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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 6 vs. Cardiff City

With the best team in the Championship coming to Craven Cottage, let’s find out how they've been so successful this season.

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With their win against Ipswich Town just before the International break, Fulham has come into September with a much better feeling with how the start of their campaign has gone. It was the first time we saw Slavisa Jokanovic’s attack go full tilt with the likes of Neeskans Kebano being everywhere.

After coming away with three points versus a previously unbeaten side, they will have to do the same against another unblemished group in Cardiff City. Unlike Ipswich, Cardiff’s underlying numbers have shown that they might be a team that will be reckoned with throughout the Championship season. While scoring 10 goals and only giving up two in their five games, you would think that their current run of domination won’t last for a full 46 games. However, Cardiff’s 9.6 expected goals for and 3.8 against are not that far off from the current form they are on and are definitely the most impressive totals in the league. Along with averages of 17.0 shots for and 9.2 shots against, there is no denying that Neil Warnock’s men are for real.

What makes it interesting is that these shot numbers come while only keeping the ball for 44.9% of the time this season. Only Millwall have retained the ball less this season and Cardiff’s 62.2% completed passes is easily the worst in the Championship.

Numbers like that certainly indicate a strong counter-attacking game, but it is not like they win the ball cleanly. Cardiff is only the 17th best in the Championship in tackles (15.0 per 90 minutes), 10th best in interceptions (12.4 per 90 minutes) and tied for 12th best in blocks (2.8 per 90 minutes). So how on Earth are they able to be so effective while being so poor with the ball at their feet and not winning the ball so cleanly?

While Cardiff is not the best team when it comes to playing with the long ball (just a 22nd best 22.6 per 90 minutes with a 31.6% completion rate on such passes), they are one of the best teams in the Championship at heading the ball. Only Millwall and Birmingham are better than the Bluebird’s 28.0 aerial duels won per 90 minutes and their 55.3% success rate is up there with the best in the league. Along with that, Cardiff is not afraid to run at people as evidenced by their fourth best dribbling rate at 12.2 per 90 minutes.

It will certainly be a clash of styles when the two teams face off at Craven Cottage and here are the three key men that Fulham will have to watch out for in this key fixture.

Sol Bamba

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With 41 games left for both teams, there will surely be time for data to even out and outliers to be removed, but that doesn’t mean we can celebrate someone who currently has the highest whoscored rating of the Championship.

With an 8.06 average grade, Bamba has continued gobbling up any ball that’s in the air and has been hitting career highs with possession adjusted clearances at 7.95 per 90 minutes. At 32, Bamba will have to show that he hasn’t lost a step as the season continues as he has committed more fouls (8) than tackles (7) this campaign. With both his tackle rate and interception rate at four-year lows, it will be interesting to see if opposing teams begin to sniff on that. But as long as Cardiff have two 6’4” behemoths in Bamba and Sean Morrisson protecting the goal, I don’t think spraying long ball passes is the right strategy to defeat them.

Nathaniel Mendez-Laing

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We now go to the first surprise story of the Championship season in former Rochdale winger Mendez-Laing. The August player of the month’s career was in a bit of a crux coming into this campaign considering his adventures in League One and Two the past four seasons.

Sure, Mendez-Laing put scored 20 goals in 83 appearances for the Dale and he’s had 21 appearances in the Championship with Peterborough as a 20-year old in 2012/13. But at 25, and with loan spells with Portsmouth, Shrewsbury Town and Cambridge United in between his Championship campaigns, it didn’t seem like Mendez-Laing might have a chance to return to the highest tiers of English football. In the first five games, he has proven doubters wrong.

Mendez-Laing might not visually look like the fittest player on the pitch, but boy can he run and he’s got a right footed curling shot that can rival Tom Cairney’s left foot. This may sound like hyperbole, but it’s difficult not thinking of a taller Sadio Mane when watching him play. A goal-scoring rate of 0.94 per 90 minutes surely can't be sustainable, but if he can keep his dribbling and shooting rates high, there’s some untapped potential that can truly be released in the coming seasons.

Junior Hoilett

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If we continue comparing players styles of Cardiff players to those from Liverpool players, it’s quite difficult to avoid comparing Junior Hoilett with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Both players have been in the game at senior level for so long yet are amazed that they are still so young (Hoilett is 27. Ox is 24.). Also, both are incredible athletes coming down the flank that you think they create such an impact on the team offensively but really don’t. While Ox has tried his hand at fullback during his career, Hoilett has always plied his trade up front. The dribbling has always been there, but with Mendez-Laing, lone striker Kenneth Zohore and newcomer Loic Damour continuing to be unleashed by Warnock’s counter-attack, Hoilett is now in a system that gives him time and space to unleash his right-footed shot and creativity.

With Kebano and Rui Fonte likely to be out due to injury, Sone Aluko now at Reading and Lucas Piazon already on the mend, Fulham are really deprived of their attacking talent for Saturday’s fixture. Even calling up academy players like Luca de La Torre and George Williams is out of the question as they too are injured!

Such players are actually critical for shutting down the opposition in Slavisa Jokanovic’s system since his fullbacks come at teams so aggressively. There will be plenty of pressure on Floyd Ayite, new signings Yoann Mollo, Aboubakar Kamara and Jordan Graham, and maybe even Ryan Sessegnon, to get the job done while so many in the Black and White recover from injury. And with six games in 20 days, Fulham will really need to do their best in managing their squad rotation in that department. For now, Jokanovic has a real test on his hands this Saturday. Coming away with three points will be an absolute achievement and can give his squad quite a boost this month.

Update: It was previously written that Floyd Ayite was out of today’s game due to injury. It turns out he’ll be good to go instead.