From the brilliance of Berbatov and an attacking mentality combined with more defensive organisation, Rene Meulensteen appears to be making a difference at Fulham in their battle against relegation. We analyse the victory over Aston Villa
By Peter Fraser - Follow me on Twitter @SkySportsPeteF. Last Updated: 08/12/13 7:53pm
Rene Meulensteen: It is early days but the new boss is making changes at Fulham
Rene Meulensteen said before kick-off against Aston Villa on Sunday lunchtime: "If everybody is in good spirits and happy, we will be able to perform better. But any performance will always come from hard work and commitment first and foremost. That is where I put the emphasis."
Commitment was the key word from the new Fulham boss before the 2-0 Premier League victory at Craven Cottage, where a Steve Sidwell goal and a softly-awarded Dimitar Berbatov penalty earned the London club their first win after two games with their recently-appointed head coach.
Fulham's players were dedicated to their tactical plans and set-up which in turn appeared to revitalise a previously disenchanted and relegation-threatened squad, who ended a run of seven successive defeats in all competitions and kept a first clean sheet in two months.
But what has the astute Meulensteen, whose exit as a former Manchester United assistant is considered by many to be a cause behind the defending champions' current tactical problems, changed in the short period since he has succeeded Martin Jol?
Fulham v Aston Villa starting line-ups
Meulensteen made just one alteration to the side who lost 2-1 to Tottenham Hotspur in his first game in charge on Wednesday night, recalling Sidwell to replace Pajtim Kasami who dropped to the bench. Philippe Senderos shrugged off the thigh strain that hindered him against Spurs to start alongside Aaron Hughes in the centre of Fulham's defence. Kieran Richardson was fit to take his place among the substitutes, after illness and hamstring trouble. That meant Meulensteen named only three men in his starting XI - Maarten Stekelenburg, Hughes and Sidwell - who were also in Jol's last first team when they lost 3-0 at West Ham United.
Whether it was a sign of a man who wished to underline his commitment to Fulham or whether it was a player seeking to offer a reminder of his talent to potential new employers, the maverick Berbatov had a fine game against Villa. The Bulgarian, whose agent recently announced the striker wants out of Craven Cottage, was hugely influential, demonstrating all of his trademark classy control, sublime passing and drifting movement.
His work ethic will always be questioned but his ability on the ball is similarly never in doubt. His volleyed pass with the outside of his boot to set up Alexander Kacaniklic to win the penalty was out of this world while his spot-kick conversion, which maintained his 100 per cent record from eight Premier League penalties, was an audaciously idiosyncratic combination of class and cheek.
Compare Berbatov's performance against Villa to that of his previous appearance in the 2-1 defeat by Swansea City, Jol's last home game in charge, and the contrast is clear. In 90 minutes against Swansea, Berbatov had one off-target shot, created one goalscoring chance, touched the ball 45 times and played 23 passes in the opposition half at a success rate of 60.9 per cent. In just an hour against Villa, Berbatov had four shots, of which three were on target - including his penalty goal - created one chance, touched the ball 40 times and played 27 passes in the opposition half at a success rate of 70.4%.
Dimitar Berbatov was more influential in his passing (yellow) and shooting (red) v Villa (l) than v Swansea (r)
But, likewise, Berbatov was given the chance to drop off and influence play as opposed to being pushed into the lone striker role which Darren Bent played against Swansea. Kacaniklic and Ashkan Dejagah were the men detailed to push further forward by Meulensteen versus Villa to give Fulham some attacking pace and variety in wider areas. This was not the case against Swansea when Bent was isolated and did not have the speed to take advantage of Berbatov's play-making. Dejagah, in particular, was impressive in playing 55 passes at an 87.3% success rate.
Alexander Kacaniklic (11) and Ashkan Dejagah (24) pushed forward (r) while Fulham stayed deep v Swansea (l)
Shape and Strategy
Meulensteen has put his faith in Philippe Senderos, returning the former Arsenal man to the starting line-up as a centre-back partner for Hughes in both of his games in charge against Tottenham and Villa. It is clear to see why when the Swiss defender can be seen as the man organising the backline at set-pieces and directing his team-mates.
Senderos has been preferred to Fernando Amorebieta and, although it was not without its scares against Villa as he rediscovers full fitness, the benefits are there to be seen. Fulham won possession five metres further up the field against Villa than they did versus Swansea. It might not sound like a lot but that is a significant distance and that can be attributed to Senderos' leadership of the backline, with the defender also finishing the game against Villa with 16 clearances - more than any other Fulham player.
Swansea won possession on average five metres further up the field v Villa compared to v Swansea
The reintroduction of John Arne Riise at left-back in Meulensteen's two games has also been vital. The Norwegian had been frozen out by Jol but now appears to have a new lease of life. In comparison with Richardson, the ex-Liverpool man does not have the same defensive responsibility, which could be a concern for a team who had previously not kept a clean sheet since the beginning of October. Riise gained possession just four times compared to the nine which Richardson produced against Swansea. The former also lost possession 22 times versus Villa, more than any other player on the pitch. But Riise was also a constant attacking outlet, touching the ball further up the field than Richardson had done in the past, which eased the pressure on Fulham with his ability to carry the ball away from his team's goal. That was a factor in keeping a clean sheet against Villa.
John Arne Riise (r) offers more of an attacking threat and outlet than Kieran Richardson (l) in his touches of the ball
Meulensteen, though, has maintained faith in one key combination of the Jol era in the form of the experienced central midfield partnership of Sidwell and Scott Parker. The veteran pair are the steel which bonds Fulham together, with Parker typically influential against Villa - touching the ball 80 times, gaining possession nine times - more than any other outfield Fulham player, and producing 64 passes at a success rate of 75%. It was the steady if unspectacular performance which has personified Parker's career and will be vital in Fulham's ongoing battle to beat relegation. They remain in the drop zone but it is now only goal difference keeping them in the bottom three.
"I think we set ourselves a marker last Wednesday and we wanted to build from that - that is why there were not a lot of changes and the players lived up to that expectation and deserved the three points. The way you start every game is key, I think it is very hard if you do not really start sharp it is very hard to get back into the game."
"I do not think we played as well as we have been doing but I still think that some of the decisions went against us. I definitely do not think Fulham's was [a penalty]. I think the referee's performance for the whole game was poor. I think some of his decisions were poor."
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