Right now Fulham have a home form, that at first glance, is shockingly bad. They’ve only managed five points in six home matches. They’ve managed five goals at home and conceded ten. In road matches, Fulham have managed 12 points. They’ve scored nine goals and conceded five. When you break it all down, it looks like this, and seems particularly dire.
It is very strange for a team to be better on the road than they are at home, so let’s explore some reason that this could be the case.
Craven Cottage Pitch Size?
Craven Cottage has a pitch that measures 110 yards long by 75 yards wide. At 8250 square yards, it’s on the smaller size. Perhaps playing on a larger pitch gives Fulham’s possession style an advantage. When looking at the other pitches Fulham have played on though, this argument tends to fall apart.
Three of the pitches have been bigger. Two of them are exactly the same size. One of them has been smaller. Only one of their away wins has been on a pitch bigger than Craven Cottage. When plotting points and pitch size, there is basically zero correlation for Fulham this year. If this is making a difference, it’s one so small we can’t see it.
Fulham plays different on the road?
If Fulham is intending to play different at home and the road, it’s very difficult to see. Their possession and passing statistics are nearly identical in both cases. Drilling down a little further though, there are some small differences. Fulham take 2.5 less shots away than they do at home. They foul less when on the road, they intercept more passes on the road. They spend slightly more time in the opposition third at home. Most tellingly however, they take many more shots from outside the box at home.
All of this lends credence to the idea that Fulham’s opponents come into Craven Cottage wanting to play strong defense in their own third and make it hard for Fulham to create good shots. The stats match the eye test, as this does seem to be a problem for the club this year. However, the differences aren’t very great and have a hard time explaining all of the difference.
Cards change games
Fulham have received two red cards on the season. Both cards were received at home. While only two of the ten goals conceded at home have come when playing down a man, that is 20% of all the goals given up at home. Those two games are arguably the two worst Fulham performances of the year. While I’m not sure you can argue that both cards weren’t deserved, I don’t think you can say that Fulham are particularly likely to be getting cards, much less more likely to get them at home. Fulham are last in the league in fouls per game. They are tied for 21st in yellows. Yet somehow they are tied for the most red cards. That sounds more like bad luck than anything else.
It can be hard to discuss luck. Luck is what happens in a coin flip. We can all agree that football is a game of skill. However, when the skill differences between two teams are close (as they often are in the Championship) and the outcomes depend on fairly rare events (goals), very small things can have big outcomes. We’ve already discussed red cards and how Fulham have been unlucky with the cards they’ve gotten. But let's take a deeper dive into luck by talking about expected goals. Expected goals (xG) are what we would expect to happen on a shot based on the location, shot type, and previous pass. For example, a header is harder to score on than a shot taken with the foot; a shot from inside the six yard box is more likely to score than one taken from 20 yards away; and a shot after a through ball will score more often than one from a cross. Every shot taken in a game has an xG value, and by adding them for both teams, you can take a closer look at how the teams performed. Ben Mayhew of Experimental 3-6-1 provided us with Fulham’s xG broken down by home and away.
Fulham have averaged 1.53 xG at home and only 1.25 xG on the road. Their offense has actually performed better at home than on the road. Much of that of course is down to the QPR game. Fulham had an xG in that game of 3.2! Fulham were more likely to score four goals in that game than the one that actually occurred. If they had, I’m not sure we’d be talking about home and road form at all.
The other two games that jump out are Birmingham and Bristol City. Against Birmingham, Fulham were outperformed in xG by their biggest margin. You could say they were lucky to only lose 1-0. But as discussed before, they played more than half the match down a man. It’s quite likely that the xG would have been closer if it had remained 11 vs. 11.
Bristol City was Fulham’s worst performance of the year based on goals, but it was much closer by xG than the final scoreline showed. There was also another red card, and while it didn’t have much effect on the final result, it did push the xG further in the favor of the visitors.
If you throw out the game where Fulham played down a man for half a game, their xG against at home falls to 1.2 from 1.57. Throw out both games where they received a red and it falls all the way to .85! Most of Fulham’s struggles at home can be chalked up to just two bad performances. The timing and location of these two bad performances just contribute to the narrative that Fulham is struggling at home.
When you start to examine the underlying stats, you’ll see that Fulham really aren’t worse at home. Other than two bad performances, they’ve been quite good. We can’t just throw out those bad performances though, they actually did happen. So let’s look at things game by game. Let’s say what “should have happened” based on the xG. We’ll say that generating more than .5 xG than your opponent is enough for a win.
Fulham would have 10 points at home and 10 points on the road. They would have a goal difference of 2 on the road and 0 at home. Those two bad performances drag things down, but you’d no longer call their home form horrible and their away form amazing.
It might seem like some magic hand waving to chalk up Fulham’s home form to luck, but it’s probably had the most impact on the form as anything. Norwich will be a tough test, they’re top of the league (though, advanced stats say they’re closer to fifth than first). Pundits may say that Fulham’s home form is reason to give Norwich the edge. I hope we’ve shown that Fulham aren’t going to struggle just because they’re playing at the Cottage.