It is time. Fulham have completed miracles by going from the brink of relegation to becoming a contender for promotion back to the English Premier League. Slavisa Jokanovic has really turned the side into one of the most entertaining outfits in the country. While us fans of the club have been caught up in the euphoria that is the Cottagers’ season, you probably haven’t spent time knowing who Reading are from a personnel standpoint, even if Fulham have played them three times in the league this campaign! Here is a guide to help you out on that by informing you who the best players are from Jaap Stam’s team.
F Yann Kermorgant
He may be 35 years old, but the Frenchman must have found the same fountain of youth that has fueled Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Francesco Totti because there is no denying he's Reading's most valuable outfield player. His 18 goals lead the team by a considerable margin and he has one of the highest shot rates in the championship with 3.16 per 90 minutes. He's never one to attack defenses with his pace, but he is the go-to receiver of long ball passes in Stam's system. Only Lukas Jutkiewicz of Birmingham has won more aerial wins as a non-defender than Kermorgant's 236 this season, so his matchup with Thomas Kalas and Tim Ream will be a crucial one.
He's no longer the play-maker that he once was from season’s past and his 14.2% goal conversion rate is the highest it has been in three years, but that doesn’t belittle the fact that he is Reading’s fulcrum in everything that they do.
G Ali Al Habsi
As has been stated by Andrew this week, Reading are one of the luckier sides in the Championship. With only a +4 goal differential, Reading's defense when it comes to shots conceded based on quality and quantity is even worse. This season, the Royals have given up a second worst total of 76 expected goals in the Championship while they have also given up a third worst output in conceding total shots (696) and a third worst total in shots on target against (235). If anything, only giving up 64 actual goals is a testament to how well Ali Al-Habsi has played.
The former Bolton and Wigan man has played every minute in the league this season and has been the most important members of the club since joining in the summer of 2015. There is no better evidence of that than being awarded the best player on the team by the supporters for every year he has played for the club.
Statistically, there is also evidence that Al Habsi is arguably the best goalkeeper in the Championship. Only Brentford's Adam Davies has more total saves for the season than his 166 and it has resulted in a 70.6% save percentage. Add the fact that the Omani International has 15 clean sheets under such duress is incredible in and of itself.
That all being said, his save percentage may not be as flattering as once thought. In comparison to Fulham's goalkeepers, David Button's save percentage is 70.3% while Marcus Bettinelli's is a massive 73.9%. That being said, Southwest London's duo have an expected goal total of 56.5 while conceding 57 actual ones. Along with that, their combined 11 clean sheets are no where near as impressive when considering that they were dealing with 38 fewer shots on target than Reading were. That's what separates Al Habsi from the rest.
D Paul McShane
Considering all the bad numbers I threw at you, it is understandable for you not to see any central defenders being classified as the best players on the team, but here we are talking about Paul McShane! The reason being is that I tried to sum up all the passes, dribbles, won aerials, interceptions and shots from each player from both Fulham and Reading and divide this total by their minutes played to determine where the ball is mainly played from each team. Call it touches per game in the most guesstimated way imaginable.
For Fulham, Tom Cairney is your leader within the starting XI with a massive 0.98 touches per minute. Rounding out the top five within that usual XI are Kevin McDonald (0.85), Stefan Johansen (0.78), Tim Ream (0.74) and Kalas (0.68). This looks about right considering how valuable Jokanovic's central midfield axis is to his 4-2-3-1 formation. Meanwhile, Reading's leaders in this department are McShane himself (0.83), Liam Moore (0.78), Tyler Blackett (0.66), George Evans (0.59) and John Swift (0.58).
While defenders do tend to have the ball the most due to that is where the attack starts, it's quite interesting to see how much Reading's back four have the ball in comparison to the rest of the team. It also explains why they seem to not generate any advantages with their shot outputs despite having the best possession of the ball and passing completion percentage other than Fulham.
Where Moore's influence lies is how his touches lead directly to the route one style Stam demands by feeding the ball immediately to Reading's attacking quartet. Only Brighton's Lewis Dunk has completed more long ball passes than McShane's 201 and the 31-year old has seen career highs in major defensive categories like clearances and interceptions.
D Liam Moore
Meanwhile, McShane's partner is coming to his own as a professional footballer. At 24, Moore has seen his playing time increase and has not been a massive liability over there. The former England Under-21 international's 40 appearances and 3,545 minutes played in the Championship are easily the most he has played in a league campaign his entire career. Along with that, Moore has developed himself into a goalkeeper's best friend as a result of his league-leading 62 blocked shots. Over time, Moore will have to develop the rest of his game as evidenced by his lack of interceptions and tackles, but he is positionally sound, can win aerial duels himself (his 161 are only matched by Kermorgant's on the team) and can also contribute to the other grunt work necessary for a central defender. Overall, the future is bright for him.
M Garath McCleary
Now there have been reports that Garath McCleary could be out of action due to a groin injury and that will be a massive blow for the Royals. That is all due to the Jamaican International's work rate when the ball is at his feet. While Reading's attacking players don't have the ball as much as Fulham's do, McCleary's is definitely their most well-rounded based off of his scoring contributions (9 goals and 9 assists), dribbling (a 24th best total in the Championship of 91) and creating scoring opportunities (an 8th best total of 81). That being said, he has never been that known as a great shooter and with him turning 30 in three days time, you wonder if this is the best you'll see out of him. Still, he's a valuable member of a Reading side that is not that full of riches in attacking wealth. John Swift and Roy Beerens will have to really step up if McCleary were to not be available in these two games against Fulham.