Berbatov still brings beauty and other things we learned from Fulham 2-1 West Ham
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Hammers started pragmatically but failed to turn the screw
Managers often talk of the opening 10 minutes setting the barometer for a performance. Too much, in some cases, so its meaning becomes diluted. Yet whatever West Ham boss Sam Allardyce said to his players before kick-off worked. To a point.
Though Fulham dominated possession, it was the Hammers who took a seventh-minute lead as Mohamed Diame brought down Jussi Jaaskelainen's long free-kick to drill a low shot past David Stockdale. Kevin Nolan also went close with a header from Diame's cross shortly after. It wasn't particularly pretty; Allardyce's men were very direct and the Cottagers' defence was noticeably nervy whenever the ball was pumped anywhere near centre-forward Modibo Maiga. Pragmatic, but very effective.
But West Ham seemingly forgot to carry on with what was working. Slowly Fulham's midfield domination told, but the Hammers didn't subject Philippe Senderos or Fernando Amorebieta to the aerial bombardment that had served them so well early on. From then on, they struggled.
Allardyce sprung a defensive surprise
Without a fit centre-back to call on, the Hammers boss selected not two, but three central defenders – George McCartney, Joey O'Brien and Alou Diarra – to pack out central areas and hope Fulham couldn't find a way through a 3-5-1-1. You could understand where he was coming from, but selecting a system that requires more centre-backs when you have none fit was a strange decision.
Initially, the new formation worked well enough, but Fulham's growing confidence in their expansive game placed the defence, and midfield three in front of them, under near-constant pressure. Though Diarra was the middle of the three, he rarely marked Dimitar Berbatov, leaving that to McCartney or O'Brien. Conceding to Steve Sidwell's thunderous header was symptomatic of the malaise. A powerful side, West Ham shouldn't be conceding from corners.
When Nolan was sent off for a petulant kick out at Amorebieta, a moment Allardyce said in his press conference cost West Ham the game, it was little surprise that the back four returned.
It was cloudy thinking, something you can rarely accuse Allardyce of, and the Hammers boss must soon be under some pressure. Despite all the injuries, results have to change. Three successive losses from winning positions isn't good enough. The mood at Upton Park will be reminiscent of the weather at Craven Cottage: bleak, wet and wintry.
Duff winged it with great success
The Irishman was at his incisive best. Rarely passing up the opportunity to take on his opposite number, he was a constant menace, contributing one assist and creating a further three chances in a display of vim, vigour and no little skill.
It was reminiscent of the right-winger's early days at Chelsea when he was one of the Premier League's most feared wide men. The pace may not be quite as electric as it once was, but the 34-year-old is now a more rounded tactical animal instead of relying on that speed. Completing 9 out of 10 passes in the attacking third provides definitive proof of an increasingly canny operator.
Jaaskelainen will be dreaming of Fulham shots
Statistics can be used to weave any given narrative, according to 46.5% of people. But as gauges for dominance go, the Cottagers' 30 shots – comfortably the most they've managed in any game this season, and three off the most in any Premier League match – to the away side's 11 (of which only 3 were on target), is a pretty compelling one.
Too often this season, Fulham have been content to pass without going for the jugular and actually testing the opposition keeper. Though not always on target, Adel Taarabt managed 8 by himself, even if the lavishly gifted Moroccan still lacks the killer instinct to definitively take the next step his talent should allow.
In his post-match press conference, Rene Meulensteen said he wanted his side to be patient and that the winning goal would eventually come. If this was Fulham being patient, the mind boggles at what a gung-ho approach could elicit.
Berbatov is still a class act
He doesn't run. He's indifferent to football in general. He's bone idle. But Dimitar Berbatov is still a wonderful footballer. There were at least five backheels, flicks and tricks that had the press box – and the tightly packed Fulham regulars in the wooden seats behind – purring at the impudence and cheek. On a filthy New Year's Day afternoon, it seemed almost incongruous that the Bulgarian could enlighten such inclement weather with a swish of his right foot. There was even one moment in the second half when he tracked back.
There are rumours Berbatov could seek a move away from west London in the transfer window, but if Meulensteen can keep hold of his No.9, Fulham should steer themselves to safety easily. The way he can subjugate a football match is breathtaking. The difference with Maiga couldn't be more obvious. Andy Carroll's return can't come soon enough.