Fulham have the benefit of an established centre-back partnership, possess a couple of decent full-backs, boast exciting wingers and have signed some intelligent attackers. It's the central midfield zone Martin Jol has struggled to get right this season.
Against Sunderland, he gave a full debut to the Greek veteran Giorgos Karagounis. Now 35, it is somewhat surprising to see the Euro 2004 winner turn out for a good Premier League side. Although he is still capable of fine long-distance passes, his energy levels have declined significantly. In 25 league appearances for Panathinaikos last season, not once did he complete 90 minutes, .
Yet Karagounis offers creativity and ambition, precisely what Jol demands from his side. Martin Jol's instinct is always to be bold – he converted Mousa Dembélé into the league's most direct central midfielder, while admiring Danny Murphy's ability to switch play quickly to the wings. Both departed in the summer, and the manager's options – Chris Baird, Mahamadou Diarra and Steve Sidwell – are mobile and combative but offer little invention.
Karagounis' brief cameo was rather stereotypical. He thumped a couple of fine crossfield passes to the flanks yet was caught out of position when moves broke down and misplaced simple passes, belying his reputation as an intelligent distributor; an underhit 10-yard backward ball resulted in Brede Hangeland diving forward recklessly into a red card.
Jol is not accustomed to reorganising with 10 men – Fulham were unique in not being shown a red card in 2011–12 – but he was forced to introduce a replacement centre-back, and inevitably Karagounis was sacrificed. Fulham had already replaced the injured Alexander Kacaniklic with Hugo Rodallega, and Jol knew Karagounis was not likely to last until full-time, which would deny him any further tactical switches. The Karagounis experiment lasted just 36 minutes, with mixed results.
After a sending off, most managers settle for two banks of four, and leave one striker feeding off scraps. Instead Jol's side continued to attack and play with great fluidity; Sidwell was theoretically the deepest midfielder yet continued to press, while Bryan Ruiz became a makeshift central midfielder, casually dropping in alongside Sidwell when Sunderland had the ball but also combining with Dimitar Berbatov.
With Fulham 1-0 down, Ruiz was forced off through injury. A less adventurous coach would have introduced Stephen Kelly at right-back and pushed Sascha Riether into the central-midfield role he played at Cologne, or filled the gap in midfield with a wide midfielder. But Jol is a gambler, and he called for an out-and-out striker in the shape of Mladen Petric – amazingly, Berbatov now became the closest thing Sidwell had to a midfield colleague, who scored within three minutes of his introduction.
Jol's determination to be positive in midfield meant Fulham took the initiative – the home side were not significantly outpassed and created so many goalscoring opportunities that Sunderland's keeper Simon Mignolet was the game's standout performer. Their lack of midfield presence wasn't a factor in their first two concessions, which arrived following a long ball over the top, then a corner when Fulham were temporarily down to nine men.
Maybe extra midfield protection would have forced Stéphane Sessègnon into a pass rather than giving him room for a blistering 25-yard blast for the third, decisive goal – but that would be a harsh analysis of a superb strike. Besides, that's the type of risk Jol is willing to take, and over the course of the season,his commitment to attack will gain more than it loses.
Martin Jol wasn't the only manager who played an interesting formation after having a man sent off this weekend. In Tottenham's 5-2 defeat to Arsenal on Saturday, André Villas-Boas switched to a 3-4-1-1 system at half-time after Emmanuel Adeayor's red card – sacrificing both full-backs in favour of Clint Dempsey and an extra centre-back, Michael Dawson.
In using his two starting wingers, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, as wing-backs, Villas-Boas remained committed to attack – and Spurs briefly looked threatening at the start of the second half. Dempsey occupied Mikel Arteta and prevented him from slowing the tempo of the game, while the back three circulated the ball quickly.
However, as Villas-Boas admitted after the game, it was a huge risk to play three-against-three at the back, and Arsenal's fourth goal, where they broke down one flank before switching the ball to the opposite side, was a good example of how Spurs were vulnerable to quick counter-attacks.
A theme of Chelsea's season so far has been their poor defensive work on the flanks – the full-backs don't receive enough protection from the wide players, and Roberto Di Matteo's side have often conceded following crosses, particularly from their left-back zone.
On Saturday afternoon, West Brom exploited this weakness with the use of their central players. On paper, James Morrison was nominally the central attacking midfielder but drifted across the pitch to the flanks, while Shane Long is one of the best centre-forwards in the Premier League at working the channels.
Those two both moved across the pitch laterally to find space – Morrison provided the cross for Long's opener, while the Irishman did likewise for Peter Odemwingie's winner. Whether deliberate or accidental, it was a fine example of how central players, as well as wingers, can cause opponents problems in wide zones.