There are a number of conclusions being drawn from the fact that Roy Hodgson takes Fulham to West Ham today on a run of 10 games unbeaten.The most specious, though some connected with the Premier League have not been slow in putting the argument forward, is that the Cottagers' success proves that far from being split into mini-divisions based primarily on income, the League is actually becoming more egalitarian.
Another, surely more realistic, is that Hodgson is simply doing what he does best, proving that intelligent organisation of a capable group of players can achieve the unexpected. And all this despite the fact they have yet to win away from Craven Cottage.
Defensive steeliness is a quality rarely associated with Fulham teams over the years but, according to their central defender Brede Hangeland, the concession of only six goals in those 10 games says as much about Hodgson's abilities as it does about those of his players.
"I'd like to see the team that works more on their defending than us," said the Norway captain, one of 13 players bought by Hodgson since he was appointed to succeed Lawrie Sanchez just over a year ago. "We've done a lot of work on it every day, not only the back four and goalkeeper but the team as a unit, and not having lost against a top-four team has a lot to do with the way the manager organises us. We know our jobs, communicate well, and never give up."
The downside to Fulham's steady climb up the table is that clubs with deeper pockets are eyeing certain players with covetous intent. Hangeland himself is being linked to Ars-enal and Hodgson, having rejected an offer of £5 million from Bolton for Jimmy Bullard, admits he would be delighted to reach the sanctuary of 2 February without losing either player.
"The enquiries for Jimmy haven't been serious enough for us to take into account, and other clubs know that to take Hangeland from us would be an expensive business, so hopefullythey'll be looking for cheaper alternatives," Hodgson said on Friday.
"If we can get to the end of the window having kept all our players, and even added one or two, we'll be looking forward to an interesting spring, especially if we've had good results in the three matches we have to play before then."
While Hodgson has unquestionably made Fulham hard to break down, he has still to find a way of making them more dangerous going forward. The £15m partnership of Andrew Johnson and Bobby Zamora has been ineffective, though Johnson's FA Cup double at Sheffield Wednesday, coming after seven barren games, will encourage a player who tends to score in bursts. Zamora's solitary strike,in the win against Bolton back in September, is not the return Hodgson must have hoped for after paying West Ham £4.8m for a player who turned 28 on Friday.
Hodgson remains outwardly confident the goals will come. "I think all the players, in particular the front players, are creating chances," he said. "We're trying to get behind the opposition and cause problems, and we must continue to do that and hope the ball falls kindly and we put it in the back of the net. We don't play differently [away from home]. Of course, sometimes the opposition can make life more difficult for you and make chances harder to come by, but our ambition, our philosophy, our desire, it doesn't change."
For the same reason, he shrugs aside any accusations of negativity. "People have the perceptions they want, but I don't think the fans who come to watch us every week perceive us that way."
Three years ago, when Hodgson was in charge of Finland, he described his style of management as studied, with an emphasis on preparation and tactics, and, he acknowledged, somewhat authoritarian. But while a lot has changed in his 30 years, he says the crux of the job has not altered: "It's about persuading individuals your ideas, methods and way of working are worth following."
Once again, the formula seems to be working.
West Ham utd v Fulham (1.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Two teams sitting side by side in mid-table. Ten games without defeat for Fulham, who even won away against Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup. West Ham are the only side to have won at Craven Cottage this season.
Tottenham hotspur v Portsmouth (4pm, Sky Sports 1)
Sky may need to turn down their touchline mics occasionally to avoid offending viewers as Sol Campbell and Tony Adams come to White Hart Lane in one corner, with Harry Redknapp and Jermain Defoe in the other. Just as well Pompey didn't sign ex-Arsenal winger Jermaine Pennant too.
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