Benchmark for progress at Fulham

Posted by Phil Mison

Bryan RuizGettyImagesBryan Ruiz: Fulham boss Martin Jol seems determined to stick with the forward

We are two months into the season good people and I have been ruminating on matters Fulham. Yes, how boringly the days do pass. In fact I have been hugging the comfort blanket and hot water bottle having returned from Bristol with a stinking cold. I was asking for trouble, running between the dance hall, outdoor beer garden and late night lodgings soaked in sweat three nights in a row. How Cajun aficionados keep this tempo up in the suffocating climate of the bayou is beyond me. I'm jitterbugging my way into the infirmary at this rate.

Blog responses have been lighter than usual, something I was discussing with my editor. Is it because Fulham followers find little to moan about currently and seem content to see the side motoring along comfortably in the top half? Could well be. There's not too much drama around on all the other FFC forums I monitor (but a neat and concise piece on the Dempsey/Dembele era I note from Lork at Hammyend).

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Consequently, fans have been having a guess at what Martin Jol sees as his preferred starting eleven. This is a game we can all play. The sub-text to the debate of course suggests Fulham has probably the strongest bench in its entire Premier League history right now. To confirm that I looked back to where we stood this time last year. I had just returned from the game with Wisla in Cracow. Prior to that we had surrendered the points up at Stoke - in both games Fulham were tame and toothless.

Condemnation of the performance in Poland must be qualified. Dembele saw red after 30 minutes from a criminal piece of play-acting and feeble refereeing. Orlando Sa led the line with Bobby Zamora being protected from these Europa away ties (or maybe he was just sulking?). Likewise Danny Murphy and Clint were rested. Gecov made little impression, Duff had a night he would want to forget and AJ was, well - just being AJ. Bags of bustle, sweat and endeavour without ever threatening a goal or getting beyond the last man. Goodness, but he reminded me of Radzinski at times last season (minus the endeavour).

Now people have been saying it's a shame we don't have Europa League activity this season to give our new batch of starlets a chance to shine. Be careful what you wish for, because that additional burden of fixtures could well arrive next season. Last October's game in Cracow was our 20th of that campaign. To date we have played just nine this. And when we did have the chance to give youth its head at Sheffield Wednesday, it was squandered.

But from whichever yardstick you choose to count heads, were Fulham picking two elevens from the current squad to compete across all competitions, then 2012 sees us immeasurably better equipped than 12 months ago.

So here goes with my thoughts on what our first choice eleven might be for what it's worth. The back four in front of our 40-year-old keeper seems to pick itself. Stockdale is cursed never to fulfil his destiny in goal for Fulham, and I've heard nobody yet suggest Mark's reflexes are slowing up - the big Aussie must be bionic! Riether has settled right in and shown his pedigree. JAR looks fitter than a year ago and there's no questioning his appetite. He remains accident prone however in his decision making, yet for his buccaneering desire to get forward and big match temperament it is still hard to say on present form Mattie Briggs deserves to dislodge the Norwegian.

Midfield is harder to call. Of necessity Jol has been required to rejig it entirely. In truth, it was due an overhaul. Bairdinho has been re-invented, moving up the defence from full-back, centre half (his own preference) to the defensive MF alongside Diarra. While Martin will I'm certain still keep his options open to see how any number of permutations may evolve to provide the perfectly tuned engine, for now I think Chris has earned his starting place on merit (and the odd goal helps). That's six outfielders named, four to go.

Frustrating though he has been to date, Jol clearly still rates Ruiz. Maybe it's a blind determination to justify his signing, but the boss rarely minces his words to the press. Bryan would have been selected for the Villa game had he been fit he told us. And he wants him on the park at Reading. "Ruiz is the ideal No.10 to supply Berbatov." Those are Jol's words. So we can clearly see in the mind of Martin that both Petric and Rodallega have been added with an eye to the bench for appearances as impact subs. Because the final two spots in my ideal line-up must go to wingmen Duff and Kacaniklic.

These two have the ability to destroy defences and turn matches. They stretch the play to give us width whereas last season we passed the ball to death through a morass of bodies up the middle of the park. It was driving the gaffer crazy last year right up to Christmas before the simple expedient of pulling Dembele back from the firing line freed up space. Much as we appreciated Moussa he was never a striker.

There's the starting XI. It's not 4-4-2, should never be 4-5-1, but is maybe closest to Jol's preferred 4-4-1-1 or can be 4-3-3 if required. From the bench you have obvious strike power on offer from Mladen and Hugo. Frei will be itching to get involved, while Dajegah shows bags of potential power. Richardson and Sidwell have been seeing first team action and merit consideration, as they combine both defensive and offensive options. Kasami has failed to come on in 12 months at the club and there must be doubts about his future. Poor Trotta remains the 4th choice striker due to acquisitions (just as he threatened to get his chance) and must content himself with another loan spell.

There you go. I don't pick the team. Have your say and let me know what you would change. One fact is incontrovertible. This is a vastly improved squad 16 months into Martin's reign than what he inherited. What's more it has been crafted without breaking the bank, provoking unrest among the players, or alienating support. Remember it's just 7 weeks since the transfer window closed. Martin's revolution has barely begun. For the first time since entering the top flight, you get a real sense that Fulham Football Club no longer start a campaign looking over their shoulder. We are reaching for the stars.


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