Fulham 2-1 Hamburg: technical quality shines through

April 30, 2010

A game literally ten times more enjoyable than the first leg, and probably a deserved result. Fulham, unbelievably, are in a European final, whilst Hamburg’s first game under their new manager resulted in a more spirited performance, but one that was no more cohesive.

Fulham’s side was unchanged from the first leg, with the exception of John Pantsil coming in for the suspended Chris Baird. The formation was the same – 4-4-2 with inverted wingers, and Zolan Gera playing close to Bobby Zamora, who was declared fit to start.

Ricardo Moniz’s first Hamburg teamsheet was as expected – the fit-again Mladen Petric was recalled at the expense of Paolo Guerrero, and the only other change was Robert Tesche replacing the suspended right-winger Piotr Trochowski.

The teams may have been similar to the first leg, but the approach of both was refreshingly different. Fulham were better than in the first leg simply because their passing was crisper and more accurate - they built up play well in the centre of midfield and through their full-backs, allowing Damien Duff and Simon Davies to advance up the pitch to assist the forwards, whereas in the first leg they had generally been marooned in defensive positions.

The notable feature of Hambug’s side was the fact that the central midfielders both had more license to get forward than in the first game. David Jarolim made a couple of unmarked advances into the box that caught Fulham’s defence out, and an attacking foray from Ze Roberto (rare in the first leg) resulted in Danny Murphy fouling him, and Petric smashing the free-kick into the top corner to give Hamburg the advantage.

Ze Roberto was also key to Hamburg defensively – he moved to the left to confront Duff whenever the Irishman picked up the ball, and he often found himself surrounded by Ze Roberto, Pitroipa and Aogo, and found little room to manoeuvre in the first half. Ze Roberto was leaving the centre of midfield slightly unguarded, but Tesche tucked in, and so the space resulting from Ze Roberto’s drift towards Duff was not in the centre of midfield, but in the left-back zone, where Paul Konchesky didn’t get forward as much as he might. Meanwhile, neither Danny Murphy nor Dickson Etuhu attempted many forward runs, instead sitting in front of the defence, so Tesche was not dragged out of position. Moniz instructed Petric to drop into midfield when Hamburg lost the ball, creating a vague 4-5-1 system that shut out Fulham well.

Fulham emerged after half looking quicker and more confident, and Murphy played further forward, helping Fulham try to play through Hambug, rather than playing around them, as they had in the first half. Zamora could not continue much longer, and was replaced by Clint Dempsey. As in the first leg, this seemed to improve Fulham – Zamora was clearly not fit and was effectively a passenger aside from winning the ball in the air – Dempsey’s introduction meant Fulham could press higher up the pitch, and the number of times they won the ball in the final third in the second half was very notable, and probably wouldn’t have been possible with Zamora on the pitch.

Moniz will probably feel, in hindsight, that he was too negative in the second half. Tesche was replaced with Tomas Rincon, often used as a right-back, but this prevented Hambug from launching counter-attacks as Fulham pressed forward.

Murphy was a bigger effect on the game in his more advanced position, and his ball over the top found Davies making a run, and the Welshman converted. Had Zamora still been on the pitch, Murphy’s ball may have gone into him, and Davies would have looked for a lay-off or a knock-down, but with Dempsey playing slightly deeper, the supporting cast were making more direct runs, and Hamburg seemed to be caught out by the slight switch in style, for Joris Mathijsen and Jerome Boateng had coped quite well with Zamora’s physical threat throughout.

Erik  Nevland was introduced for John Pantsil, with Davies moving to an attacking right-back role, and it was Davies presence getting forward from that position (as Pantsil had struggled to do) that forced the corner leading to Gera’s excellent spin-and-shot winner.

And after that, Fulham were fairly comfortable – not that their fans would have felt that way. Hamburg looked clueless for what to do in the final quarter of an hour – perhaps understandable, given the fact that it was only those 15 minutes of the 180 in the tie when they were behind. Hamburg brought on centre-back David Rozenhal to play a Gerard Pique-style centre-back-up-front role late on, but then persisted with short passes across the back four on the halfway line, when they needed to be getting the ball into the box.

Fulham deserved to win the tie – Hamburg produced few genuine chances from open play in the two legs, and their only real threat was Jonathan Pitroipa cutting in from the left. Both sides were negative away from home, but Fulham were far more offensive in their home leg than Hamburg were in theirs. As noted in the first leg, the formation and tactics of both sides are actually quite similar, but Fulham were given instructions by a the excellent Roy Hodgson, where Hambug’s first leg was playing under a manager who had seemingly lost the dressing room, and the second was under a man taking charge of his first-ever top-level game.

The key to Fulham’s win was probably not their manager’s tactical acumen, but the technical quality of the players he has brought into the club. Both goals Fulham scored were genuinely excellent – brilliant close control followed by a precise finish. Lesser players would have not shown Davies’ calmness when through on goal, or Gera’s first touch in a crowded penalty area.

That is essentially what Hodgson has done well – his side is well-organised and tactically sound, but he has created a side like this with top-quality players willing to work for the team, rather than disciplined but technically limited players. Many managers would look at Duff, Murphy, Gera and Davies and only find room for two of them, but Hodgson has accomodated all four in a very good side that has a very good chance of defeating Atletico, for what would be, let’s remember, Fulham’s first trophy whatsoever, never mind their first European trophy.

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