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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 3 vs. Leeds United

With Fulham traveling to Elland Road, who should they be focusing on to get their first win of the season?

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Last season, Fulham played Leeds United to two draws that brought some of the best drama the Championship can offer. While it was a Chris Wood header that stole a victory from Fulham at Elland Road last August, Tom Cairney returned the favor at Craven Cottage during Fulham’s hot streak towards a playoff place last March.

You would think with such two hard fought games that Leeds United was also a promotion contending side with Fulham last campaign, but it turns out that was not the case. After that dramatic result in Southwest London, Leeds would finish the season with only two wins in 10 games and gain 10 points out of a possible 30. That was enough for them to slide all the way down into the dreaded seventh position and out of any chance of returning to the Premier League after a 13-year absence.

However, you could argue Leeds’ demise was seen coming if you were to look at their underlying numbers. Under Gary Monk, Leeds were a team that was not known for their creativity up front. Beyond Chris Wood’s 27 goal season, there was almost no productivity anywhere else and their attack wore out in the final stretch. The team only averaged the third worst shot rate in the league at 11.3 per 90 minutes and while there was not that much difference between their actual goals for total (61) and their expected goal total (57.5), the latter number is still bad enough to be just the 16th best total in the Championship.

In defense, Leeds really put their back four in serious pressure with a deep line in hopes to have them form a wall in front of then-goalkeeper Robert Green. Their 13.1 shots against per 90 minutes rate was a solid output thanks to their Championship best 18.8 tackles per 90 minutes and their second best blocked shot rate of 4.3 per 90 minutes. Add in some solid goalkeeping from Green and you got a very solid 47 goals against for the season. If anything, Leeds is the opposite of Fulham in terms of how they play while keeping the ball the majority of the season.

Under new manager Thomas Christiansen, there are hopes the squad can find a better formula to deliver the results that are required for promotion. So far, things have been off to a good start with four points in two games. We’re not at that point where we can say that Christiansen is a definitive upgrade to Monk, but what we do know is that there will be some key players from Leeds United that will decide tonight’s fixture. Here they are in full detail.

Luke Ayling

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One interesting highlight in the early stages Fulham’s previous campaign was to see Ryan Sessegnon make his first ever start at Elland Road. The man who was in charge of defending the teenager whenever he bombed forward was the former Arsenal youth academy product. Turning 26 in ten days, Ayling has become an established defensive fullback at Championship level after spending five years at Yeovil Town.

While his radar may not be the most impressive thing you’ll see all season, you can see that even as a fullback, Ayling leads by example of how to play in the old Gary Monk system. No other fullback recorded more tackles in the Championship than Ayling’s 110 last season and he is off to a flying start (no pun intended) with a team leading 11 in the first two games.

He may not be one to bomb forward as much as other fullbacks, but Ayling has a skill set that should be able to make more versatile as his career continues. If anything, he is the perfect fullback to transition to a back three defender should Leeds decide to implement such formations.

Pontus Jansson

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In underrated fashion, Pontus Jansson became one of the best center backs in the Championship last season. That being said, the 26-year old Swede has not had that much time in the top flights of European football just yet. Last season was his first in England or Italy in which he played the vast majority of his club’s games after leaving Malmo FF in 2014.

Despite that, Jansson has shown that he can really hold the fort and be a commanding presence in Leeds’ back four. With all of his 6’5” frame, Jansson really gets involved in aerial duels and in putting his body on the line blocking shots. Only Reading’s Liam Moore produced a higher blocked shot rate than Jansson’s 1.25 per 90 minutes. Even if Jansson’s 56 tackles is deemed to small, it’s important to take into account that he was only dribbled passed seven times last campaign. In other words, he is able to tackle the ball successfully away from a player 88.9% of the time. In comparison, Ryan Fredericks had the best tackle success ratio for Fulham last season at 81.8%.

The one thing to watch is how well Jansson performs under new central defense partner Liam Cooper. Last season, Monk preferred Jansson to play with Swansea City loanee Kyle Bartley and he was every bit the defensive presence Jansson was last campaign. Now, Bartley is back in the Premier League and it will be quite interesting to see if the chemistry in that portion of Leeds’ formation can gel and under the new manager’s system.

Pablo Hernandez

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While all the attention on the other end of the pitch will be on how to stop Chris Wood from scoring, they really need to find the real head of this proverbial snake and kill that off instead. In this case, it is the 32-year old former Valencia man that is having a career renaissance at Elland Road. The reason why I’m more concerned about Hernandez than I am for Wood is how the Spaniard contributed to the club last season, while Wood’s disparity in his own goal tally versus anyone else for Leeds is quite remarkable, consider the gap in who provides the balls to players like him as well.

While Hernandez led the club with eight assists last season, his 94 created chances (or passes that lead to a shot towards goal) were by far the most as well. In fact, you have to go all the way down to Wood’s 36 created chances to find anyone close to Hernandez’ tally. Along with putting up career highs in such passes, Hernandez also put up career highs in successful dribbles at 1.95 per 90 minutes. His shot rate (1.86 per 90 minutes while playing club football in Spain and England since 2009-10) and shot on target ratio (33.4% under the same criteria) have never been great, but that still doesn’t mean he should be overlooked in any capacity in terms of the genuine threat that he provides to Fulham; especially with Tomas Kalas suspended for tonight’s game.