Ahead of Aston Villa's Sunday clash with Fulham, we have a chat with our good friend Andrew Beck from Cottagers Confidential. If you'd like to see the reverse of this Q&A, head right on over this way.
Q) Martin Jol's out, which doesn't really seem to be much of a surprise to anyone. How are Fulham fans feeling about Rene Meulensteen? Does his long-term future on charge depend on how this season plays out, or do you think he'll be around for the foreseeable future?
A) So far Meulensteen has said the right things, and the way the team set up and played midweek against Spurs was very encouraging. I know it's hard to take a moral victory from a loss, but for the first time in forever Fulham looked like they had a tactical plan. They out played Tottenham for larger portions of the game. And for the first time all season they created as many chances as their opposition. Considering Tottenham had lead the league in shots before the game, that was highly encouraging. The result wasn't what you'd like, but when you give up your goals to two rockets from outside of the box (one of which included a player who clearly interfered in an offside position) you can't be that upset. With just a little bit of luck (Lloris made some amazing saves and Kasami hit the woodwork in the dying minutes), Fulham wins that game.
I'm pretty sure Meulensteen is going to be there for the long term. The interesting thing is even though he's in charge, he doesn't have the title of Manager. He still has the title of Head Coach. Curiously, that's the same title that AVB has at Tottenham. I think the long term plan when he was hired was to move Jol to a Technical Director position and have Meulensteen take over the coaching duties. Unfortunately for Jol, the teams performance required him to be let go. I still expect the team to bring in a Technical Director sooner rather than later. I personally think that's the future of the game and can't understand why English clubs have held out so long using the all powerful manager.
Q) Darren Bent's unlikely to ever pull on a Villa shirt again, but he's still property of the club through next season. How's he looked so far? Do you think Fulham would have any interest in making his loan move permanent?
A) Bent to be honest hasn't looked that good, though with Berbatov wanting out and Rodallega hurt, he might get more playing time. Other than him, the only strikers we have are from the youth side. While Muamer Tankovic (only 18) and Moussa Dembele (we have another one, but he's French and 17) are very talented, I'm not sure they are ready to contribute just yet. Bent's problem has been he either plays ok and generates chances that he can't finish, or he fails to generate chances at all. I honestly don't see the club taking him past this season.
Q) As it stands, Fulham's in the relegation zone, but with 24 games remaining and just 5 points between 18th and 13th, there's plenty of time for that to change. What's the general mood of the fanbase? Does Fulham have enough to survive, and will they be able to make a key addition or two come January? If the worst were to happen, is the club in a position to bounce back quickly?
A) There's still quite a bit of hope that they can get out of the relegation zone. With Meulensteen's appointment and the performance midweek the mood is much better than it has been in some time. I still think they need to make some additions in the winter window. Normally Fulham prefers not to spend in that window. However, with Shahid Khan just buying the club, I think he might be willing to spend to protect his investment. He spent £150M to buy the club. How much does the value go down if they are relegated? I think spending £20M would be cheaper than the loss he'd have to write off if they went down.
If the club goes down, they are in relatively good position. It's not really well known to a lot of people, but Fulham have quietly assembled a super impressive academy. They hired away much of the staff that previously ran the Southampton academy that produced Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale. The Fulham U-21 squad is currently leading the league table and that's without some of their best players who are out on loan: Dan Burn (21, Birmingham City), Cauley Woodrow (19, Southend United), Ryan Williams (20, Oxford United), Buomesca Tue Na Bangna (20, Crewe Alexandra). The U-18 Squad is perhaps even more impressive. They've won the league the last two years and are currently on top again. Some of the U-18 players are already playing on the U-21 squad and some have even seen first team action. The previously mentioned Moussa Dembele is one of the most talented young players in the country. Also on the squad is a player many Americans may recognize in Emerson Hyndman (17). Fulham currently has very few players on it's first team that have long term contracts. If they were to get relegated, they could easily bring in a ton of their own youth and probably still be quite good in the Championship.
Before midweek I didn't even know what kind of formation Meulensteen would use. He went with a 4-2-3-1, so I see no reason to doubt he'd do it again. I expect it to look something like this:
Maarten Stekelenburg; Sasha Riether, Philippe Senderos, Fernando Amorebieta, Kieran Richardson; Steve Sidwell, Scott Parker; Ashkan Dejagah, Pajtim Kasami, Alex Kacaniklic; Dimitar Berbatov
Unless Aston Villa plays defense as well as Tottenham does, I expect Fulham to score more than once. The question will be if Fulham can stop Villa from scoring. I'm predicting their first clean sheet in forever and a 2-0 win.