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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 9 vs. Middlesbrough

After a miserable loss to Burton, Fulham will have to better these three players from the fellow promotion favorites

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Let’s be blunt about this. Last Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Burton was a difficult one to swallow. Yes, the refereeing was awful and it seems like that has been a disaster throughout almost the entirety of the season for Fulham. But with eight games in, the numbers are beginning to take shape and it is not pretty at all for Fulham.

Let’s start by stating that this club’s targeted goal ever since the season started has been playoffs or bust and this is assuming worst case scenario. Welp, we’re in worst case scenario territory right now. Rui Fonte is expected to return for today’s game at Craven Cottage, but if rumors hold true, it is looking like Tom Cairney might need another month to recover from his injury.

While the defense and David Button’s goalkeeping have come leaps and bounds last season, their attack has no where near been as prolific. In Slavisa Jokanovic’s first season, Fulham generated a league leading 1.71 expected goals per game and averaged 0.110 expected goals per shot. This year, that total has dwindled to a mediocre 1.20 expected goals per game and 0.091 expected goals per shot. Even when you take away the Reading game where Fulham played with ten men for almost 90 minutes, that efficiency only improves to the tune of 1.31 expected goals per game and 0.092 expected goals per shot.

It’s one thing to underachieve this poorly against stiff competition. After all, Fulham have faced three teams that are in the current top six and five within the top half of the table. But consider that five of their next six games are also within the top twelve of the Championship table. Teams and seasons change within the course of every week, so Fulham’s excuses are running out.

Middlesbrough know what it’s like to deal with such pressure. This is now their fourth season in which they are either near or at Premier League level. The majority of the squad has been retained from those campaigns and they have replaced any that have been lost with quality players from the Championship.

Middlesbrough may be seventh in the table, but their +5 goal differential in their eight games is only bettered by Preston North End and Leeds United. If Fulham are to get three points at home, they will have to overcome these three players to make it happen.

Britt Assombolanga

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There is no denying who is the most lethal goal scorer for not just Middlesbrough, but also for the possibly the entire Championship. At 24, Assombolonga came from Nottingham Forest for £15 million and is already proving to be worth every penny to the club. Even with missing fourteen months of football due to a serious knee injury he picked up in 2015, his goal scoring record has been an incredible 0.56 goals per 90 minutes in the past four seasons.

Beyond being an above average passer, the Congolese central forward does not do much in terms of being involved in the run of play. That being said, name any goal poacher in world football and it will be difficult to find their statistical profiles deviate from Assombolanga’s. Still, his 2.57 shots per 90 minutes this campaign can get better, but it’s uncertain if that is due to the lack of creativity coming from the rest of the team.

No other Boro player has scored more than one goal and the team as a whole only average 11.6 shots and 9.1 key passes per 90 minutes. Not a single one of those numbers is within the top seventeen of the Championship. So if Fulham get to the head of Middlesbrough’s snake, they are off to a great start.

Cyrus Christie

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Two things that Gary Monk’s team has done well in attack this season has been dribbling and getting the ball into the box. This is evidenced by their league-leading 12.6 dribbles per 90 minutes and their 24.8% of all crosses connecting this campaign. To put things into perspective, the always poor Fulham only complete 19.3% of their crosses. The team leader in both categories who play over one-quarter of the season (or 180 minutes) has been the ex-Derby County fullback.

While Assombolanga rightfully gets all the attention at Teeside, but don’t discount what Christie has done for Gary Monk in his first season with the club. He has bombed forward when it is required and his past has proven that he can be capable of more. Like Jokanovic, Monk has been employing a 4-3-3 with having both of his fullbacks supporting his forwards at the run of play. George Friend is also one to watch out for on such matters and Fulham’s midfield and defense will have to be ready to deter them from getting beyond their defensive position.

Adam Clayton

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Lastly, when Fulham do have the ball, they will have to deal with a defense that have only given up five goals this campaign and a joint third-best 22 shots on target. Part of that has to do with steady center back Ben Gibson and Darren Randolph has been brilliant since fleeing from West Ham’s logjam in goal. However, you’ll be surprised that it has actually been the center of midfield where you’ll be finding where the defense really begins.

At 28, Clayton is leading the team in combined interceptions and tackles with 37. Along with that, his 3.34 tackles per 90 minutes will be his highest rate in the past five campaigns If the season were over. Now Clayton may not be the same midfielder he was back in Middlesbrough’s promotion season 2015/16 where he was delivering 3.57 interceptions and 6.66 long ball passes per 90 minutes. However, he still has plenty to offer in Monk’s system and will be a key leader in stopping Fulham’s attack.