I have an interesting and complicated history with Clint Dempsey. Being my favorite national team player, it was because of him that I started following and supporting Fulham in the first place. The Europa league run and especially Clint's 2011-2012 season are some of the highlights of my soccer fandom. It hurt to see him go to Spurs, especially in the fashion it played out. When #Dempseywatch began, I was actually quite conflicted. However, the loan back to Fulham seemed like the perfect way to make everything right again. His return to the Premier League was met with optimism from Fulham supporters like myself. We had visions of him scoring against Chelsea and leading us back to midtable.
Fulham were entering into a fixture-heavy period at the new year, but there was a feeling a good run of form from Dempsey and the club could catapult them to safety. Even though he wasn't eligible to play on the New Years Day fixture against West Ham, the Fulham win and the sight of him watching from the box had everyone feeling good. We only had to wait until Jan. 4 to finally see Dempsey's return. The team didn't win, but a road draw wasn't the worst result, even if Dempsey didn't look as sharp as possible.
Dempsey's next appearance came in a match against Sunderland. Dempsey played in his familiar place on the left wing in a 4-2-3-1. The left-footed Damien Duff lined up the right. If anything this match showed the tactical problems that led to Rene Meulensteen being sacked, and Dempsey's loan going sour. Playing two inverted wingers can be a great thing, but with the personnel that Fulham were able to deploy it was disastrous. Sunderland exploited all the space on Fulham's left side that Dempsey left open with his inside runs. This led to Fulham's left back being constantly over run. All of Sunderland's success came from this side, with their right winger even completing a hat trick. Just three days later, Fulham had their replay against Norwich City. They again lined up in a 4-2-3-1. However, this time Dempsey wasn't in the 18. The fluid manner that Fulham showed in crushing Norwich made the supporters start questioning both Meulensteen's tactics and whether Dempsey should even be selected.
There was a glimmer of hope in his next match away to Arsenal. A team like Fulham can't really hope to get much away against the leaders of the table, but for about an hour Fulham held their own. Fulham continued with the 4-2-3-1, but this time Dempsey played behind the striker. This made the defense stouter and Dempsey looked better, but there continued to be issues with he and Dimitar Berbatov playing in the same spaces. When Fulham made a substitution to move to a 4-4-2, Dempsey again went out wide and began to show that he probably doesn't have the physical tools to excel as a winger in a league as fast and physical as the premier league.
Dempsey's next match was away against Swansea City. Again he was behind the striker (Berbatov) in a 4-2-3-1. For the first 60 minutes, Dempsey was one of the best players on the pitch. He was making good runs and getting on the end of through balls. He was linking up well with both wingers and the striker. Then, in what had become a pattern, Meulensteen made a change. He brought on Darren Bent and shifted to a 4-4-1-1 with inverted wingers. Dempsey looked awful on the wing, and he was quickly subbed for Damien Duff.
Any optimism by Dempsey's performance against Swansea was quickly diminished by the next two matches. He came on as a substitute (on the wing again!) in a shellacking against Southampton and then played a full 120 minutes before letting his man run past him unmarked to score the winning goal against Sheffield United. I, like most Fulham supporters had figured we'd seen the last of Dempsey. Fulham played well without him against Manchester United and Liverpool, before earning an away point against West Bromwich Albion. Dempsey seemed to have no place after Lewis Holtby had come into the squad and started playing in the positions that Dempsey normally would. He however did get another chance in the final match of his loan against Chelsea. He lined up behind the striker once again and in just the third minute missed a header you would expect him to bury. He didn't look awful for the rest of the match, but did little to bring attention to himself.
What We Leaned
Most people will probably see this loan as a failure. From a Fulham perspective, it's hard to look at it any other way. But from Clint's perspective and the perspective of the Sounders, there are some positives to take from it. Even the negatives are things that they can build on.
Clint played 565 competitive minutes for Fulham across two competitions, the equivalent of more than seven matches. Spread over the 60 days of his loan, he averaged playing 85 minutes a week. If you expect him to play most of the Wednesday friendly against the Ukraine, he'll already be used to playing 90 minutes a week. He might not feature in the Sounders' home opener, but he should be ahead of everyone else save Brad Evans and DeAndre Yedlin when it comes to being fully fit.
When put into the position to succeed, Dempsey still showed moments of brilliance and quality. He looked very good at times in a CAM role. He never played behind two strikers as he will with the Sounders, but he showed the ability to link up with the striker and outside mids. He also was able to make late runs into dangerous areas and create a few chances. While he never scored, most of the competition he was facing was far tougher than anything he'll see in MLS.
When Dempsey looked bad, it was almost always when playing as an inverted winger. This isn't something I expect Dempsey to be asked to do very much in Seattle. If he was put into this situation, the team needs to realize that attacks are going to come down that flank. You can't expect the fullback on his side to make a lot of attacking runs. Fortunately for Seattle, Leo Gonzalez might be the exact kind of fullback you would want behind him.
Unfortunately, I don't think Seattle fans will be able to pass judgement on this move for some time, if ever. If Clint doesn't get off to a hot start, the loan will be blamed. It doesn't much matter if the loan was the reason or not.