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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 1 vs. Norwich City

In the first installment of many this campaign, let’s look at three football radars from Fulham’s first opponents in the Championship.

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With the 2017/18 season starting on Saturday for Fulham, they will be facing an opposition that is also looking for a return back to the Premier League in Norwich City. The Canaries will come to Craven Cottage under a new and up-and-coming manager in Daniel Farke. The 40-year old comes from Germany by way of Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team. In his two seasons with that squad, plus the six years as a manager and sporting director of SV Lippstadt, Farke has developed his sides into a well-rounded force thanks to his implementation of the 4-1-4-1 formation.

While competing in the Regionalliga West division (part of Germany’s fourth tier of club competition), Borussia Dortmund II only totaled 57 and 54 goals, respectively, under Farke’s regime. That may not seem like a lot of goals in a 34-game campaign, but those were usually enough to put them in the top seven in the league in that category. It was Farke’s defense that was why Norwich’s board were keen on hiring him as his sides finished in the top two in both seasons (36 goals against in 2015/16 and a league-leading 25 goals against in 2016/17).

Back at Carrow Road, Norwich was a wonderful attacking outfit, but their shambolic defense was why they were only able to finish eighth in the Championship one season after competing in the Premier League. That has led to many changes within the club in hopes that they will be solutions to bringing the club back into the top flight. Let’s take a look at three specific players to look at when watching Fulham vs. Norwich City.

Nelson Oliveira

Since Farke’s system only allows for one out-and-out striker, the talk has been that the 26-year old Oliveira has been favored over the veteran Cameron Jerome. Despite receiving interest from Fulham as being a Chris Martin replacement, Jerome has had plenty of detractors throughout his career as being a man that can only do one job: score goals. Even that isn’t of a high-enough caliber rate while playing for clubs looking for stability in the Premier League. In fact, the 31-year old has only racked up 0.22 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes in 10,828 minutes of Premier League play since 2009/10 while putting up 0.51 non-penalty goals per 90 in 6,057 minutes in the Championship. This is why Norwich fans are looking to Oliveira to be a much better upgrade.

But when you look at his outputs over the years, the 16-capped Portuguese international is not one to give something completely different than what Jerome brings. He gets dispossessed more than three times as much he successfully dribbles and only once has he produced above the tenth percentile in key passes.

However, 2016/17 was Oliveira’s best season thanks to his 11 goals in league play and 0.64 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes. That is an elite level of production at any league, but one has to wonder if he’ll be able to produce this while being in the starting XI for a full season. The most minutes Oliveira has played in a league campaign was 2,071 during his one season on-loan at Nottingham Forest in 2015/16.

Oliveira has always been known for having high shot rates (4.11 per 90 minutes last season vs. 3.93 per 90 since 2012/13) and having a high percentage of his shots go on target (43.8% last season vs. 41.5% since 2012/13), but his goal conversion rate was well out of proportion than usual (15.6% of his shots hit the back of the net in 2016/17 vs. 7.4% since 2012/13) and is seen as a continued trend with the rest of the Canaries attack last season. According to Ben Mayhew at Experimental 361, Norwich’s shots resulted in an expected goal total of 68.5 in comparison to the 85 they scored.

I’m not saying Oliveira will be definitely terrible this season. He is still young enough to improve his game, but historical evidence shows that Farke will have his work cut out for him to get the best out his striker.shows that Farke will have his work cut out for him to get the best out his striker.

Wes Hoolahan

One player that can help the Canaries churning offensively is the ageless Irish attacking midfielder. There have been reports of Farke dwindling Hoolahan’s playing time ala how Fulham handled Scott Parker during his final years, but to have his role in the club decimated could be quite premature.

Even while playing almost 2,500 minutes and 30 starts in league play last season, Hoolahan had career highs in successful dribbles almost bettered his career high rates in shots and key passes all while being 34 years old. He too caught the scoring bug like the rest of his Norwich colleagues (14.9% conversion rate vs. 11.2% since 2011/12), but the notion that his career is over sounds like a bit of a farce when you consider so many former Premier League mainstays that have played in the Championship until they almost turn 40 (good evening Emile Heskey).

Farke’s dependence on his formation is something to watch this campaign for Hoolahan as he was best suited as a number 10 under Alex Neil. Will he be better off out wide and continue to open defenses with his dribbling and crossing (30.7% success rate last season on those type of balls) or will he have to play in the center of midfield where Hoolahan is setting career lows in defensive actions (1.54 interceptions and tackles per 90 minutes in 2016/17 vs. 2.43 per 90 since 2011/12)? Either way, I rate Hoolahan and I think it will be a mistake for Farke to not use him to his full capabilities.

Mario Vrancic

While I have mentioned two Norwich mainstays from the previous campaign, there are some new additions to the club. I could bring up Marley Watkins as he will further develop his reputation as an attacking midfielder while at a club that is demanding promotion this campaign. I could bring up Manchester City loanee and England Under-21 goalkeeper Angus Gunn along with defenders Christoph Zimmermann, Marcel Franke and ex-Cottager James Husband to see if they have what it takes to improve the backend of Norwich’s XI. I could also bring up Southampton loanee Harrison Reed to see if he can do the same from a holding midfield position, but if there’s one player that can determine the fate of Farke’s time at Norwich, it could be the blonde Bosnian from Darmstadt.

The 28-year old Vrancic signed a three-year deal with the club after three seasons as a key player in the lower tiers of the Bundesliga. Amazingly, there was not one year where he played for a club that kept the ball at 46% or better of the time throughout the course of the season. Despite that, Vrancic was able to deliver very high rates of long-ball and key passes. Stylistically, Oliver Norwood, Jonjo Shelvey and Jamie O’Hara are types of players that are comparable to Vrancic when looking at his radar alone.

He will have to be a much better overall passer of the ball, but playing for a better club in relation to the league will be good for the Bosnian. Along with that, it seems like Vrancic’s game is better suited playing further back into midfield ala Andrea Pirlo during his heyday versus bringing the ball forward like Tom Cairney does. His style of play in Farke’s system and/or how he evolves for the betterment of the club will determine how successful Norwich will be. I’ll certainly be fascinated to see what Vrancic’s outputs look like at seasons end.