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Why there is more to life than just goals

Goals might decide games, but are there better ways to forecast what is likely to happen in the future?

Fulham v Norwich City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

After 13 games in a grueling Championship season, there is no denying Fulham are a better team than they were last season. Slavisa Jokanovic has brought a level of professionalism in the coaching ranks the club hasn’t seen since being relegated from the Premier League in 2014. Along with that, wholesale changes across the senior squad have positively affected the entire quality and attitude of the club. As a result, fans in the SW6 have not felt more positive about the team they root for in years.

However, Fulham are currently sitting in 11th place with a -1 goal differential. That’s a significantly better output than the 17th and 20th place positions they finished in the previous two campaigns, but it is not a pace where they are expected to make the Premier League if they keep it up.

Which leads us to the biggest question of all regarding Fulham Football Club. What do they need to do to go from a mid-table championship side into, at minimum, a club that is on the inside track for a playoff spot by May 7th? Honestly, the answer is not that much.

Shots in the Arm

Under Jokanovic and a new 4-2-3-1 system, Fulham are a much improved side in all facets of their play. Defensively, the Cottagers have gone from giving up a second-worst 14.48 total shots per game last season (only Charlton’s 16.52 per game rate was worse) to a rate of 13.08 total shots per game according to Footcharts. That is good enough for a tie with Aston Villa for 14th in the Championship. Along with that, Fulham’s shots on target suppression has also gotten marginally better from 5.09 per game last season (only Bolton’s rate of 5.13 per game was worse) to a fifteenth best rate of 4.23 per season. So far, their shot against rates have gone hand in hand with their tied for 14th rank in goals against. This is an indicator that what you’re seeing in defense and overall performances is what you’re getting in terms of output and results.

Becoming an elite defensive unit in the Championship, like Middlesbrough were in their promotion campaign last season, will be the key to whether Fulham can return to the Premier League in the near future. In doing so, Jokanovic will have to decide in the long term if his system exposes his side too much out wide; as Dennis Odoi and Scott Malone are more natural at attacking from their fullback positions, instead of staying home and defending in their own final third. As you can see from their player radars below, with the exception of Odoi’s interceptions and aerial wins, there is no defensive category in which both fullbacks are considered better than mediocre at Championship level. Remember, Cardiff City fans could not wait to replace Malone with Jazz Richards because of his liability as a defender. This is not so much an indictment on both fullbacks as much as it is a statement that both are much better fits under Jokanovic’s tactics than they were from their previous clubs. Until then, let’s be thankful that Jokanovic is slowly saving this club from the dark pits of despair in defending when it was being managed by Felix Magath and Kit Symons.

All data from whoscored.com
All data from whoscored.com

The improvement of the squad can truly be seen in the attack. With the additions of attacking players Floyd Ayite, Sone Aluko, Chris Martin and Lucas Piazon replacing Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele; Jokanovic has his starting eleven play a much quicker and eye catching brand of football with threats coming from everywhere rather than just up front. As a result, the club are averaging much better total shot rate from 12.78 per game last season to a whopping 15.08 per game this season. From just one summer transfer window, Fulham have improved in this category from a tie with Queen’s Park Rangers for 10th to only trailing Newcastle and Bristol City for the best in the Championship.

However, Fulham’s shooting accuracy has actually worsened this season as a result of not having their chances aim towards goal. This season’s shots on target rate is at a bottom-half level of 3.69 per game after finishing fourth in the same category at 4.57 per game last season. You could argue that Fulham should simply shoot from closer range and that will solve all their goal scoring problems, but that is not actually the case. According to Who Scored, Fulham have actually improved in both shots from inside the penalty area from 6.20 to 7.85 per game and in shots from within six yards of goal from 0.72 to 0.92 per game.

What You See is Not Always What You Get, Actually.

If you have hit this point in the article and are still fuming and wanting to tell the whole world that all it takes is for Fulham to be mentally stronger and put that ball in the back of the net, I don’t blame you. In fact, you’re probably right in some cases. Over the last three Championship campaigns, there has been an almost perfect correlation between goals for percentage and the points teams rack up in the table. With Fulham’s goals for percentage being less than 50-percent, there is clearly cause for concern that they won’t be able to make the top six.

All data from footcharts.co.uk

What I am here to tell you though, is that using past goals to determine Fulham’s outlook for their remaining 35 league games may not be the best idea. To prove this, let’s look at the data that Fulham generated from all their games from last year’s campaign.

All data from fulhamfc.com

As you can see above, Fulham’s goals for percentage may have gotten off to a good start, but almost as soon as Kit Symons was fired (after the 16th game of that season against Birmingham), their ratio was caught by their more consistent and more abysmal shots on target and total shots for percentages. Along with that, you can see that the 5-game rolling rates are more inconsistent as we the much smaller totals that are goals to the larger sample sizes that are total shots.

All data from fulhamfc.com and experimental361.com

This season, it seems like the Cottagers’ season has gone the complete opposite of last season. Since the 0-0 draw with Wigan (game number 8), Fulham’s goal scoring hit an absolute drought despite performing well with their other underlying numbers. From games 9-13, Fulham have out shot their opponents 91-71 and should have outscored their opponents 9.3-8.2 according to Ben Mayhew of Experimental 3-6-1. Instead, Fulham only generated eight goals versus their opponents’ 11. If Sone Aluko and/or Tom Cairney would have converted their penalties in the Queen’s Park Rangers game, Fulham’s outlook would have been much different, but that’s the nature of small sample sizes.

For those not in the know of expected goals, these are predictive totals of goals that each team or individual is expected to score based on the quality of shot. The quality of that shot includes many variables such as what part of the body the ball is making contact with, whether or not the shot is from a penalty kick, the quality of the pass that lead to the shot and what angle and distance the shot is coming from.

As you can see, Fulham’s expected goals for percentage is sitting right in between their total shot ratio and their shots on goal ratio. Currently, their ratio sits within the top ten of the championship according to Mayhew’s latest report. Meanwhile, like Fulham’s trend last season, their goal for percentage is trending at a much more inconsistent rate than any of the other categories. Instead, it is Fulham’s ability to generate and prevent shots at a consistent ratio that is the most stable of the four categories observed, followed by expected goals and then shots on target.

So when looking at a typical football match, please, pay attention to how many goals are scored in a game. But along with that, look at how many shots your side is creating and preventing. That’s the one statistic that will stay consistent the most, and over time, will deliver the most predictive results throughout the course of the season. That is why, no matter what venue Fulham play their football, we should start expecting bigger and better things from the men in white in the near future.