Question 1: Fulham haven’t played Barnsley in over 15 years. The Barnsley team finished sixth in League One this year, but somehow find themselves 10th in the table with a +5 GD. How exactly have they done this?
We as humans tend to love narrative. We want to assign reason to a team's success, and even more so to their failures. In a game like football however, luck is an important aspect. When scoring just two goals a game makes you successful, just having a few shots hit the woodwork or a keeper making an impressive save can have a huge effect on your results over the short term. There might not be two teams that illustrate this better than Barnsley and Fulham.
Experimental 3-6-1 publishes what they refer to as E Ratings for the Championship. The long explanation of what that is can be found here. For the tl;dr crowd, it basically takes the expected goal metrics for a club and combines them with the strength of schedule to find how a team would perform against an average team.
What this shows is that Barnsley is a middle of the road team. They are 12th in attack expecting 1.28 goals per game. They’re 18th in defense expecting to concede 1.30 goals a game. Contrast this to their actual results. They’ve scored nearly two goals a game and conceded over 1.45. Whether this is all luck, or they’ve just played an easy schedule is up for debate. There is a good chance though that their offense comes back down to earth and their defense while probably improving isn’t going to help enough to compensate.
Question 2: Fulham have a strong defense, and we think Barnsley’s offense may have just been lucky, what does this mean? Fulham have struggled to score, and Barnsley’s defense might get better as it regresses to the mean, what effect could that have?
First, let’s accept that one game is a small sample and anything can happen. Even if our analysis is perfect a lucky deflection (or unlucky depending on your perspective), a early red card, an injury, or many other things can do so much to change a match, that our analysis can fall flat. We can either throw our hands up in the air and just give up, or we can accept it and realize that over the long run luck tends to even out (Though I’m not sure you’ll find a Fulham fan who agrees with this).
All that being said, you may be shocked to learn that Fulham’s attack is actually very good when it comes to the E Rating. Fulham is ranked fourth in the division expecting 1.45 goals a game. This is better than Norwich and Barnsley who are tied for second with 21 goals scored a piece. Fulham have gotten unlucky when it comes to goal scoring. While you don’t expect them to be extra lucky going forward (that’s the gambler’s fallacy), you also can’t expect them to stay this unlucky. Some of those shots off the woodwork are going to go in, and they aren’t going to keep missing penalties.
If the fact that Fulham’s offense is actually good by the numbers didn’t surprise you, what if I said their defense is actually kind of bad? As unlucky as they have been in scoring, they have been lucky in defense. The E Rating for their defense is 23rd in the league and a full .11 goals behind 22nd. They are expected to give up 1.48 goal a game. That works out to 68 goals over a season. Is this the same old Fulham after all?
With all that being said Fulham should have a goal difference of about zero, as should Barnsley. By actual results Barnsley is +5 and Fulham is -3. Looking at the traditional stats, you might expect a low scoring game. Looking at the advanced stats, it’s just as likely if not more to be a more high scoring affair.
Question 3: What kind of team is Barnsley?
Barnsley isn’t a team that changes much on the road versus at home. They tend to be about 50/50 in possession. They shoot about 14 times a game either way. It seems they defend a little deeper while on the road as they give up fewer shots at home (12.6 vs 14.5), win less aerial duels away (21.5 vs 26), and intercept the ball more on the road (18 vs 12.2). This seems to imply they let teams build out of the back when they are on the road, but are much more likely to attack at home. The changes are pretty minimal however.
While Barnsley has scored 21 goals, they are not a prolific goal scoring team. Two of their goals have been own goals, and seven have come from set pieces. Keeping them from having dangerous set pieces might just be the key to the match.
According to Experimental 3-6-1, Fulham are one of the better bets to win on the road this weekend. Only Birmingham and Sheffield Wednesday have better odds to win away. Fulham have a 57.3% chance of getting a result. Though a draw is the least likely outcome (25.9%), I think that the result I would go for. These are two even teams. Barnsley is not significantly better at home, and though the stats say the same for Fulham; they have played better on the road. A 2-2 result is what I would predict. A result like that makes me wonder how Fulham fans will react. They haven’t reacted to trouble very well in the past, and it’s been some time since they last won. But keep in mind, the underlying stats say this is a middle of the table team. Isn’t that what we expected before the season started? A middle of the road team that could challenge for a playoff spot if everything broke right?