Fulham have had to move on since an unnerving summer transfer window. But have we done so successfully?
If you're like me, you're likely still beaming from Fulham's win over Spurs last weekend and just a touch thankful that it came before an international break. That much more time to beam. Beam away, I say. It was a hugely important win against a very good side away from home. Fulham, for the first time in what seems like ages, looked organized and compact without the ball and dangerous on the counterattack against a Spurs team boasting the Second Coming in the form of Gareth Bale. Mark Schwarzer looked less like a pensioner and more like a dingo, making several important stops including one spectacular save to deny Jermain Defoe right at the death.
Prior to Fulham's heroics, the match was somewhat billed as a chance for old boys to haunt their former club, although the "old boys" in question were not Dimitar Berbatov and Martin Jol, but Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele. Fast forward to Monday last (Rewind?) and that narrative was undergoing panicked revisions. An article entitled Clint Dempsey's Season of Discontent at Tottenham Hotspur by Anthony Lane came out earlier this week on EPL Talk and it basically posits the opinion that Dempsey's move to Spurs has been an unmitigated disaster and that the Texan would have been better off staying at The Cottage. I won't delve into the article point by point, but suffice it to say, I wholly disagree. Perhaps it's an unpopular opinion among some Fulham fans, but I believe Dempsey to have been a model professional in his time on the banks of the Thames. He played injured, he played every attacking role on the pitch when asked, he scored important goals, and he proved himself time and again when a new manager knocked him down a peg. It's unfortunate that his stay in West London ended the way it did, but I'm inclined to give him a bit of a pass seeing as how he, Martin Jol, and maybe Brendan "OK" Rodgers are likely the only people who know exactly what transpired that transfer window. Moving to Spurs was never going to be an easy transition and the competition for places, congested fixture list, and a bit of the injury bug have all conspired to make Dempsey's first season in North London a trying one, but one far from the shambles Lane suggests. Rather than wonder if Dempsey's move to Tottenham was good for the player, I think a better question is whether Dempsey's move to Tottenham was good for Fulham. And if so, what's been missing?
Certainly the high of the season's opening match, a 5-0 home drubbing of Norwich, was tempered somewhat by a 3-1 home loss to Sunderland and then an extended existential crisis in which Fulham dropped points in winnable matches, seemed to be devoid of any attacking nous, and looked altogether a dark horse candidate for relegation. It would be easy to look at the interminable lack of goals following the Sunderland match in November and draw the conclusion that Dempsey took his 2011/12 tally of 23 goals in all competitions, packed them up, moved to Spurs, and left Fulham without a pointy end to their spear. If you see Dempsey as a goal scorer, and most people certainly do, then you have to look at his replacement and ask whether or not he has the chops to put the ball in the back of the net. Spoiler alert: Dimitar Berbatov certainly has the chops. Granted, the two are very different players, one smooth and insouciant, the other scrappy and intense going forward, but they score some startlingly similar goals. Berbatov's goal against Spurs was almost a mirror finish of Dempsey's famous goal against Liverpool in the 2006/07 season and many of his other goals this season are exactly the kinds of scrappy poaching opportunities Dempsey thrived upon. And here Fulham sit, in relative comfort mid table, just as they did in 2011/12. In his EPL Talk article, Lane states that Dempsey's 8 goals and 5 assists in all competitions for Spurs are an underwhelming return considering his previous season's form. Perhaps, but Spurs have many more goal scorers than Fulham is traditionally blessed with and his 5 assists are only one behind his total assist tally from last season. Compare that to Berbatov's 11 goals and 3 assists. I say it's a push. Moreover, had Dempsey stayed, can anyone see room for him, Berbatov, and Ruiz on the same pitch?
What Fulham have missed this season isn't Clint Dempsey (No disrespect to the Texan), but Moussa Dembele. Perhaps due to the circumstances of his departure and age, Dembele has avoided nearly all of the ire that accompanied Dempsey's move and Fulham, until very, very recently, have looked decidedly less dynamic without him. There was a period of about 25 minutes in the second half of Fulham's match against Manchester United at Old Trafford on August 25th in which Dembele was far and away the best player on the pitch for either side. His industry, competence on the ball, runs forward, vision, and ability to find a pass provided a creative element to Fulham's central midfield that has been sorely missed as Martin Jol has repeatedly been forced to field two essentially holding players in the middle of the park following Dembele's departure.
For Spurs, Dembele, like Dempsey, has been somewhat of a mixed bag this season. The injury bug found him as well and again, like Dempsey, Dembele has had to deal with a crowded Spurs midfield and plenty of attacking options that have seen him play a more holding role than he was asked to play at Fulham. This has been compounded at various points in Tottenham's season as both Sandro and Scott Parker have endured extended periods in the care of the physio forcing Dembele to sit deeper than perhaps his talents dictate.
Imagine the current Fulham side with Dembele in it. Berbatov could finally play consistently farther up the pitch and cut down on his dalliances in midfield which leave him getting his requisite silky touches on the ball but with no one further forward to play to. Sidwell or Karagounis could focus on protecting the back four and maybe then have the legs to cover for Senderos when he commits his alloted one clanger per match. Fulham's football, on the whole, would likely be more expansive and threatening going forward.
When you're a club like Fulham and a club like Spurs comes around and offer £15 million for a young player, you take that transfer fee and get on with it. I'm inclined to believe, however, that the £15 million fee would have risen considerably if Dembele had stuck around for one more season and been the motor for Fulham that his talents suggest he would have been. Visions of Europe are dancing in my head.
Alas, I'll take another season that looks for all the world like it will end in mid table comfort.