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Player Spotlight

How Will Clint Dempsey Fit In With Struggling Fulham?

The Nacogdoches, Texas, native scored 50 league goals in 184 appearances for the Cottagers, but the strong supporting cast he played alongside is no longer there. Can Deuce thrive again in the EPL?
BY Blake Thomsen Posted
January 03, 2014
4:04 PM
CLINT DEMPSEY WILL LIKELY make his return for Fulham in tomorrow’s FA Cup match at Norwich City. And while many American soccer fans will be thrilled to see the Texas native back where he established himself as a legitimate star, the Cottagers are just two points above the relegation zone and trying to forge a new identity.

Dempsey’s consistent excellence at the west London club helped solidify his status as America’s best-ever Premier League player, and he’ll be looking to return to that level of performance in his second spell with the club. His move to the Seattle Sounders in August coincided with a concerning drop in form, but with the World Cup looming, Dempsey will be eager to show the naysayers that he can still thrive in the world’s best league.

Fulham hasn’t exactly set the league on fire since Rene Meulensteen took over for Martin Jol in early December, but it has managed to at least be competitive. And most importantly for Dempsey, the Cottagers have shown far more life offensively lately, scoring 10 goals in the six games since Meulensteen took charge (compared to 11 goals in 14 games under Jol).

Despite the recent uptick in form, this Fulham team is still only a shadow of the one that Dempsey left after the 2011-12 season. Dempsey fit in perfectly with that team. The selfless running of strikers Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora created space in the final third, while the impressive vision and passing ability of center midfielder Danny Murphy often resulted in Dempsey getting behind the back four. Add the dynamic dribbling and chance creation of Moussa Dembele, who was in the form of his life in his last two years at Fulham, and Dempsey had an excellent supporting cast that suited his talents perfectly. The result? 36 goals in his last two years at the club.

There’s simply no way that he will fit in quite that well to this year’s Fulham. Much has changed, as every one of the aforementioned players is no longer even at the club. And many of his former teammates still with the club have regressed since Dempsey left. Bryan Ruiz is a prime example. After excelling in his first year with Fulham, the Costa Rican has made only a limited impact in the season and a half since Dempsey left.

It’s difficult to envision Dempsey reaching similar heights as he did in his last two years at Fulham. This is due more to the limitations of Fulham’s current players than the form of Dempsey. It’s only a slight oversimplification to divide Fulham’s current crop of attacking players into two distinct categories. And each type of player has serious limitations—especially compared to the old Fulham—that will negatively affect Dempsey’s production.

The first type of Fulham attacker is the classic “flair player”, marked by an ability to conjure up special goals from nothing but equally notable for an apathetic approach to defensive work. Want-away Dimitar Berbatov is the archetype—the former Manchester United and Tottenham striker is notorious (and in some circles, celebrated) for his carefree nature on the pitch. His clinical finishing ability keeps him in the starting XI, but he’d be a far more useful player if he’d only expend a little more energy. Fellow striker Darren Bent essentially offers the same thing as Berbatov in terms of low work rate and high finishing ability, just with less panache.

Neither striker will be particularly helpful in creating space in the final third for Dempsey. Berbatov produces the occasional sublime pass—and in theory could assist a Dempsey goal or two—but for the most part he is on the field to score goals for himself.

Bryan Ruiz, Adel Taarabt, and Patjim Kasami most certainly fall into the “flair player” category as well, though each is most comfortable in an attacking midfield role as opposed to Berbatov’s preferred role up front. They are all capable of scoring extraordinary goals, but their inconsistency and one-way contributions make them only marginally effective Premier League players.

The midfield trio has combined to score just four goals on the season, an insufficient return given their collective lack of work rate. They also haven’t gotten into much of a rhythm with their passing in the final third. But that could change with the arrival of Dempsey, who will inevitably provide an available option in and around the box.

The other type of Fulham attacker is the hardworking, somewhat unskilled player who will run hard for 90 minutes. Again, this is a slight overgeneralization. However, Damien Duff, Ashkan Dejagah, and Kieran Richardson certainly fit this general description. It would be harsh to call the impressive young Swede Alex Kacaniklic “unskilled," but his lack of consistent end product limits his effectiveness, despite enterprising running and plenty of trickery.

These players may fit in well with Dempsey if they can develop more consistency in their crossing. Dempsey is an excellent header of the ball and can and will score headed goals if given the service. Still, he shouldn’t expect service of the quality that Graham Zusi, Fabian Johnson, and Landon Donovan provide with the USMNT.

To date, Fulham has not been able to field a player who is both fully committed to the team AND capable of scoring and creating goals. Enter Clint Dempsey.

The arrival of Dempsey will give Meulensteen just the type of player that Fulham needs, one who can make a serious contribution the attack but also not kill the team defensively. His ability to make a two-way contribution has made Dempsey a manager’s favorite his whole career. Expect more of the same with Meulensteen. Whether the supporting cast is good enough to help Dempsey thrive is another question.

Meulensteen will have to tinker with his preferred XI to see how to best fit Dempsey in. The former Manchester United assistant has alternated between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 since he took over, generally utilizing the 4-3-3 against the league’s top teams, as he did against Everton and Manchester City.

Dempsey will most likely be deployed either behind the striker or on the left wing, two positions at which he has long starred for club and country. There’s also a chance that Dempsey could see some time as the lone striker—Berbatov looks set to leave in the transfer window and Meulensteen has proven he is willing to experiment with the striker position. Adel Taarabt has seen some time alone up top, and the Moroccan is far less suited for the position than Dempsey is.

Regardless of starting position, Meulensteen’s attackers have appeared to be relatively free tactically and not confined to a rigid area of the field. That will suit Dempsey well, as he largely roamed wherever he pleased in the final third towards the end of his first spell at Fulham.

Fulham and USMNT fans alike will be hoping that Dempsey can replicate the sort of form that saw him torch the EPL in his last two years with Fulham. It won’t be as easy to do so this time around. But knowing Dempsey, he’ll probably take the opportunity with aplomb.

What do you expect to see from Dempsey this time around? Share your thoughts in the Comments.

Blake Thomsen is a frequent ASN contributor. Follow him on Twitter.

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