Heading into this afternoon's clash at Craven Cottage, Fulham will be rightly favored to take all three points. With the odds of success and embarrassment both fairly low, is it time for Paul Lambert to try something different?
When we last left Aston Villa, they'd been well and truly torn apart by Spurs leading to a fair bit of hand-wringing and doomsaying from the fans. The severity of the whipping Tottenham put on Villa erased some positive momentum that had been building in the wake of the shock League Cup upset at the Etihad and encouraging come-from-behind draw against West Brom, and it reminded even the most optimistic fans of the reality of the club's current situation; 16th in the league, with just one win from a relatively soft first seven games. It's far too early to panic, but Aston Villa will need to start winning games at some point. Unfortunately, there aren't all that many reasons to expect them to do so against Fulham.
The offseason and close of the transfer window didn't go all that well for the Cottagers, at least from an outsider's perspective; key attacking cogs Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele left for Spurs, and though quality players Ashkan Dejagah and Hugo Rodallega as well as bona-fide sex god Dimitar Berbatov were brought in to help soften the blow, on paper it looked as though Fulham had clearly taken a step back. If that's truly the case, the results haven't really borne it out; while a draw with Southampton and a 3-0 loss to West Ham aren't all that impressive, a 5-0 throttling of Norwich and almost equally impressive 3-0 rout over West Brom sure are. Does Fulham look a threat to challenge for much higher than mid-table? Probably not, but they were 9th last season with Dempsey and Dembele, and on their day they're downright terrifying to face off against.
Fulham are a team that have gotten attacking contributions from all areas of the pitch, with even Steve-Flipping-Sidwell contributing two goals to the cause this season. That's not all that surprising from a Martin Jol team, especially considering the firepower at their disposal; Berbatov is the only real household name in the side (and he's certainly not the player he was in his prime, though he's still just lovely) but between Rodallega, Damien Duff and Mladen Petric, this isn't a side that looks to be in much danger of finding people to put the ball in the net. Taking the entire season into account it's the defense that's looked suspect, but in three games at the Cottage they've allowed only two goals and done so well in possession that it's been very difficult for the opposition to break them down.
That's bad news for Villa, because Fulham are exactly the kind of team they've struggled so much to deal with so far this season. The defense hasn't been bad for the most part, but they haven't looked like a unit that can be reliably counted on to keep the opposition off the board. Fulham seem a good bet to score a goal or two, and given Villa's struggles in the attacking phase that's going to make things tough. This team has struggled mightily to create much danger (especially in Stephen Ireland's absence) and playing away from home against a team that seems a good bet to control possession, the outlook isn't especially bright.
As per usual (over the course of the past month or so at least) the big question will be who is starting up top for Villa. Christian Benteke had his first game in a Villa shirt that could be described as poor against Spurs, but the idea of a Bent-Agbonlahor pairing or Bent playing up top alone by himself isn't especially palatable. Villa weren't set up to do much attacking against Tottenham which is defensible, but given the struggles they had to do much of anything with the ball it will be interesting to see how Paul Lambert responds; he more than anyone must now realize that this team isn't especially good (especially in the attacking phase) but what's the best way to attempt to compensate for their shortcomings?
It will be interesting (I guess?) to see. This is a tricky one for Villa, and it isn't a game that it's realistic to expect anything from. In my mind, that invites experimentation. Ever felt like going with a 4-3-3, or something even crazier, Mr. Lambert? The gap isn't wide enough to think it will lead to disaster or narrow enough to think you'll be throwing anything away. It might be worth a shot. I don't expect to see anything appreciably different,, and that's not too heavy a criticism of Lambert, but what we've seen from Villa so far shouldn't give anyone too much hope that such an approach is going to lead to much. This team is headed in the right direction, and if things keep humming along the way they're going then soon enough games against Fulham won't look to be such a difficult mountain to climb. But for now, that's not the case. And Villa can survive taking nothing from games like this one, so long as they can be competitive and show some improvement.