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All We Want For Christmas is a Steady Back Four

As Fulham hit Boxing Day, let’s take a look at their underlying numbers

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Happy Holidays to all from the Cottagers Confidential family!,

With Mike Rigg gone as Chief Football Officer of Fulham, somebody has got to promote advanced statistics for Fulham. But unlike Craig Kline and the rest of the Fulham management team, we at Cottagers Confidential are willing to show our data towards you, the readers.

Anywho, on to the football and numbers.

What Do You Expect? Fulham Are Good

Boxing Day will be the beginning of an arduous stretch for football clubs across all of England. For Fulham, they will be playing three games in one week before a miserable 11:30 am local time start to their FC Cup match with Cardiff City. So now is a time to reflect on how the boys from the SW6 and their underlying numbers are doing and what they need to do to get them to their ultimate goal: promotion to the Premier League.

Since my last update, Fulham have improved not just their place in the standings (11th to 8th) and their goal differential (-1 to +10), but they have also improved in expected goals. Based on the quality of every shot from the Championship this season, Fulham’s expected goals for percentage has gone from 51.4% to 55.7% according to Ben Mayhew of experimental361. Based on that ratio, Fulham’s style of play has now become one of the most effective in the Championship. If anything, Fulham have been expected to win every game based on their performances since the Queen’s Park Rangers game (Gameweek 11).

All data from fulhamfc.com and experimental361.com

In greater detail, Fulham have now scored 38 goals in the Championship while generating a total of 35.1 expected goals. On the other end, they have given up 28 goals while they are supposed to give up 27.9 of them. In short, Fulham are mostly playing to the level they should be playing. While that may be a good thing to observe, it shows that they can’t rely on “bad luck” as an excuse for them not to make it into the top six of the Championship table.

So on that note, what does Fulham need to do to improve?

Exposing the Back

One thing that Slavisa Jokanovic will have to solve is how his team can have a stable defensive line. This season, Fulham have had eight defenders play over 500 minutes of Championship action. That standard is a little more than one-quarter of all the minutes Fulham have played this campaign. If you compare that to all Championship clubs that have been promoted in the last three years, you won’t see that many defenders from each club play 1,000 minutes out of a possible 4,140 minutes. The only exception was the 2014-15 Watford side that played with a back three for half of their season.

All data from whoscored.com

Along with that, 41 of the 55 recognized defenders above recorded an average rating of seven or above from whoscored.com. Only Tomas Kalas and Ryan Fredericks have met that standard among the eight Fulham defenders this season. While ratings are usually arbitrary and don’t tell the whole story of how well a footballer performs, no matter what resource you look at, they can be used to display an abridged version of game-to-game performance.

Fulham fans have been forgetting what life is like to have a stable back four. Unlike previous campaigns, it seems more like injuries this season are preventing the Cottagers from having that cohesiveness more so than having enough talent. Thanks to Jokanovic’s transfers, the most ideal back four for Fulham has become Fredericks, Kalas, Michael Madl and Scott Malone. The remainder of Denis Odoi, Ragnur Sigurdsson, Tim Ream and Ryan Sessegnon may not be good enough to guide Fulham to Premier League promotion, but are good enough to provide stopgap performances here in their in the long Championship campaign.

As stated before, Jokanovic loves having his fullbacks be more attack-minded presences that can contribute to the speed of Fulham’s attacking players in Tom Cairney, Chris Martin, Lucas Piazon, Sone Aluko and Floyd Ayite. While being so aggressive, that leads to having the center backs exposed, especially if those two defenders don’t have the defensive minded holding midfielders of Kevin McDonald or Scott Parker recovering fast enough to help them out. With that, having calmness under pressure with the ball is critical to play center back in Jokanovic’s tactics.

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

You certainly will not see a Fulham center back being so workman-like that they will throw their body everywhere. However, it is quite evident in the underlying numbers that Kalas and Madl are the best in that department while making the simple passes required. When you combine possession-adjusted tackles, possession-adjusted interceptions and shots blocked, Kalas and Madl both record 5.17 and 5.18 of these events per 90 minutes, respectively. Meanwhile, Sigurdsson and Ream are averaging 2.82 and 3.31 of these events per 90 minutes, respectively.

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

It’s quite evident that Fulham’s alternatives have plenty of flaws. Ream has reached career worsts in events where he has been dribbled passed and has continued to struggle mightily in clearing the ball out of dangerous situations. Meanwhile, Sigurdsson has looked a shell of himself since his transfer from Krasnador. The Icelandic international has not been able to win aerial duels, make the timely interceptions and connect on his long ball passes like he did in the Russian Super League. Whether that is adjusting to the English game or hitting the wrong side of 30 years old is a bit of a mystery for now, but it is something Jokanovic will have to pay attention to for the long term.

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

If there’s a perfect example of observing Jokanovic’s tactics statistically, it’s observing the football radars for both left backs used this campaign. It cannot be stated enough how much Scott Malone is not a natural defender. But when he receives the ball, the former Cardiff City fullback is really good at darting forward and delivering crosses that can threaten the opposing penalty area. Meanwhile, Ryan Sessegnon can deliver the same type of aggression, but while his football radar is shaped like a butterfly, he is still in his cacoon faze as a footballer. He will need another campaign or three for the 16-year old to develop the skills necessary to become a starting fullback in the top two tier leagues in English football. Combined, the two have put up four goals and three assists in the Championship.

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

Lastly, we need to talk about what’s going on at right back. While Denis Odoi and Ryan Fredericks can drive forward attacking possession, it is quite clear that Fredericks is the safer of the two options. Meanwhile, Odoi is willing to put in a good shift by winning interceptions and aerial duels, he will get himself out of positions one too many times that will result in rushes going the other way. On the other side, Fredericks is better off staying in position and can deliver some deadly passes.

If Fulham can find a way to keep the Fredericks-Kalas-Madl-Malone quartet together for as long as possible, they will continue to improve. Until then, it will be difficult to find sustainability defensively and Fulham will continue to not get the results necessary to gain promotion. With Kalas picking up a hamstring injury against Derby County, there’s a good chance he’ll be out until after the New Year at the earliest. That could mean that Ream or Sigurdsson will have to step up and play well. With Ream rumored to sign with one of the new MLS expansion franchises, Fulham might need to find another center back that can play a bit role in the January transfer window. If Jokanovic can find improvements in defense and maintain the strong possession that they have delivered all year, Fulham will be going places. But until then, they are a side that will struggle to achieve all their goals. They are an improvement from seasons past, but not everything has been completely fixed just yet.