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Richard Jolly profile picture Posted by Richard Jolly
Sep 4, 2014

Felix Magath philosophy behind Fulham's Championship struggles

Felix Magath has a fine pedigree, but is learning a harsh lesson at Fulham.

Sometimes more is less. Fulham have used more than 50 players in Felix Magath's brief reign and have won only three league games. The club appointed a man with six Bundesliga titles -- split equally between his playing and managerial careers -- to keep them in the Premier League and, as they face their first season in the second tier since 2000-01, they have procured only one point this season (a 1-1 draw with Cardiff coming after four straight league defeats that amounts to their worst start to a campaign for 58 years).

This summer, the club spent 11 million pounds -- the highest fee ever paid in the Championship -- on Leeds striker Ross McCormack. But after five games, they achieved less than everyone except Blackpool in the division. And, as Blackpool had only eight players a couple of weeks before the season began, that should be no cause for celebration.

After all, five years ago Magath was a Bundesliga champion with Wolfsburg, and Fulham were role models to the Premier League's aspirational middle class. Aided by intelligent recruitment and clear thinking, they finished seventh under Roy Hodgson and were beginning a run that took them to the UEFA Cup final that ended in defeat to Atletico Madrid, but remains one of the seminal moments in the club's history.

Now they are a basket case of a club. Implausible as it sounds, things have become stranger at Craven Cottage after the statue of Michael Jackson was removed. The choice of a manager nicknamed by former players as "Saddam" (for his rigorous training methods) scarcely suggested Fulham wanted quiet continuity but, thus far, Magath has proved a dismal appointment, taking a wrecking ball to their squad and their prospects of bouncing back to the top flight alike.

After their appalling start to the season, owner Shahid Khan gave Magath a vote of confidence. The American's decision to pay around 150 million pounds for Fulham last year might rank as the worst investment in the club's history; so, though, might be January's club-record recruitment of Kostas Mitroglou. The 12 million-pound Greek striker was only granted only 151 minutes of first-team football before being loaned back to Olympiakos just before the window closed. The forward was ignored by Magath, whose willingness to exclude gifted players seemingly based on fitness concerns shows a needless capacity to make his job harder than it already is. Bryan Ruiz, who captained Costa Rica to the last eight of the World Cup, hasn't even taken the field this season and was unable to secure another loan move after returning from PSV.

As a result, Fulham's start has seen a strange assortment of players, some promoted from within and others recruited from abroad. Magath gave out eight debuts in the opening-day defeat to Ipswich, selecting only one man (Scott Parker) who was a regular last season and only one (McCormack) who is accustomed to a division with particular demands. A faith in youth is often admirable. Sometimes, however, it is simply misguided.

Fulham have one of the best academies in the country: They have won back-to-back under-18 Premier League titles and got to the FA Cup Youth Cup final last season. Talents such as Emerson Hyndman, Moussa Dembele, Patrick Roberts and Cauley Woodrow have shone brighter than most but the promotion to the first XI of defender Cameron Burgess, winger Ryan Williams and goalkeepers Jesse Joronen and Marcus Bettinelli came as surprise. Such gambles are yet to pay off.

It hints at a dogmatic policy and Magath's inability to distinguish between the promising prospects and those who are simply young. In that respect, Fulham are reminiscent of the Southampton side of 2009, who were relegated to League One when Adam Lallana and Morgan Schneiderlin were teamed with less gleaming talents. Southampton at least had a passing ethos. Magath's philosophy appears to revolve around running, running and more running, prompting questions over whether his teams are simply exhausted before they kick off. Perhaps it explains why he prefers malleable youngsters who have not been exposed to other methods.

Indeed, for reasons that elude others, the German signed Mark Fotheringham, a 30-year-old last at Notts County when they narrowly escaped relegation to League Two. Meanwhile, if an exodus of the elderly was inevitable and, in many cases necessary, Fulham have proceeded without a core of younger, cheaper players, many of whom possessed the all-important Championship experience.

Ryan Tunnicliffe and Alex Kacaniklic were loaned out, David Stockdale and Matthew Briggs left when their contracts expired -- the left-back (Fulham's longest-serving player) was among those alienated by Magath after impressing at Watford last season -- and the giant defender Dan Burn was overlooked until Saturday despite having excellent English experience on loan with Yeovil and Birmingham. It seemed no coincidence that Fulham's first point of the season came on his recall.

Magath has blamed former owner Mohamed Al Fayed. His former players think he should find fault rather closer to home. John Arne Riise, one of the many summer departures, told Norwegian television: "With his arrival, they've flushed everything that the club stands for down the toilet." Brede Hangeland, another to go, told Sky Sports News: "His main tool is to try to mentally and physically batter his players. Things will get worse before they get better."

Riise could be dismissed as an embittered ex-player. Hangeland, however, was perhaps the most popular and respected member of the squad as well as being arguably Fulham's outstanding defender of the past four decades and their captain. He insisted he was "disappointed beyond words" to have only found out he was being released by email, although the club hit back that "all personal protocol was followed."

Brede Hangleland's departure to Crystal Palace hinted at problems behind the scenes.

Either way, a brutal approach to man-management seems to have been accompanied by a complete ignorance of the Championship. There is no secret formula to prospering in England's second tier. Rather, it rewards those who respect it. Promotion-winning teams are invariably packed with players, and led by managers, with a lengthy grounding in it. Some, indeed, are promotion specialists.

Then there is Fulham, with their assortment of random imports and rookies of varying ability, but no such experts at elevation. No newcomer to the division has seemed as ill-prepared since Blackburn in 2012. Rovers, too, arrived with the casual assumption they could breeze their way back to the Premier League on the back of one expensive striker's goals, whether Jordan Rhodes at Ewood Park or McCormack at Craven Cottage.

But the Scot was dropped after one game -- Magath rather predictably ruling he wasn't fit enough -- and is yet to score in the league. His fee always looked extortionate and Fulham's decision to bring in his Leeds strike partner, Matt Smith, is a rare pragmatic step. Now they have a target man to provide the foil to the finisher.

Yet if Smith's signing, like Burn's return to the side and the hiring of an experienced goalkeeper, Gabor Kiraly, was an acknowledgement mistakes have been made, so many errors looked eminently avoidable. Norwich and Cardiff came down from the Premier League along with Fulham, the Canaries with a manager, in Neil Adams, who had never won a first-team game and the Bluebirds with one, in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who appeared far too naïve to succeed last season, but each has shown a better grasp of the requirements of the second tier than Fulham's supposed serial winner.

No manager in the Championship possesses a CV comparable with Magath's. Perhaps none is making such a mess, either.

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