Football managers saying funny things; we've been here before, and we'll be here again. This week's episode came courtesy of Fulham manager Rene Meulensteen, following his side's limp FA Cup capitulation to Sheffield United on Tuesday night. "We know we only have ourselves to blame," he told the assembled media. "We need to look in each other's eyes and dig ourselves out of it. Have we hit rock bottom? We probably have."
They've not been as obvious about it as some of their fellow relegation flounderers -- there's been no idiot fascist banning ketchup; no buffoonish owner with buffoonish trousers doing buffoonish things for the television -- but Fulham are quietly putting together a season of intriguing oddness. What looked at season's start to be a decent, experienced, solidly mid-table squad has so far looked entirely superannuated and wholly unfit for purpose; only Cardiff City, Crystal Palace and Norwich City have scored fewer goals in the Premier League, while no side in all four league divisions have conceded more.
All the teams in the bottom half have their own problems, and Fulham's has been one of underperformance. There is is to see a remarkable disparity between how their players should (or at any rate could) be performing, in terms of their talent and potential and experience and so forth, and what's actually happening on the pitch. In such circumstances, attention naturally turns to the dugout, and its in the field of succession planning that the club have been really innovative. To save time, a manager's replacement is appointed several weeks before his dismissal; just as Martin Jol had to work out his last few games in charge with Meulensteen hovering in the background, so Meulensteen can now feel the hot breath of Alan Curbishley on the nape of his neck. Metaphorically, hopefully.
So, beyond lining managers up like Russian dolls, what have they been doing about it? There are, in essence, two approaches that a downward-trending club can take when they approach a transfer window: either they gamble on overhauling the squad in the belief that new faces equals new impetus, or they sit tight, bank on their players being good enough, and calculate that intra-squad familiarity will give them an edge. Fulham emphatically chose the former path, and if there is hope for them to avoid relegation, it will stem from the fact that they appear (in abstract, anyway) to have bought and sold rather well.
Let's start with the exits. In a move calculated to offend the sensibilities of aesthetes everywhere, they waved a languorous goodbye to Bryan Ruiz (to PSV Eindhoven), Adel Taarabt (to AC Milan), and, most emotionally wrenching of all, Dimitar Berbatov, who embraced his natural destiny and moved to Monaco. That's a lot of talent gone, but the thinking is obvious: all that sexiness must have been very distracting for the rest of the team. While it's a sad day for the neutral, it's perhaps a reasonable move if things are going to get scrappy. Faint first touch never won fair relegation battle, as the saying goes.
Now the entrances. The most obvious improvement is the acquisition of Lewis Holtby from Tottenham Hotspur. Quite what Spurs are up to with their squad is an enduring mystery, but Holtby wasn't finding much in the way of game time under Tim Sherwood and Fulham's midfield options -- Parker, Sidwell, Karagounis -- lack a certain something when it comes to sunny smiles and a bit of wit in the passing. Meulensteen has spoken of the lift that Holtby's given the squad in training, and while that's an almost-obligatory comment for any manager working with a new signing, it's easy to see how he improves the side.
The man to whom Holtby will be passing is a much more intriguing proposition. Konstantinos Mitroglou, purchased for a club record fee from Olympiakos, has passed up the chance to play Manchester United in the last-16 of the Champions League to move to West London. Doubtless he's being handsomely rewarded for doing so; the Daily Mail quoted him as being "really flattered that they wanted me so badly," which isn't perhaps the most dignified of looks, but needs must. A completely different beast to Berbatov -- aren't we all, we feeble mortals? -- Arsene Wenger describes him as having "has both a physical presence and a sense of finishing", which sounds ideal. Or at least more useful than the tears of poor Hugo Rodallega. That said, Mitroglou's missed a fair chunk of football recently thanks to injury, which might perhaps weigh against his chances of making an instant impact.
Elsewhere, the midfield has been further reinforced by the loan signing of William Kvist from Stuttgart. Purchased to offer a calm defensive presence and sensible distribution behind Holtby, the Danish international is distinguished not only by having a ridiculously long throw, but by being perhaps the only Premier League footballer to share name with both a furniture company and a Norwegian black metal band. Clint Dempsey is back, which should guarantee a few goals, but more importantly refreshes Fulham's habit of having an American knocking about. And Jonny Heitinga has arrived from Everton. While he's nobody's idea of a secure defensive presence, he should at least provide a contrast to his predecessor, Philippe Senderos, who has always seemed far too polite to be an effective centre-half.
So, hope! Well, perhaps. Buying good players is the easier bit; making them all play nicely with one another is trickier. Fundamentally revamping the structure of a football team takes time, and that's precisely what Fulham don't have. There are 14 games left in the season, and if the rumours are to be believed then Meulensteen has precisely two to save his job: this weekend's visit to a Manchester United desperate for points, then the following week's home game against a Liverpool hungry for goals.
Should things proceed predictably, then
they'll definitely beat United Fulham fans will have to hope that their shiny new purchases are as much to Curbishley's tastes as to Meulensteen's, and maybe even Ray Wilkins' if the pattern continues. Otherwise, things are only going to get more hapless, and all that sensible shopping will go to waste. Change can be good; chaos, at least for the non-neutral, not so much.