Last Saturday, Fulham came away with some addition to their small point total in the Championship despite being under-strength against the league’s best team. Today, they return to Craven Cottage and turn their attention to an under-achieving Hull City side that is also struggling off the field.
Even if Hull City won’t be among the best teams Fulham face in the Championship, it’s not like the Cottagers are looking invincible at the moment. Their attack has only been able to score five times and generate 0.089 expected goals per shot. That is a massive downgrade to the 0.110 expected goals per shot rate Fulham had last campaign and plenty of players that were responsible for such a deadly attack are either injured or no longer with the club.
While Neeskans Kebano looks set to return to the starting XI, Tom Cairney and Sheyi Ojo are still not healthy enough to make the team sheet. Along with that, Rui Fonte’s injury status seems up in the air as Fulham have struggled mightily to find stability at center forward. Slavisa Jokanovic has done a brilliant job with what he has got and luck does play a massive part in deciding fates of each club. Still, Fulham is running out of time to start making an impact on their 2017/18 campaign.
While Hull City may look like a vulnerable side thanks to their most recent 5-0 defeat to Derby County and shipping in 12 goals in six games, the underlying numbers paint a different picture. If you take that 5-0 loss out of the equation, the Tigers would approximately match their expected goal outputs this season (11.5 expected goals for, 7.8 expected goals against). If anything, Hull City’s biggest problem has been giving up quality chances as evidenced by their 0.127 expected goals against per shot. Along with that, only Nottingham Forest have given up more set piece goals than Hull’s four. You would think over time, set piece marking and overall goalkeeping will even itself out as the season rolls along, but like Fulham, the luck needs to turn around fast.
That all being said, Hull will be one of the most dangerous attacks Fulham face all year. Unlike Cardiff who relies so much on their attacking quartet to do all the work, manager Leonid Slutsky implements an aggressive pressing game to win the ball back and spring their attack. This is evidenced by their sixth best rate in the Championship in tackles (18.3 per 90 minutes) as well as their third best rate in interceptions (14.7 per 90 minutes) while keeping the ball 50.6% of the time this campaign. When the press works, it comes off like a charm. When it doesn’t, it either leaves the center of defense exposed or over-aggressive fouls that lead to previously said set piece issues.
Both sides will really hope to show their best foot forward in what will be a critical three points on the line. If Hull were to win, here are the three impact players that are the most likely to see them through.
All the talk in defense will be surrounding captain and holder of 512 first team appearances Michael Dawson. But at 33, the former England International is showing signs of age and it has actually been the much younger Michael Hector that is putting all the grunt work this campaign.
The 25-year old has been on loan an astonishing 14 times while under Chelsea’s and Reading’s books. Such adventures have included Aberdeen, Eintracht Frankfurt, Irish Premier League side Dundalk and Hellenic League side (9th-10th tier of English football) Bracknell Town. It’s certainly a strange way to get to 254 career first team appearances, but here we are.
If anything, Hector may finally be coming of age and is playing some of his best football under Slutsky being the go-to presence in his pressing game. This is evidenced by leading the team in interceptions and tackles per 90 minutes at 6.01. Fulham will certainly try to poke at Dawson’s lack of pace tonight, but they will have to get around Hector first.
Another Chelsea loanee that is performing well is the 20-year old Aina. The England youth international has displayed his full range of skills in his first six games with Hull City. Like Hector, Aina is among the best on the team in defensive actions (5.32 interceptions plus tackles per 90 minutes). If anything, it would be interesting to see what he could do if has the ball more at his feet. While Aina is a great dribbler as a fullback at 2.00 per 90 minutes, he has only attempted 14 crosses while bombing forward. By already being such an accurate passer, it’s just scary how else Slutski can implement his attack.
Despite being such a lethal goal scoring side, it’s a bit odd that I’m only highlighting one player on that side of the pitch. I could highlight Academy graduate Jarred Bowen who is leading the club with four goals or Premier League veteran Frazier Campbell. I could even bring up new signing Jackson Irvine who will do what he can to bring attacking flexibility in central midfield. However, I’ve decided to highlight the 52-capped Polish international who is having a career season.
While everyone else is retrieving the ball, Grosicki is more like the first receiver who will spring an attack from anywhere. He leads the club in key passes (14) and in scoring contribution (two goals, three assists). Even while center forward Abel Hernandez out injured from a ruptured ankle, Grosicki has stepped up and led the club in shots as well with 18. Bowen, Irvine and Campbell may be on the end of some of Grosicki’s dangerous tricks and all three can pose threats to Fulham’s defense on their own. Just don’t ignore the man that started it all.