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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 22 vs. Sunderland

Can Fulham get the job done and claim three points over former boss Chris Coleman?

Sunderland v Reading - Sky Bet Championship
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

With a win over Birmingham last Saturday, Fulham was able to handle their business and resume their march towards the top of the Championship table. But if you were to ask if Fulham dominated the game like a top-six side should over a potential relegation bound club, that certainly wasn’t the case.

For starts, Fulham did put up 17 shots in the game, but only four of them went on target and resulted in getting a solid 1.9 expected goals. Meanwhile, Birmingham only put up six shots and just one being on target, but resulted in just 1.2 expected goals. With Fulham retaining 68% possession of the ball, this was the ultimate game in which Fulham was constantly on the attack and the opposition was simply waiting to pounce on the counter.

Thank goodness Birmingham are easily the worst attacking unit in the league because other clubs will certainly present a deadlier threat. Sunderland isn’t completely that answer, but they will bring something different than what last week’s opponents did. Consider that when Simon Grayson was manager, the Black Cats actually had a -0.9 expected goals difference. However, the board simply could not wait to see their abysmal 33 goals in 17 games improve to reach their expectation of 1.20 expected goals per game (or 20.4 total xG) anytime soon. That’s what happens when you’re a club that has been in the Premier League for so long that even a sniff of relegation to League One is unforgivable. Fulham knows how that feels.

So in comes our good friend “Cookie” to come in to save Sunderland after guiding Wales to such a meteoric rise in International football. It’s all well in good to see Chris Coleman back in club football, but are we genuinely sure that he and his systems will be good for Sunderland and guide them out of the rut their in? So far, they have claimed four points in three games, including a respected 0-0 draw with league leaders Wolves. This certainly goes hand in hand with what Coleman did with Wales in simply parking the bus and hope the defense holds up throughout the entirety of their qualifying campaigns or tournament final.

Remember that despite having Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, Wales only scored 9, 11 and 13 goals in each of their 10-game qualifiers for the World Cup and Euros throughout his tenure. If anything, Coleman’s defenses were the part that was improving under his watch as they went from 20 goals to four and then six during those three qualifying campaigns. After all, when you only had Hal Robson-Kanu, Sam Vokes, and Joe Ledley as your latter choices for springboarding your attack, last time I checked, that’s not what France, Germany, and yes even what England and Belgium have. It’s not the worst gameplan to preach while being in charge of an international side that simply wanted a few of the best attacking players in the world reaching their dreams of playing in tournament football while playing for their country.

But at Championship football, where everyone seems to compensate for their lack of Premier League level talent, I just don’t know if that’s a solid idea that will simply swing the needle in Sunderland’s favor anytime soon. So far, Cookie has guided Sunderland to a 4-5 total scoreline that basically matches their 3.4-5.3 expected goal output. This is basically in tune with what they have been doing previously, but not with the same goal scoring verve that they were doing previously. However, Sunderland is maintaining a fantastic 0.091 expected goals per shot, so the opposition will be aware that shooting will be fools gold against them, as Wolves and their 23 shots learned with no reward.

On paper, bringing in an extra defender from midfield or in the first band of players in front of the goalkeeper screams more defensive minded, but numerically, there’s just no difference between what Coleman brings to the table than what Grayson was trying to implement. Maybe for Sunderland, a new and more positive voice in the clubhouse was needed and Coleman can certainly bring that. As a Fulham fan that fell in love while he was in charge, I truly am hoping for the best. All I’m saying is my statistical opinion, however, is clashing with said hope and I won’t be surprised if things don’t turn rosy as the start of Coleman’s tenure is going.

With that in mind, here are the biggest players to watch for today’s fixture at the Stadium of Light.

Lewis Grabban

All data from whoscored.com

The first player to watch out for is Sunderland's leading scorer with 11 goals. In his age-29 season, Grabban is having one of the best seasons of his career since 2014/15. During that season, he averaged 0.46 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes while shooting 3.46 times per hour and a half. This season, while the goal rate is much higher (0.51 per 90 minutes), Grabban is relying more on his accuracy (21.8% goal conversion rate vs. 11.8% in the past five league campaigns) than his shooting volume (2.42 shots per 90 minutes).

With the Bournemouth9loanee running out of chances while playing at the prime of his career, he hopes that this will be his last chance to showcase his talents and either return to the Premier League with the Cherries or move on to a club that will see him be the star attraction.

Didier Ndong

All data from whoscored.com

Next up is one of the few mainstays of Sunderland's Premier League most recent campaign. Ndong has been out of action for the Black Cats since November 18th due to injury but Coleman does expect him to return today. With captain Lee Cattermole expected to be out due to a red card suspension, Ndong should slide in with little issues in the holding midfield of Coleman's conservative formation.

Despite missing so much time due, his 85 tackles and interceptions lead all Black Cats this campaign. While his passing has worsened since joining Wearside, Ndong has made it up on the other side of the football and has made up for all of Cattermole's aging that has been going on with him. At 23, the Gabon International has plenty to look forward to throughout the rest of his playing career. Whether it is staying at Sunderland or moving on to bigger and better things will determine where his future lies ahead.

Aidan McGeady

All data from whoscored.com

We finish today’s preview by looking into the numbers of an aging Irish International that supporters find a way to dislike during his career. After all, McGeady has always been a solid dribbler that never really performs well with end products. The 31-year old has never had a season where he has scored more than eight goals for his club, but this season might change since his fours goals are second to Grabban for the club lead. However, McGeady is reaching such feats with a five-year high in goal conversion rate (12.5%) that is well past is normal output (7.7%).

Along with that, he seems to be performing worse than his five-year averages, including his dribbling where he is getting dispossessed (2.79 per 90 minutes) more than he is keeping the ball at his feet (1.97 successful dribbles per 90 minutes). With George Honeyman being the closest dribbler (45) for Sunderland to McGeady (75), Coleman will be banking on the former Celtic man to be smarter with the ball. Otherwise, Sunderland’s options of launching from the counter are more limited than what they are now.