Fulham may consider a draw at West Brom two points dropped but there were some positive signs as Felix Magath made his bow in the Cottagers' dugout. The German has generated plenty of headlines but the real work started on Saturday at The Hawthorns...
By Alex Dunn - @skysportsaldunn. Last Updated: 22/02/14 10:31pm
Given much of the rhetoric coming out of Fulham since Felix Magath's appointment has evoked images of a military training camp it is fitting perhaps that his reign began with the proverbial war of attrition at West Brom.
A solitary first half effort from the recalled Ashkan Dejagah, who neatly for the game's narrative played under Magath at Wolfsburg, had looked to be enough to secure a first victory since the turn of the year but, alas, Fulham's players may now fear Sunday training for a second successive week after West Brom substitute Matej Vydra struck with a late leveller.
It was tough on Fulham but paradoxically not undeserved for West Brom. Pepe Mel, who has now overseen four successive 1-1 draws at The Hawthorns and is yet to taste victory at all since replacing Steve Clarke, will point to a succession of sharp saves from Maarten Stekelenburg in the second period as evidence of his side's improvement when he switched to a 4-3-3, after what was an insipid first period. Magath will point to the fact that were his goalkeeper not guilty of gifting Vydra his equaliser then it would be a solitary point rather than four which now separates the two sides.
It's all about fine margins and Magath will be acutely aware that after declaring the need for six victories from Fulham's remaining 12 matches to stave off relegation, a draw at West Brom equates to two points dropped. A March fixture list that reads Chelsea (h), Cardiff (a), Newcastle (h), Manchester City (a) and Everton (h) represents the type of bedding-in period only a sadist could truly enjoy. If Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness is to be taken on his word then Fulham may just be okay.
Much has been made of Magath's obsession with fitness. That Fulham have secured the services of a manager who won a double double in his only two full seasons at the helm of Bayern and a Bundesliga title at Wolfsburg as recently as 2009 has attracted fewer headlines than his working methods.
A hard-line attitude incongruous with the current trend for clipboard managers more scientific in approach has manifest nicknames as varied as 'Saddam' to 'The Torturer' and has made great copy, particularly given his characteristics are diametrically opposed to the laissez faire nature of his predecessors Martin Jol and Rene Meulensteen, but make no mistake Magath is a manager who knows how to organise a side.
The first 45 minutes at West Brom bore that out and, whisper it quietly, were his players fitter and not forced deeper and deeper in the final 20 minutes when fatigue clearly played its part, a win almost certainly would not have been beyond them.
As Magath was willing to attest in his post-match comments the second period belong to West Brom but there was enough in that which preceded it to suggest the German is starting to make slow progress already.
West Brom and Fulham's starting XIs at The Hawthorns
Given one of Magath's opening gambits in his first few days at Craven Cottage saw him decry the fact his "predecessor let the team play very attacking football for four games then he suddenly rearranged the defence, and that destabilised the whole team," a flurry of changes to the side which played well despite defeat to Liverpool last time out was hardly surprising.
Brede Hangeland, Fernando Amorebieta, Ashkan Dejagah, Scott Parker and Hugo Rodallega all won recalls, with John Arne Riise, Dan Burn and William Kvist on the bench. Ryan Tunnicliffe and Darren Bent were axed altogether.
Mel made three changes from the team that held Chelsea 1-1. Billy Jones and Jonas Olsson returned from injury to strengthen his backline in place of Steven Reid and Craig Dawson, whilst Youssouf Mulumbu replaced hamstring injury victim Claudio Yacob in midfield.
Reasons to be cheerful
Fulham's best XI average positions versus Liverpool (l), plus first half averages at West Brom (r)
For 45 minutes Fulham were the better of the two sides. It may only have been West Brom but when you've lost five from six Premier League games winning a half is cause for quiet optimism. Indeed, were they not guilty of profligacy when two gilt-edged chances were presented to Johnny Heitinga and Steve Sidwell the game could have been out of sight by half-time.
There was a decent shape to Fulham, albeit one not too dissimilar to that which should have taken at least a point against Liverpool in Meulensteen's swansong. Sidwell (no.7) has been in excellent scoring form of late (four goals in his last eight Premier League starts) and it's interesting that Magath employed him in a deeper holding role protecting the back four, sat just in front of Hangeland. Parker (28) was used higher up the pitch and like his equally pugnacious team-mate put in a shift, with 47 sprints - bettered only by Dejagah - testimony to his willingness to work up and down the field.
The other key differences are the advanced role of the recalled Dejagah (24) down the right, who provided decent penetration all afternoon, and the fact Lewis Holtby (10) in his preferred No.10 role was able to get closer to a lone front man, in this case the willing Rodallega.
What undoubtedly needs work is an incredibly square back four. With neither Heitinga nor Hangeland blessed with genuine pace, both played safe in dropping deep thus leaving large pockets of space between defence and midfield. Saido Berahino was happy to work in between the lines and caused problems before fading, while when he played off the shoulder it was only a lack of decent service that kept him from getting in behind as his runs were generally intelligent. Victor Anichebe posed a more physical examination off the bench, but Heitinga generally handled him well.
Magath though may look at the results achieved at Crystal Palace since Tony Pulis started to employ an incredibly deep backline and decide it could suit Fulham too given their lack of pace through the centre.
Heitinga was excellent all afternoon, putting in 12 important blocks and whilst Hangeland looked cumbersome when faced with the pace of Berahino, that he topped the challenges won on 77.8 per cent (100 per cent in the air) underlines the reassurance he gives Fulham's backline. If Magath goes down the 'quick-fix' route of employing dogs of war, the Norwegian will have a key part to play between now and the season's close.
Stekelenburg will likely be quiet on the coach back to the capital after he allowed Vydra's drilled shot to squirm under his body and roll just over the line, but in the cold light of day will be able to reflect on a performance that also produced two excellent stops from Chris Brunt trademark missiles and one from a deflected James Morrison strike from distance.
Willing wide boys
Dejagah was full value for a well taken strike from Richardson's left wing delivery
For a man who won't accept one iota less than 100 per cent endeavour, the performance of his three forward thinking players in behind Rodallega will please Magath. Dejagah deserved his well taken goal for what was a performance that suggests his manager knows what makes him tick, but what will please Magath just as much is the graft both he and Kieran Richardson, on the opposite flank, put in. With 58 sprints the Iranian worked up and down all afternoon, while Richardson proved fleet-footed on 47 occasions - comfortably more than any West Brom player.
The pair put in only four crosses between them in the first half but it was a measure of their quality that one of Richardson's created Fulham's goal, while two big chances were yielded from Dejagah's right-wing deliveries.
Holtby (l) was busy all afternoon (passes - red, crosses - yellow, tackles - blue, shots - green), as was Dejagah
Equally industrious was Holtby. Having spoken of 'surviving' Magath during their time together at Schalke there were reservations over how they would work together on being reunited, but on this showing Holtby remains absolutely integral to Fulham's survival plans.
The Premier League tracking tool has Holtby as comfortably the afternoon's most industrious worker, with 12.84km covered quite the feat for a second forward. Holtby had more touches (73), made more passes (43) and put in more crosses (seven) than any of his team-mates, whilst off the ball he was just as impressive. In making four tackles, claiming four interceptions, gaining possession on eight occasions and winning 73.3 per cent of 15 duels he will have reassured Fulham supporters that he's happy to play for his new manager.
New signing, new hope
Club record signing Kostas Mitroglou was granted his debut as he came off the bench for a half-hour cameo in place of the willing but tiring Rodallega. On Tuesday the Greek international could have been facing Manchester United in the knockout phase of the Champions League for Olympiakos, on the back of 30 goals in his last 32 games for club and country. He must love Harrods.
In truth he looked some way shy of fitness but an average speed of 7.46 km/h, which was bettered only by Holtby (7.94), at least suggests he possesses a clean pair of heels. That he had just 11 touches was more due to the fact that by this stage West Brom were very much on the front foot. His intelligent movement and importantly, his willingness to tell his team-mate exactly where he wants the ball to be played, suggests he should link-up well with Holtby in particular. If, and it's a big if, these two can hit it off, Fulham may just have enough despite the fact they went into Saturday's game on a run of 14 defeats in 18 league games. It's been that kind of season. If Magath can only guarantee one thing, it's that he'll get Mitroglou up to speed quickly in terms of his fitness.
Meanwhile, over in Monaco the sigh of relief was audible in west London as Dimitar Berbatov broke a daydream of whether to add a vessel of opulence of his own to a crowded Monte Carlo harbour, as he took a break from his gauloises to utter 'but for the grace of God...'. Magath putting the Bulgarian to work would be akin to Hugh Heffner handing Mary Whitehouse bunny ears and a tail.
Even half fit, Mitroglou may just prove the better bet in a dogfight likely to go down to the wire.
A point is a point but we need three. It's good because the first half was difficult for us but I think West Brom should have more points (from this game). We needed to keep the ball and were too open (in the first half). When West Brom lost the ball, we were too open and it was dangerous for us. For the second half, I spoke with the players, changed the system - 4-3-3 - and it was better. It's important for me that the best player at Fulham was their goalkeeper.
I think it was a fair result because West Bromwich had more possession from the game and with the ball. You cannot change the players in a few days, it takes time but for the first game I think we did quite good. The players are disappointed (not to win) but I said one point is better than no points so we are satisfied and look forward to the next game where we have the chance to make three points.