We have all heard and repeated the cautious counsel following Friday’s terrible start to this latest life in the Championship: ‘it’s just one result,’ ‘it’s a long season,’ ‘Rafa knows best.’ All of which are entirely accurate.
It is one result and there will be an enormous 45 yet to clock up in this most gruelling of marathons, and I truly believe in Rafa Benitez’ ability to return us to the top table, more than I’ve believed in anything since the days when I was convinced King Kevin Keegan the Second would turn Michael Owen into a world class deep-lying, playmaking, goal scoring number 10.
Friday night was awful, and up there with some of our most bland and toothless performances last season, albeit with a greater degree of rigidity than we’re used to. It is absolutely right not to get overly concerned at such an early stage, Rafa will pull us through.
Rafa will sort out Jack Colback and Vurnon Anita’s almost complete lack of positional ability.
Rafa might even be able to teach Paul Dummett to turn around…but then he’s not a miracle worker.
My biggest worry from Friday night, however, wasn’t any of the headless chickens we had gambolling about the field, it was focused on two of our supposed better performers of recent times: Daryl Janmaat and Ayoze Perez.
Neither seemed up for a battle, neither demanded the ball, nor seemed to know what to do when it did come their way, neither looked even close to grabbing anything by the scruff of the neck. We looked twice the team – and both Dwight Gayle and Matt Ritchie became instantly more involved – when Adam Armstrong came on for Ayoze. Within seconds, he was demanding Gayle stay closer to him, was jumping for the nothing balls being lumped up field from a central defence bereft of options ahead of them, and generally showing more passion to make something happen than Perez had managed for the rest of the game.
There was a period in the second half, just before we slumped into the collective despair that was the final 15 minutes when we were getting on top, and Ritchie, Armstrong and Jonjo Shelvey were having an impact, and where much of the time all we needed was a little bit more width, an overlap, or someone running in behind.
On various occasions, Janmaat did exactly the opposite. He could be seen not so much holding his position as tiptoeing about as far away from the action as possible without stepping over the hoarding and nipping off for a pint over the bridge at The Rocket. He would look to overlap but then only ever up to a point, before sort of just stopping sheepishly. At one point, when he could have been two on one against the opposing full-back, and where at the beginning of last season we would have seen him bursting through to the byline or cutting inside for a cheeky pot shot, he just took up residence on the halfway line and let his chin rest on his chest.
Last season was hard, it must have hurt the players and they must still be hurting, and we fans certainly have a little experience of how that feels as well; a roaring and rocking Putney End was all but silenced in disbelief at Matt Smith’s deserved goal for the home side.
But while the scars of last season are understandable, the inability to rise above them in a new season, to dig in when it hurts the most, or to show the desire to make amends for the actions that caused those wounds in the first place, is unforgivable. To see that pair jogging around with their heads hung in despair, hurt more than anything else on Friday night.
We were poor on Friday, Fulham thoroughly deserved the three points. Whilst there were a few positive performances from the likes of the new skipper Jamaal Lascelles and new boy Isaac Hayden, questions will of course still abound as to what happens next.
The biggest question the manager faces though, isn’t whether Shelvey is better than Colback (he is), isn’t whether Anita should play instead of Dummett (he should), or even whether Arma should start the next match (without a shadow of a doubt, and every match thereafter!).
The question that I have for Rafa, and the one that I suspect will be the hardest for him to answer, is how he is going to lift the spirits of two of the most prodigious talents our squad has to offer, and instil in them the fight needed for this most unforgiving of seasons to come?
After all, we don’t demand a team that wins, we demand a club that tries.
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