After we saw Fulham return from the latest international break, the club has now played in 12 games in the Championship with another 34 to go. With that, it looks like now would be a good time to sit back and assess where the club is right now and what do they need to do to get better. With that, I have conjured five topics that have best characterized the Cottagers in 2017/18.
Injuries and turnover have worsened Fulham’s attack
When all was said and done last campaign, Slavisa Jokanovic developed a system that turned his team into the most offensive unit in the entire Championship. Whether it was goals, expected goals, total shots or shots on target, you would find Fulham either leading the league or within the top three in the most important attacking categories.
This year is a different story, however. For starts, the club has had to find like-for-like replacements for the departures of Chris Martin and Sone Aluko in the summer. Both had limited skill sets whenever Fulham was ready for promotion back to the Premier League, but both were invaluable because of said limited skillsets. There were plenty of arrivals in the attacking midfield and center forward positions in Rui Fonte, Aboubakar Kamara, Sheyi Ojo, Yoann Mollo and Jordan Graham. However, none of them can claim to have cemented a place and/or made a consistent enough impact to be among the first penned into the starting XI.
Along with that, Fonte, Ojo and Kamara have been setback by their own respective ailments with mainstays Floyd Ayite and Neeskans Kebano suffering the same fate. Really, Jokanovic has lacked any opportunity to build continuity in the attacking third and it shows in their decrease across all statistical categories.
For example, Fulham has gone from averaging 1.71 expected goals and 15.5 total shots per 90 minutes to 1.39 expected goals and 13.4 total shots per 90 minutes. These are still top ten figures in the Championship this season, so the potential is there. It is just not the same brand of continuity and ferocity that we have been accustomed to seeing.
Tom Cairney, for better or worse, is still Fulham’s fulcrum
Speaking of injuries, Fulham is desperately missing their creative maestro in midfield: especially last campaign’s version of him. That was when Cairney racked up 13 goals, 10 assists, cult hero status, the captain’s armband and multiple seven-figure transfer fee requests from rival clubs. That all feels like a distant memory now that the Scottish international has only played in 315 minutes in 2017/18.
What made Cairney so special outside the accolades and numbers was his ability to be so calm under pressure during the run of play and move the ball in transition via the dribble or the killer pass. Unfortunately, his shooting and his mobility have absolutely plummeted all thanks to a chronic knee injury he has been dealing with since the preseason. Many hope the beginning of his true form will come through after his appearance against Preston on the weekend.
Even if he performed less than his capabilities that day, Fulham went on to go from being outshot 10-7 in the first half to returning the favor 10-4 against the best defensive unit in the Championship once Cairney came on as a substitute in the beginning of the second half. Once the 26-year-old returns to form, who knows how much better Fulham can be.
David Button might be Fulham’s best player, but don’t ever sleep on Tomas Kalas
Coming to this season, you would have thought that goalkeeper was Fulham’s weakest position and was in desperate need of an overhaul. Instead, money was invested elsewhere and Jokanovic continued to rely on David Button. The former Brentford man reclaimed his job once Marcus Bettinelli went down with an injury of his own in the preseason friendly against Wolfsburg. Instead of wallowing into the pressure from Fulham fans wanting him gone after having such a torrid first season, Button has proven doubters wrong. In fact he has kept the club in more games than people expect.
Consider that last season, Fulham were a mixed bag in defense. Eight different players along the back four played over 1,000 Championship minutes and yet they were joint third best at preventing total shots at 11.2 per 90 minutes. However, Fulham were also more in the middle of the pack with 4.28 shots on target per 90 minutes which led to a 0.109 expected goals against per shot given up. In short, their lack of preventing shot quality was compensated by preventing any shot of any kind and it led to a 56.1 expected goals tally that was nearly identical to their 57 actual goals against. In short, they were mostly a glass half-empty defense leading to a solid average goals against tally with goalkeeping not swinging the needle that much on that front.
This time around, Fulham’s defense is even worse! While it is seen that their shots on target has improved to 3.92 per 90 minutes, their total shot rate has been among the worst in the league at 14.2 per 90 minutes and has led to an increase in expected goals with 17.0 in 12 games.
That being said, Button has only given up 12 tallies in his own net. Such a gap from actual to expected goals is rarely sustainable, but if he can keep this going, Fulham will be in a much better place than where they are now, especially once the squad reaches full strength. Remember, this is how Reading rode 2016/17 on the back of Ali Al-Habsi.
Shot stopping was among Button’s greatest strengths and as long as he can hold his other ends of the bargain such as distribution and making definitive claims off of threatening crosses, the 28-year-old should be fine.
Still, one has to wonder how long Fulham’s defense can hold up until it is found wanting. If there is one player that can be counted on to make sure that doesn’t happen, that would be the Chelsea-loanee turned Fulham star. Beyond Stefan Johansen, Kalas is the only player in the club to see his radar improve from last season and there is a massive gap between the him and the rest of the club in terms of who has presented the most well rounded skill set for what’s required for his position.
I do believe that some of these numbers have gotten better because of Fulham’s back line changing to make up for the lack of consistency in other positions within the team, however. They do seem to play deeper than normal and have allowed the opposition to dribble their way towards the attacking third. Too often has it been seen for Fulham dramatically increase their opponents’ shot total in comparison to their season-wide average. Whether that is due to intentional tactics is a subject for another time, but there is one area of the field that has completely affected that situation.
Fulham might have a fullback problem
Hey, remember back in the days of yesteryear when Ryan Fredericks, Denis Odoi and Scott Malone would just terrorize defenses by bombing down the flank, consequences be damned? That’s just not happening at all from these group of players this campaign. Now Fredericks does play a game that can be quite recluse and not sustainable throughout the entire 4,140 total minutes of Championship football. At the end of the day, he’s 25 years old; a time when any footballer, let alone a fullback is reaching the peak of his career.
What has been seen instead is a player that is looking too passive in the defensive confrontations and one that has not put enough balls into the box and making another pathway from defense to attack. It wasn’t until the wins against Nottingham Forest and Queen’s Park Rangers that we have seen Fredericks at his very best. Now he has recently picked up a foot injury that could see him miss an undetermined amount of games.
That would mean that Odoi will have to come in for Fredericks, but it is not like he has been completely covering himself in glory on the attacking front, either. In fact, he has been assigned to more unconventional roles than what has asked of him in any point of his career. In two games, the 5’10” Belgian was asked to play center back when Tomas Kalas was issued a red card at the start of his club’s fixture at Reading and then suspended the game afterwards against Leeds United. Odoi more than held his own there and has been mainly deployed as defensive cover whenever Fulham have needed to shut up shop. However, more will be required of him if he were to stay in Jokanovic’s starting XI at right back.
On the other flank, say what you want about Scott Malone, but the man really put up loads of attacking passes at high volume. That skill set has been clearly missing from the club on that side of the pitch this season, despite Fulham making a £3.5 million profit off of him when he was sold to Premier League outfit Huddersfield Town. The club’s brain trust were able to use those funds towards other areas within the senior team this summer, but clearly it was not used for a permanent fixture in any part along the back four.
Ryan Sessegnon has started all but two games at left back this season while Rafa Soares is almost ready to return to full fitness after signing a loan agreement from FC Porto, but I would caution any Fulham fan that thinks the former has done an outstanding job for the club to keep his spot.
Fulham might have a Ryan Sessegnon problem
Here’s the good news: Ryan Sessegnon is 17 years old, is an Under-19 European Champion as a key man for England and has played 2,681 career minutes in the Championship. Now here’s the bad news. Ryan Sessegnon is 17 years old, who just so happens to play football like a 17-year-old.
It’s one thing to try mastering professional football as an attacking player, but Sessegnon has been plying his trade mostly at left back. Usually, the best of the bunch don’t start their careers over there until their age-22 season and don’t hit their peak until they’re 26. It’s the understanding of how to defend and when are the right times to join the attack that are so difficult to get right at such a young age. That’s why the development of such players takes such a long time. Still, here we are with a possible star player learning on the fly at senior level on a club who has massive expectations. Is this a great move for Jokanovic to keep playing him when his radar shows he has been an overall downgrade to Malone?
The answer is not definitive, but it is also not helpful to not have a determined answer. That is why Rafa Soares will be a key member for Fulham and I expect the Portuguese youth international to be the regular starter once he finally returns to full fitness. From here, does Sessegnon get moved up the pitch and complete the proverbial Gareth Bale training course that everyone has predicted of him since making his professional debut?
The answer, as long as Fulham demand a top-six finish at worst this season, has to be no. Sessegnon no where near produces the output you should expect from a regular starter out wide in Jokanovic’s in a 4-3-3 or as an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. To put things in perspective, Sessegnon’s shot rate this season (0.76 per 90 minutes) is almost the exact same as Lasse Vigen Christensen’s during his entire Fulham career (0.77 per 90 minutes). Until that gets better and he produces attacking numbers that will supplant a more proven veteran like Ayite, Kebano or Mollo every matchday, I can’t trust Sessegnon to maintain a starting position.