As mentioned last week, whoever lost in last week’s fixture between Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday was going to come into the weekend with a strong chance of their supporters hitting mass panic. Add an unexpected Carabao Cup exit at the hands of League One side Bristol Rovers and those emotions could not be further increased.
We are still five games into the 2017/18 Championship campaign and new signing Rafa Soares will surely add some class at left back and improved depth throughout the squad. Still, there’s a real sense that Fulham has to win this game on Saturday. And who better to put an end to this poor run of form than against unbeaten Ipswich Town?
That sure sounds like an intimidating task, but if you were to look at the underlying numbers, you will see that the Tractor Boys haven’t been plowing through the competition as their scorelines have indicated.
While they have outscored the opposition 9-4, their expected goal total has them being outscored 4.3-8.0, according to Ben Mayhew of Experimental 361. That would put Ipswich among the worst sides in the Championship assuming all of football is revolved around this metric. Clearly, that is not the case and teams like Reading last campaign have proven to beat the odds and contend for promotion in the process. Another problem for Fulham fans is that it is not like Ipswich are a wasteful team.
It's way too early to draw conclusions, but curiosity got the better of me so I dropped the EFL clubs into "expected goals" scatter graphics pic.twitter.com/iR7iTBh4Xd— Ben Mayhew (@experimental361) August 19, 2017
While having the joint-third worst rate of shots per 90 minutes at 8.5, that will equate to Ipswich recording 0.126 expected goals for every attempted shot. That is a caliber in which the entire team is shooting with the accuracy of 10 proven strikers. To put that rate into further perspective, Fulham have been dreadful with their shot quality in their first four games with an average of 0.080 expected goals per shot. That is much worse than their 0.110 expected goals per shot from 2016/17.
We can dive into further details about Fulham’s struggles later, but the point still stands that Ipswich currently are playing a style that is working for them this early in the season. While their attack comes with great efficiency, their foundation has been their strong counter-attacking gameplan under manager Mick McCarthy.
With a defensive actions rate slashline of 5.3 dribbled past, 19.5 tackles and 14.5 fouls, it is quite clear what type of game implemented by those that call Portman Road home: flying challenges and beligerance that will intimidate anyone that will dare get closer their own penalty box. That being said, they have given up a Championship worst 20.8 shots per 90 minutes with a shot quality defense of 0.096 expected goals per shot.
Ipswich are there for the taking, and when confidence and health are at their best, Fulham have the weapons to pick a defense apart. However, that has not been the case so far for the Cottagers and they will have to find a way to performing better than some of Ipswich’s key men.
After winning two straight player of the year awards for the club, it’s a bit of a shame that Bialkowski’s native Poland is so rich in goalkeeping talent at the moment, but that’s a discussion for another time. Until then, the 30-year old has saved 21 of 25 shots against him this season, leading to a success rate of 84%. That is very high, even for the best shot stoppers in all of world football.
But while Ipswich have given up 113 total goals during Bialkowski’s tenure, that number could have been as high as 132 goals if not for his heroics. While Bialkowski has not played every game to lead to such a contrast in Ipswich’s actual versus expected goal totals during his three years at Portman Road, make no mistake how much of a factor he will be on Saturday.
While Ipswich’s defense also deserve some credit for eliminating some form of shot quality this season, it has been more of a team-wide effort more so than one individual leads all. I could go with Jordan Spence who has been leading the team in blocked shots and interceptions or I could go with captain Luke Chambers who has been such a mainstay for the club. Instead, I am going with the team leader in total attempted passes and a man who has claimed one man of the match award this season playing out of position at center back. Sound familiar?
While the twice-capped Danish International fullback has been a shocking passer throughout his time at Ipswich, Knudsen has been a deadly crosser of the ball by completing three out of nine such attempts this season. Along with that, he has been able to complete 27% of his crosses out of 200 career attempts in the past three seasons. Lastly, the 6’1” Knudsen knows a thing or two about getting stuck in and can win a ball in the air as good as anyone in the Championship. With less than a month to go until he turns 25, the former Esbjerg man still has some time to get better.
At their worst, Fulham have been burnt by players of his ilk this season and they can’t afford to give a guy like Knudsen the ability to pick them apart with his strengths.
Even in attack, I could go with the leading goal scorer of the Championship in Martyn Waghorn, or I could go with mainstay fellow striker David McGoldrick, or even the team leader in created chances in Grant Ward. Instead, I’ll go with another former Rangers player in Joe Garner.
After suffering such a traumatic season at Ibrox, Garner has returned to the Championship with a bang with three goals and an assist. If anything, it should be a time to enjoy seeing the 29-year old be considered such a key man because it will be a shock to see those numbers continue to stay at a high level. Still, he is a hard working center forward as evidenced by his team leading 27 aerials won.
While he’ll always find a way to deliver three shots every 90 minutes, his shooting accuracy has never been consistently high. While not as bad as Floyd Ayite’s or Sone Aluko’s efficiency rates, Garner has struggled his way to get to 35% shots on target and 10% goal conversion in the past three seasons of Scottish Premier League or English Championship football. Along with that, the Blackburn-born forward has never been known to link up well with teammates, nor burn defenses with his pace. Once we start seeing missed opportunities towards goal from Garner will be when we really start to see what else he brings to the table. Otherwise, it could be another long season for him and for an Ipswich side that is finally enjoying a bit of success.