Neither side were able to break the deadlock at Craven Cottage in a game that failed to ever spark into life. As the visiting manager, Alex McLeish will rightly be happier with his point, but will have Shay Given to thank for a number of important saves and might be concerned about the lack of any real threat at the opposite end today.
McLeish opted to use essentially the same 4-4-1-1 system as in the final warm-up game against Braga, except Fabian Delph came in for Jean II Makoun and Gabby played wide with Emile Heskey playing behind Darren Bent.
Charles N’Zogbia kept his place on the right and looked extremely lively as the first half wore on, sending in a couple of great crosses that Heskey and James Collins should have done more with. However, his lack of fitness showed after the break and he eventually gave way to Marc Albrighton in the 67th minute. It should have been sooner.
No question who made the more impressive debut then; Given will be an important signing and certainly saved us points today. Nevertheless, the back four looked stronger and more organised than we often saw last season, so we can certainly expect to see more clean sheets.
But we can’t help raising the question about blanks at the other end. The teams left the field at half time with the main statistics revealing a fairly even game; Villa edging the possession 52/48, but both sides with a solitary shot on target. By the final whistle, Fulham had grabbed 54% of the possession and fired off a further four shots on target while Villa didn’t trouble Mark Schwarzer at all.
Fulham cranked up the pressure from the opening of the second half by keeping the ball well, exploiting the width of the pitch and pressing from the front whenever they didn’t have the possession. It worked well, but fortunately not well enough. This time.
Stiliyan Petrov’s legs and mind tired in the second half as expected. The assessment that he slows the play down is accurate, but that might not have been a bad thing in an opening game that was important not to lose. However, it’s no less frustrating late on when you sense there might be the possibility of nicking something with a little incisiveness.
Overall, there were some bright signs; Given in particular, but also Fabian Delph in the middle and N’Zogbia during the latter phases of the first half. Richard Dunne and James Collins both looked alert and closer to their best.
Some concerns too; Petrov offers very little creativity and not much at all after an hour. The Murphy/Etuhu pairing had the upper hand in the middle today. There are shades of accommodationism with Heskey, Gabby and Bent all in the side, but not used as front three, keeping Albrighton on the bench and a striker being used as a winger.
The focus going forward was very much down the left, with players on that side drifting in, which had the double effect of isolating N’Zogbia during the early spells and made very little use of the width. Lack of width being something of a theme in the last few games and failure to stretch the game essentially becomes a failure to give Bent the conditions he thrives on.
But it’s the first game of the season and the pressure on McLeish is enormous. He didn’t lose. He didn’t play an overly defensive game with too much reliance on long ball as a lot of fans feared would be his style either.
Although there was a great resilience on the long ball than we saw in this same fixture last season, I don’t think anyone would argue McLeish wouldn’t be more direct than Gerard Houllier. Still, it’s not a great shift in style with 14% of passes going long at Craven Cottage last season versus 18% today.
So, a point is a point. I saw many fans saying they’d happily take a goalless draw before kick off, there can be few complaints about the result. Fulham has never been a place we win at regularly. More importantly; we showed the resilience we’ve missed when Fulham did turn it up a notch.
Now we have three games at Villa Park in eight days with Hereford’s Carling Cup visit bisecting the Premier League games against Blackburn and Wolves who played each other today incidentally, Mick McCarthy leaving Lancashire with all three points. That should give us a better feel for how McLeish intends to use the players at his disposal; Barry Bannan, Stephen Ireland and Jean II Makoun all failed to get a taste of action today.
Fulham: Schwarzer, Hughes, Senderos, Hangeland, Riise, Duff, Etuhu, Murphy, Dempsey, Zamora (Dembele 74′), Johnson. Unused Subs: Etheridge, Baird, Sidwell, Briggs, Kelly, Kasami.
Aston Villa: Given, Young, Collins, Dunne, Warnock, N’Zogbia (Albrighton 67′), Delph, Petrov (Clark 90′), Agbonlahor, Heskey, Bent. Unused Subs: Guzan, Makoun, Ireland, Bannan, Delfouneso.
[Pic Credit: Sam Kelly]