak or Bobby Zamora weren’t going to get goals, or the Cottagers just needed Dempsey’s presence in the middle of the park, “Deuce” became as much as a focal point out coming of the back as an opportunist in the final third.
But with Martin Jol gone, it’s unclear how Fulham will play, let alone how they’ll use Dempsey. Over their last three games, Fulham’s use one forward and two wide attackers on top of a three-man midfield, and while Dempsey would be best-suited for one of the wide roles, René Meulensteen’s selections hint he could play through the middle. With Darren Bent still getting limited time while Dimitar Berbatov’s hurt, Dempsey could occupy the lead attacker’s role Adel Taarabt played this weekend, with small army of players (Kieran Richardson, Ashkan Dejagah, Alexander Kacaniklic, Pajtim Kasami, Bryan Ruiz, and Taarabt) as flanking options.
But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. First, Dempsey has to show up and work his way into the team, something that may require him getting back into playing shape. Fulham may be struggling for points, but they’re not short of options in Dempsey’s spots. Although his history at Craven Cottage hints Dempsey will likely get playing time, that history may prove irrelevant with a new squad playing under a new coach.
What should we expect, production-wise?
This should really be the last question, right? Screw it. I’m skipping to it. Fulham fans are hoping for the player who scored 29 goals in 74 games over his final two seasons in West London. Others will remember Dempsey scoring a more modest seven times in 29 games for Spurs, while true pessimists are looking at one goal in 12 games for Seattle and projecting a face plant for Deuce’s Premier League return.
For a number of reasons, we can throw the Seattle numbers out the window. Dempsey was never truly healthy, he was playing a role that doesn’t exist at Fulham (tip of a midfield diamond), and the Sounders were in chaos.
A better “guestimate” would look at last Fulham seasons as the best case scenario, note it was two years ago, and see his Tottenham days as a slight return to earth. But that even return to earth (a goal every 285 league minutes) wasn’t such as big drop off from his Fulham heights (a goal every 221 minutes during his final two seasons).
If Dempsey plays 10 games, averaging 75 minutes per, and performs to his capabilities, we’re looking at around three goals. At least, that’s the kind of output his final three Premier League seasons suggest.
So what does this all mean for Dempsey …
Remember: The goal here is to stay sharp, getting some playing time at a top level in during a World Cup year. In that respect, the numbers don’t matter. Whether he scores eight goals or none, the point is to build toward Brazil.
If he gets regular playing time, that’s practically mission accomplished. While keeping his spot means he’ll probably have to produce, the merits of those numbers are for René Meulensteen to decide. The most important number when gauging this loan’s success will be minutes played.
… the U.S. National Team,
Given Jurgen Klinsmann wants his MLS players to stay active, this looks like plus for the national team. But there’s another way to look at it. Fulham’s loan spell gives Dempsey, a 30-year-old not lacking in professional experience, two months worth of injury exposure.
Is that worth it for a player unlikely to improve during the loan? Let’s hold on to that thought.
You always have to balance training against risk, but MLS would give Dempsey three months of competition before the national team assembled for Brazil. Add in the January national team camp and preseason training in February, and Dempsey wasn’t looking at much of an offseason to begin with. This whole idea that players have to go to Europe to stay fresh during the winter break should really get more scrutiny.
Now, back to that thought. Dempsey’s situation is slightly unique. He needs to get his groove back, and for a player that went through a rough return to MLS, West London is Jamaica. And Fulham may be Taye Diggs.
Dempsey doesn’t just need to stay in shape. He’s a key to U.S. success in Brazil. He needs to recapture his form, and in that sense, given what he did in 2009-10 and 2010-11, there was no better offseason destination than Craven Cottage.
This is a low-risk chance for a team to get the club’s most productive Premier League back for two months (insert non-existent “no duh” emoji here). Worst case scenario: He takes playing time from somebody contributing to the team’s 19th place standing. Best case scenario: He goes on another tear, scored five or six times, and helps his former club snare points that could save them from the second division.
… Major League Soccer,
Nothing. At least, it’s unclear this means anything good or bad for MLS. Some will see this as a talent wanting to test himself against competition the league can’t provide. Others will see it as MLS having players the rest of the world still covets. More likely: This is a very specific situation for a somewhat unique player, rendering any broad conclusions meaningless.
… and the Seattle Sounders?
Nothing good, but they knew what they were getting into. They won’t see their most important attacking player until late February. When he returns, he’ll be plopped into a role he didn’t play at Fulham – the most important position in Seattle’s attack (assuming Sigi Schmid stays with a diamond midfield). In a role he struggled with last season, Dempsey will out of practice and unfamiliar with a number of new players around him.
Then, Seattle will lose him again for chunk of the middle of the season. When he returns from Brazil, Dempsey will have played soccer in 21 of the previous 24 months, with the three-month MLS homestretch coming into view. And given the U.S. National Team doesn’t use the same setup as the Sounders, Dempsey will again have to re-adjust to his place behind Seattle’s strikers (assuming he doesn’t master the role between March and May).
That sounds bad, and it’s even worse when you consider how much Seattle’s paying Dempsey this year. Still, MLS’s is a long season. Assuming they can make the playoffs, the Sounders only need to get things together November. Dempsey’s absence (along with Brad Evans’) met force them to focus on that goal.
As their run to first in the West last season showed, a slow start need undermine the campaign. And as their October collapse affirmed, it’s more important to be playing well at the end of the season than in the middle.
Do you have a video of Clint talking about the move? Maybe one where they make him say something awkward and Texas-y at the end?
Saying that Dimitar Berbatov has been underwhelming this season would be kind. Through 14 matches his poor form led to rumors that he wanted out of Craven Cottage but three days later, he looked a rejuvenated man helping Fulham to a 2-0 win over Aston Villa.
Berbatov played role of provider on Steve Sidwell’s opener before brilliantly flicking on a pass to Alexander Kacaniklic to draw the penalty that the Bulgarian striker then converted.
Whether the rumors of Berbatov’s wantaway are true or not, no one seems to know. And with Arsenal and Tottenham rumored to be waiting in the wings for the 32-year-old, Fulham’s willingness to hold onto their classiest striker will be proven come January.
Nevertheless, Berbatov’s performance this weekend was nothing short of outstanding. And for that, he’s the Premier League Player of the Week.