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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 12 vs. Preston North End

Who are the key players on the best defensive team in the Championship?

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So with Slavisa Jokanovic and his merry band of footballers returning this Saturday, let’s get out of our rut that was the international break (I certainly want to get out of it sooner rather than later?) and see where our boys from SW6 are at the moment.

After their last game against rivals Queen’s Park Rangers, Fulham sit in 10th place with 17 points in 11 games. While Jokanovic had guided his team to an unbeaten eight days to close September (a draw to Middlesbrough followed by two wins against Nottingham Forest and QPR), there’s a sense that the club may have finally righted the ship. However, they have been playing a bit more suspect than they have been all season.

In the first eight games, Fulham have outshot opponents 106-97 with an expected goals scoreline of 9.6-9.0. Since then, the Cottagers have been outshot 38-59 with an expected goals scoreline of 4.2-6.3. The most egregious of the bunch was their performance against their London rivals where they gave up a season high 25 shots.

Were plenty of those shots of high quality? A 0.112 expected goal per shot ratio suggests so and none more juicier than Alex Smithies free header that somehow went wide. Did plenty of those shots happen while QPR were chasing the game? Sure, you can make a strong case for that. The point is that Fulham are just not playing like a team that can be counted upon to collect points in the Championship table every game if they are as loose as they have been at the back.

They will have to be stringent against a Preston North End team that has really found its structure under new manager Alex Neil. While Neil was known for his attacking flair while being the head man at his former club, Norwich City, he has still kept former manager Simon Grayson’s stout defensive shape.

This is evidenced by their Championship best 9.5 shots against per 90 minutes and their 6 goals against in 11 games. Along with that, Preston play a simple game with crosses threatening the box as accurately as you will see in the Championship and a well balanced counter-attack being at the end of each of them.

Beyond that, Preston don’t necessary spring to you as a team that has a collection of known elite talent at this level, but all of them are budding prospects waiting to shine through. Beyond center backs Tomas Spurr and Paul Huntington, not a single player from Deepdale is over 25 while playing over 300 minutes of Championship football this campaign. This is a squad that is clearly playing well together and understand all their roles. Thus, Fulham will really need to play at the top of their game if they want to keep progressing towards a playoff place.

With that in mind, who have been among the most valuable to Preston’s early success?

Darnell Fisher

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For starts, we look at Preston’s right back who is the complete inverse of what you would see out of Ryan Fredericks on a per game basis. While Fulham’s fullback is known for bombing up the pitch to generate the attack, Fisher plays more compact in support of Preston’s back four. In a category that is usually lead by central midfielders or center backs, it has actually been Fisher who leads Preston in total defensive contributions (tackles plus interceptions) with 45. Weirdly enough, second in that category is his left back partner Joshua Earl.

Along with Daniel Johnson and Alan Browne as Preston’s two holding midfielders, Neil deploys a real shell that forces the opposition off the ball before they have the chance to face his team’s center backs. In short, any team in the Championship has to get through a potential brick wall of six defenders and a goalkeeper that is so difficult to crack. It’s games like this that will show how much Stefan Johansen and Oliver Norwood are made of because their passing will be so crucial to unlock such a sealed vault.

Tom Barkhuizen

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When Preston aren’t taking the ball away from you in tight quarters, they are pinging balls from their well-rounded talents in the attacking midfield three. After plying his trade with Blackpool and league two outfit Morecambe, Barkhuizen continues to be among the most underrated attackers in the Championship thanks to his two goals and three assists in 843 Championship minutes. This comes off the back of six goals and three assists in just 1,077 minutes last campaign after joining Preston in November 2016.

At 1.92 shots per 90 minutes, Barkhuizen is not one to take the lead on attack, but over 44% of his cracks towards goal go on target and he is an elite dribbler at 2.03 per 90 minutes. Lastly, the 24-year old leads the band of proverbial David Beckhams with a deadly 12 for 23 crosses being accurate. Only fellow midfielder Josh Harrop has completed as much crosses as Barkhuizen but no one has been more accurate. Amazingly, it has been Johnson and Harrop that have been the team leaders in corners taken while Barkhuizen has not even taken a single one all season. It just goes to show the level of depth Preston have in this department.

Sean Maguire

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As mentioned, Preston do not have one player that necessarily controls everything. Center forward Jordan Hugill is a go-to target man that does link up well with his teammates, but he is no different than that of a Chris Martin or a Chris Wood in terms of his below-average shot output and lack of mobility. If anything, it’s been Maguire who has lead the team in total shots with 28. Beyond spending one and a half seasons unused at West Ham United, the 23-year old usually played in the top two leagues in Ireland or in England’s fourth tier until coming over to Preston this summer.

After finally showing what Maguire can do in the higher tiers of English football, he was recently rewarded a first cap for his country and took part in helping Ireland reach the playoffs in World Cup qualifying. The former Accrington Stanley player does play one too many tricks, as evidenced by his 4.23 moments of being dispossessed per 90 minutes. However, he does like to have the ball at his feet and win it back in return. The Irishman can is also not afraid take punishment too as evidenced by his team-leading 30 fouls drawn. No matter what comes about attacking Preston’s defense, discipline will be critical for Fulham to win this Saturday as the likes of Maguire, Barkhuizen, Harrop, Hugill and supersub Callum Robinson can be unleashed at anytime.