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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 18 vs. Sheffield United

Against an unfamiliar foe, who will Fulham need to watch out for as they travel to Bramall Lane

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Despite another failed clean sheet and a few dodgy penalty calls that should have gone their way, Fulham were not only able to pick up a draw against Derby County. That being said, the manner in which they played was so much better than in any other game this season in the past two months. Not only did Fulham score the first goal, they also dominated the proceedings when it came to attacking output throughout the whole 90 minutes. When fulltime was reached, they outshot Derby County 12-5 and easily won the expected goal count 1.0-0.5 according to Experimental 361.

The shot quality was not won by Fulham, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Derby County are an overrated in attack from last weekend’s preview. But if anything, Slavisa Jokanovic had his team not give the Rams the satisfaction of living in their own attacking third. That being said, supporters will still argue that Fulham’s finishing is not good enough if they ever want to compete for promotion.

Since Preston North End, Fulham have generated 9.1 exptected goals through the shots that they have accumulated. During that same six-game span, the Cottagers have only put five of those shots in the back of the net. Most of it was due to just simply throwing shots towards goal, accuracy be damned, because of how long they were trailing in each of those six games.

Once you expand the reach of that bad luck to the course of the season, however, Fulham now have generated the equivalent of 22.9 goals when they have only scored 19 in real life. That 3.9 goal difference may not look massive, but when you consider the league-leading eight draws they have had, those goals left in the table really could have saved their season. At most, that’s another eight points that could have been added to their 20-point total in the league table. Instead, Fulham are tied for 16th in the Championship and Jokanovic will have to continue to push the right buttons when they take on Sheffield United tonight.

Despite playing in their first season back in the Championship since 2010/11, the Blades are not only worth our attention because of how dominant they performed in 2016/17 in League one and where they are now. This is a squad that has underlying numbers suggesting that they are not a fluke. What stands out the most about Chris Wilder’s side is how well the defense has translated from one league to the next in such quick order. While Sheffield have only conceded 15 goals in 17 games, their expected goals against tally of 15.6 is almost perfectly in line with their actual output. That is due to only conceding 10.8 shots per 90 minutes that is only bettered by Middlesbrough, Cardiff City and Preston North End. Along with that, no other side constrict said shots that force goalkeeper Jamal Blackman to save them more thanks to a 2.53 per 90 minutes rate.

With Wilder’s 3-5-2 formation, they love to compact their wing backs and the majority of their central midfield so that there is no chance of generating any form of attack. When they do commit numbers, there can be times where that can be a rarity due to their seventh-worst shot output of 11.4 shots per 90 minutes. That being said, 4.18 of those 11.4 shots per 90 minutes are on target: good for ninth-best in the Championship. As a result, it makes more sense to see a side so feeble in attack generate a third best 27 goals. Yes, regression is due thanks to just a 22.9 expected goal output of their own, but the formula in which they have generated that offense is not broken just yet.

Sheffield do a much better job than Derby in possession at 51.6% for the campaign, but like last Saturday, Fulham have to stay patient take advantage of the chances that they create. I wouldn’t be surprised if Fulham perform better than most expect, but Sheffield are a quality outfit and will prove why they are promotion candidates in the Premier League. Here are three players from this squad that have contributed the most.

Enda Stevens

All data from whoscored.com

Coming from left wingback, Stevens is taking advantage of 2017/18 to prove his worth at the second tier of English Football. After rising through the ranks of Irish football, Stevens moved to Aston Villa in the summer of 2011 where he only made nine appearances for the club. He would go on loan in four different occasions with Doncaster being his most successful spell. Otherwise, Stevens was mostly playing in either League One or League Two football before signing for Portsmouth permanently in 2015. Still, the former Irish Under-21 International needed to establish himself with the League Two club before catching the eye of Wilder to make his move up to the Championship.

And with that, Stevens has proven his worth at this level and has contributed well with four assists and solid contributions in defense as well. His passing can be better, but his twelve crosses and 21 key passes suggest that he can deliver dangerous balls from anywhere off the left flank.

Mark Duffy

All data from whoscored.com

As mentioned, Sheffield don’t have that many players coming in on the attack en masse. But with a team-leading 25 successful dribbles and five assists, Duffy will certainly play a major role in such proceedings.

At 32, the Liverpool winger turned central midfielder has seen it all. After not making it through Liverpool’s and Wrexham’s youth academies, Duffy had to start his career with Southport; playing in the fifth and sixth tier of English football in the process. He would work his way up with Morecambe and Scunthorpe United before becoming a regular in the Championship with Doncaster and Birmingham starting in 2013. However, Duffy’s tenure at St. Andrew’s was a miserable one with only seven appearances for the club to show for it. At 30, all seemed lost for him when he was on loan with League One clubs Chesterfield and Burton Albion. But after guiding the Brewers to promotion in 2016, Duffy signed permanently with United and hasn’t looked back. Now he hopes his rich vein of form can continue and to see how far his extensive career can go.

Billy Sharp

All data from whoscored.com

Lastly, we go to the the more established player of the three observed today. That being said, Billy Sharp’s career hasn’t been any less boring. If anything, the 31-year old started his career with Sheffield United, but was only able to make two appearances in his first stint that lasted two years.

Sharp would establish himself as a professional footballer when he signed for League One side Scunthorpe United by banging in 56 goals in 95 appearances. When he returned back to Sheffield United in 2007 at the Championship, his production did not translate with just 13 tallies in 64 appearances. However, his career reached his peak when he moved to Doncaster and then helped guide Southampton towards Premier League promotion in 2011/12.

Sadly, Sharp was no longer needed for his services once the South Coast club was in the top flight as he was shipped out to three different Championship clubs on loan before signing permanently for Leeds United. These were dark times for the center forward as he was only able to collect 23 goals in 106 appearances in that three year span. Sharp returned back to Sheffield for a third time, expected to live the rest of his footballing days towards lower level leagues. Instead, he was reborn and was the club’s leading scorer every season since returning in 2015. Now with eight goals in 16 starts this campaign, Sharp hopes to make the most of the rest of his career. Seeing him give it one more crack at Premier League football will truly be a story worth watching.