Although the Premier League table may say otherwise, there are no two clubs in the division playing worse football than Fulham and Chelsea.
Chelsea ended October as league leaders and were six points clear of their closest challengers. In that impressive first third of the season, Chelsea won eight, drew once and lost once, scoring 27 goals and conceding 3. Since the start of November, they’ve won just one of eight, drawing three times and losing four more, only managing 5 goals and conceding 12.
Fulham have not suffered the fate of two seasons. Theirs has been a rather monotonous, succession of mediocrity. In 18 games, the Cottagers have won just twice. Both wins came against fellow relegation-battlers Wigan and Wolverhampton. In that span of time, Fulham have averaged less than a goal a game.
So what’s in the Evian in West London?
For Chelsea, it’s a club undertaking massive personnel changes while attempting to defend a league title. The losses of Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Ballack, Joe Cole, Deco, and Juliano Belletti were only softened by the purchases of Yossi Benayoun and Ramiers, and the addition of academy players Josh McEachran, Gael Kakuta, Patrick van Aanholt, and Jreffrey Bruma.
Benayoun only featured in three matches before a torn Achilles ruled him out until the end of March, and Ramiers has looked astonishingly poor since his £18 million switch from Benfica.
Meanwhile the youth movement has had mixed results. Kakuta has shown glimpses of what scouts saw in the French prodigy, but he’s looked immature and out of place more often than not, while Bruma has only been used in defensive emergencies and his performances did little to inspire confidence.
McEachran has been the bright spot of the lot, but at 17, he can’t be relied upon to pick up all of the slack of players like Cole and Ballack. van Aanholt has also looked like a player ready to step into the side. Unfortunately for Chelsea, widely-heralded as the best left back in the world, Ashley Cole already occupies that position.
What Chelsea need is new faces. Players with the ability to change the game. It’s been nearly three years since Chelsea did anything close. Their addition of Nicolas Anelka in January 2008 was not seen unanimously as a game changer.
It’s nearly a certainty manager Carlo Ancelotti will add a central defender in January. The question is, how big of a gamble do they take? Gary Cahill of Bolton could step in and deputize respectfully for Alex, but at 25 and with only one cap for England, he may not be to Chelsea’s standard. Especially not at £15 million. Benfica’s David Luiz is the player with the most upside, but at £30 million and unfamiliar with the English game, it’s a pretty high-risk move. Roma’s Philippe Mexes offers a more tested option, and with only one year remaining on his contract, could prove to be the economical choice.
Past the defending, nothing is out of the question for Chelsea. They are in desperate need of creativity and goals. Some will argue the return of Frank Lampard is all the creativity and goal-scoring Chelsea need. Perhaps, but that won’t change the form of Anelka, Kakuta, Salomon Kalou, or Florent Malouda. Since Malouda has cooled off (zero goals, one assist in his past nine games), Chelsea have lacked any and all flair and trickery to complement the power of Didier Drogba. If they’re serious about retaining the Premier League title, Chelsea need to add a true game changer to flank Drogba.
For Fulham, the solution is pretty obvious, but the questions are rather confusing. The injuries to Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele have decimated Fulham’s attacking options. Recently-fit Andy Johnson and habitual Fulham reserve Eddie Johnson simply have not been able to stand in for Zamora and Dembele. The over-reliance on midfielders Zoltan Gera and Clint Dempsey has been glaringly obvious, scoring two goals or more on just on occasion since Zamora’s injury.
A proven striker is what Fulham need more than anything. However a central midfielder would be close behind. Danny Murphy looks to have lost a step from last season (which is saying a lot as he was nearly 33 a year ago) and Dickson Etuhu has been a near disaster this season. If there is any consolation for Fulham, it’s that its defense has been only worrying compared to the midfield and front line’s calamitous reputations. The return of Philippe Senderos from injury in February should allow more flexibility at the back to allow Aaron Hughes to cover for John Pantsil, Carlos Salcido, Stephen Kelly, or Chris Baird (whichever is playing most suspect at that time).
The solution at both clubs is the same (past spending money). Give the managers time.
Ancelotti is a proven winner, he picked up two Champions League trophies with Milan, one of which was at the beginning of their penny pinching days. If Chelsea is serious about building a perennial championship contending team (you know, like they had when Mourinho was in charge), they need to give Ancelotti time to build a squad in his image. Ancelotti should be given until this time next season.
Hughes should also be given time over at Fulham. However, the circumstances are more dire, meaning Hughes won’t have the luxury of another year of patience. Hughes will likely be given another week. If Hughes fails to produce three points from the next three matches (away to Stoke, away to Tottenham, and home to West Brom), he will likely be sent packing. What’s in Fulham’s best interest is to support whoever manages the club in January and allow him to improve an aging and mediocre squad with funds appropriate for this league (that would be more than £10 million, Mr. Al-Fayed).
The biggest difference between the two: If Chelsea fail to improve, they’ll have a furious Russian owner with questionable character. If Fulham fail to improve, they’ll be relegated. For both these West London clubs, it’s do or die.