Arsenal are arguably just one player better than they were last season, yet their retention of a long-serving manager, and emphasis on quality over quantity in recruitment, has seen them better positioned than their rivals after the first three months of the campaign.
Liverpool are also arguably over-achieving at this stage of the season, again having largely kept the same staff as last term, and welcomed back Luis Suarez after his latest suspension. Southampton, having surprised most by sacking Nigel Adkins last season, have fully justified their management change by arguably bringing in the next big thing in coaching.
Their rivals, meanwhile, are adapting to new coaching and playing personnel – Manchester United’s travails have been well documented, City are trying to balance Manuel Pellegrini’s attacking philosophy with long-standing difficulties defending away from home, and Tottenham have an entirely new midfield and front-line to bed in. Chelsea, by virtue of bringing back a manager who knows the club inside out, are faring best of the bunch but even Jose Mourinho will admit they are short of the finished article.
The stakes are strangely higher lower down the standings, though. Ian Holloway took up a Crystal Palace team with no real right to call themselves Premier League; he was rewarded with the sack. Paolo Di Canio was a rotten appointment so his departure is more understandable, while Chris Hughton is feeling the pressure after a summer spending spree was followed by Norwich’s worst run of form in around a year. Despite starting the season well, Malky Mackay will constantly be looking over his shoulder to trigger-happy owner Vincent Tan, whose internal dealings appear shady at best.
But despite being a relative beacon of managerial stability, it could and probably should be Fulham who next dispense with their manager.
Martin Jol’s appointment as Fulham boss was largely greeted positively, with the signing of Dimitar Berbatov a coup for the West London club. Initially the Whites developed a reputation for being the Premier League’s great entertainers, but as the season progressed the wheels came off.
Jol remains an enigma of sorts. A jovial, popular figure, he is only really interested in attacking football which – while entertaining enough – often leaves his sides short when contending for trophies.
Since his promotion from assistant to number one at Tottenham in 2004, Jol has only really been in the business of targeting trophies, with glorious failure an acceptable medium for fans of Spurs, Hamburg and – to a lesser extent – Ajax.
With Ajax – and Luis Suarez – Jol won the Dutch Cup, which remains his only trophy to date, having also won it with Roda in 1997. But somehow Ajax failed to win the Dutch Eredivisie title, despite scoring a monstrous 106 league goals, also having the best defensive record in the league. Twente’s record-breaking form saw off that challenge.
No less so than at Fulham, who have traditionally been one of the Premier League’s more miserly teams.
They have conceded three or more goals in their last three matches, but most worryingly has been the utter lack of fight they have shown in these matches.
A weakened team may have lost 4-3 in the League Cup to Leicester, but the first XI were abject against Southampton – who should have won by more than two goals – Manchester United, and today Liverpool.
Wave after wave of attack characterised the first halves of the three Premier League matches, as did unconscionable defensive errors, particularly at set pieces, another traditional forte of Fulham defences.
That responsibility lies with Jol, who has throughout his career showed little interest in setting teams up to be solid defensive units. Which, as an attack-minded coach, leaves him with the duty to appoint an assistant with a speciality for defending.
The appointment of Michael Lindeman – a renowned physical fitness coach – was logical in that injuries had hindered Fulham in recent seasons, while Jol does not have a reputation for over-exerting his charges in training without the ball.
But it has left Fulham shorn of defensive ideas and organisation: marking, collective positioning and decision-making at set pieces are related to work on the training ground, and their inexcusable level is a symptom of deficiencies in that department.
Fulham’s defensive problems can be summed up by one player – Philippe Senderos. Somehow the Swiss has managed to regress in his understanding of the game, continually caught out of position and making blunder after blunder under minimal pressure. Fernando Amorebieta, a fine player and a promising acquisition on a free transfer from Athletic Bilbao, appears to have been mismanaged in the early stages of his Fulham career, although there is time for him to improve.
There is a wider malaise at Craven Cottage, though.
Jol has an air about him of a man who doesn’t really care anymore. It pervades his touchline demeanour, his slack and occasionally ridiculous comments at press conferences, and his laissez-faire attitude to defeat.
That atmosphere appears to have seeped into squad that lacks characters with a point to prove. There is almost too much experience in that Fulham team, not enough youthful hunger. The young players coming to the fore are not exactly scrappers and, while technique is nine-tenths of the law in modern football, determination and stamina are pre-requisites to a passing, pressing game.
Fulham’s attitude problems can be summed up by one player – Bryan Ruiz – who boasts incredible skill but an almost pathological aversion to hard work and physical confrontation. Mousa Dembele, for example, had the pitch coverage to match his passing. Those players are long gone, and it was Jol’s job to replace them accordingly.
Is this a general, creeping disinterest in the game, or a response to the change in club ownership? Jol may feel that he is a dead man walking – despite having one of the lowest wage bills in the division, he was only permitted to spend £8m in transfer fees this summer. Only Stoke and Newcastle have spent less, and the latter’s recruitment strategy appears to be one of outright aversion to employing new players (why else would Joe Kinnear be given that brief?).
Shahid Khan has insisted he will remain patient with Jol.
"He's a good guy. We've gotten off to a start nobody's happy with, whether you're a fan or you're Martin. We want to do better but I'm not the kind of person who's going to act on impulse.
"You go through life and learn valuable lessons. I want Fulham to be very successful. You can't go out of the frying pan and into the fire. That's the most important thing.
"Relegation is a horrible thought but you've got to keep in mind it's only seven games. You can't jump to conclusions."
But his brief record of team ownership in the United States does not bode well for the Dutchman: a week after purchasing Jacksonville Jaguars, Khan hired Mike Mularkey as head coach. After one poor season, Mularkey was fired.
Granted, Jacksonville were dreadful last year (two wins, 14 defeats). And the media-friendly Khan does not have the air of an axe-wielding egomaniac of the Roman Abramovich mould. He doesn’t have a reputation for being trigger happy, but then he’s only been a team owner since the start of 2012.
And like any new team owner, or indeed anyone who looks to restructure a business, Khan cannot be blamed for wanting to bring in his own man. In a way it was surprising he didn’t dispense with Jol as soon as he took the mantle from Mohamed Al-Fayed, who showed great understanding of when to back his man and when to cut his losses.
That Khan restricted the purse strings instead hints that he was not convinced, preferring to see how the incumbent fared before releasing the big funds everyone expected after the new TV deal.
Bob Bradley is likely to be available after Egypt’s play-off with Ghana. He was linked with Fulham and Aston Villa in the past and, as a near polar opposite to Jol in terms of man-management and playing style, the steely-eyed perfectionist could be a good fit with a club which has regularly employed Americans for over a decade.
Certainly Fulham could benefit from some new blood – and arguably it is time to make a clean break from the past, and bring in a new man with time to bed in before the January window.
By Reda Maher - On Twitter @Reda_Eurosport
- Sports & Recreation
- Premier League
- Martin Jol