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20 Games Left: Where are Fulham Now?

As Fulham hit the final stretch of games, are they where they need to be to make a push towards promotion?

Fulham v Southampton - FA Cup - Third Round - Craven Cottage Photo by John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images

Just when you thought Fulham were out, they pull as all back in. The good guys are now just four points off of the playoff places after a fantastic win over Ipswich Town. Now it looks like Fulham might have turned a corner and are looking to continue their run towards the top of the Championship. This is not new procedures for us supporters of the club has operated of late.

We all know how in 2016/17, Fulham got off to a sluggish start by picking up just 31 points in their first 21 games. Afterwards, they went on an absolute tear by collecting 49 points in 25 games. It seems like this season has been sharing some exact similarities.

Fulham were essentially taking a nap all the way towards the beginning of December before someone woke them up and realized that their here competing for promotion towards the Premier League. There was the whole Craig Kline fiasco that they had to deal with, but you can just call that an alarm clock that was resolved by hitting the snooze button. Still, Fulham left their latest defeat to Brentford with just 26 points in their first 20 games. Since then, the good guys have picked up 10 points out of a possible 12.

Since we had a bit of short lived FA Cup fun before the league fixture list continued, now seems to be a good time to observe where Fulham is at the moment and whether this latest hot streak will be enough to get the club over the hump.

Fulham are getting better, but they are who they are

Welp, if you are outscoring the opposition constantly, you should be getting better over time in the important statistical categories. In this instance, we’re talking about goals and expected goals. However, let’s observe how much of the share Fulham have had in goals and expected goals rather than their differential. That is because not all +1 goal differentials are created equal. It’s one thing to outscore the opposition by playing attacking only football, but that will actually mean being much closer to a 50% share in goal scoring than it is to outscore the opposition by being sound defensively.

All data from Experimental361

With that in mind, Fulham are currently sitting in a three way tie for fifth in the league by scoring 39 goals, which is no different than their expected goal output of 38.6. However, their defense is the most worrying by conceding 34 goals while 33.4 of them were to be expected. While sitting in 10th in the league, Fulham are in a better place than where they have been previously, but with just a ninth best expected goal rate of 53.6%, they really don’t have much room for growth. If anything, their underlying shooting numbers, which comes from effort that produces results on both ends of the pitch has to get better.

Last season, this was a club that was leading the Championship in shot output (15.5 per 90 minutes) and thus, scoring the most out of anyone (85). And while their defense was leaky (57 against), most of that wasn’t due to shot prevention alone (11.2 per 90 minutes). This year, Fulham are generating a third best shot rate (13.9 per 90 minutes), but are also conceding a tied for 13th best shot rate (12.8 per 90 minutes). Those latter two numbers have improved dramatically thanks to a 25-3 (!!!) shot advantage against Ipswich. But Fulham can’t play the Tractor Boys for every game the rest of the season.

They are going to have to make these numbers better when they eventually have to play teams above them in the table. Wolves are as dangerous as any league Champions in the past. Derby County and Preston North End are ferocious at the back. Brentford and Bristol City can be as deadly in attack. The point is, Fulham have a much more difficult mountain to climb this time around for them to make the playoffs.

Marcus Bettinelli is only marginally better than David Button

Let’s get back to the bottom half position in goals conceded. Loads of things are happening in this data point in which you can put the blame for the club being so underacheiving. The center of defense has worsened to a point where Michael Madl can’t be trusted anymore and Denis Odoi has gotten playing time there. Until the QPR fixture onwards, the fullbacks weren’t playing up to their capabilities. But plenty of those observations are via the eyetest and admittedly, statistics don’t completely tell the picture as to who’s most to blame for the goals conceded.

If anything, the most obvious culprits are the goalkeepers. After all, their main objective is to make sure the ball never goes past them and into their own goal. Over time, goalkeepers have been required to perform more tasks, such as delivering a good first pass to restart play and to claim balls during set pieces. Still, shot stopping will never worsen in terms of the order on the priority list of being one of the best.

In Fulham’s case, it’s data coming off of these numbers that we’ll dive deep into the David Button vs. Marcus Bettinelli debate. One is a soon to be 29-year old who previously played from another West London club in the Championship. Another is an academy product 25-year old that has been with the club through thick and thin. Supporters will always love the latter because who doesn’t like a good home cooked meal? But along with that, there seems to be the notion that Button is a significantly worse goalkeeper than Bettinelli.

I have deep dived into the last two seasons for these two controversial figures and the data has produced the following output. All columns from Goals For to Shots on Target Faced are shown on a per game rate.

Bettinelli vs. Button

Goalkeeper Games Played W-D-L Points Goals For Goals Conceded Expected Goals Conceded Total Shots Faced Shots on Target Faced Save% Expected Save% GC/xGC Clean Sheet%
Goalkeeper Games Played W-D-L Points Goals For Goals Conceded Expected Goals Conceded Total Shots Faced Shots on Target Faced Save% Expected Save% GC/xGC Clean Sheet%
Bettinelli 11 8-2-1 2.36 2.64 1.18 1.16 11.45 4.18 0.717 0.722 1.016 9.1%
Button 61 24-21-16 1.52 1.56 1.28 1.26 11.98 4.20 0.695 0.699 1.012 23.0%

So even though Button gives you more clean sheets (14 in 61 games vs. just one in 11), Bettinelli is the much better shot stopper when it comes to save and expected save percentage. However, I do want to point out that both goalkeepers are not that amazing when it comes to outperforming their expected goal counts. Still, Bettinelli comes out on top again when it comes to how much they give up per game.

However, I lastly want to point out the “run support” both goalkeepers have had. While Bettinelli is getting accolades from the fans and media, a case should be made that he is getting a much better end of the deal than whatever Button experiences while between the posts. Plenty of this is due to the small sample size of 11 games in two seasons, but who doesn’t want to be between the posts when their teammates are scoring 2.64 goals per game for you? You could make the case that such matters are a chicken-and-egg situation. A strong presence in goal can lead to confidence and a care-free approach throughout all the outfield players on the pitch. Still, I don’t think the gap between Button and Bettinelli is so big that Bettinelli’s inclusion to the starting XI improves the defense that greatly.

Fulham’s collective midfield isn’t the same

All midfield stats shown are possession adjusted

All data from whoscored.com

What was the key to Fulham’s 2016/17 campaign was how ell balanced their midfield was across the board. Whether Slavisa Jokanovic played a 4-3-3 formation or not, you could always count on Tom Cairney, Stefan Johansen and Kevin McDonald to start and contribute along the center of the pitch while the rest of Fulham’s attacking players do what they do best. While Cairney and StefJo were creative forces that are among the best in the league at bombing forward, Kevin McDonald might as well have been a third center back by destroying any attacking play the opposition was trying to make. And if McDonald ran himself to the ground or if Fulham needed to be sturdier defensively, there was always 36-year old Scott Parker to come in and put in a good shift.

With Parker retired, Fulham was only in need of a midfielder that can provide good cover if injuries arise. With Cairney, Johansen and McDonald turning 27, 27 and 29 by season’s end, there was little incentive to change and expect a major dropoff from either of those three. Even so, 26-year old Oliver Norwood has come in the fold with the expectations of being and underrated attacker while also being willing to contribute defensively as well.

All data from whoscored.com

Welp, Cairney started the season with nagging knee issues and things have not gone to plan as a result. As a result, Johansen and Norwood have had to pick up the slack offensively, especially when the club are starving for goals up front. However, it’s been the Norwegian who has seemed to have lost the plot in the art of tackling. Add in the fact that McDonald has taken a step back in defensive contributions and you can see how Fulham are not getting the desired output from their midfield on both ends. It has put pressure on someone up front to actually pitch in on the goal scoring and led to a defense that is experiencing heavier waves of attack from the opposition.

...but Tom Cairney is still really good

All data from whoscored.com

That being said, Cairney is slowly returning to full fitness. While he only has one goal and two assists to his name, you will still struggle to find a better midfielder in the Championship when it comes to chance creation and passing.

What’s fascinating is what Cairney has been forced to do while playing with less than 100% health. Because of his lack of mobility to start the campaign, the Scottish International has been setting a career high long ball pass rate of 5.11 per 90 minutes. That is something that you would see Jamie O’Hara do more so than him. But once Cairney has been playing his way towards full fitness, he has been dancing more than he has ever been. While Cairney’s career high 2.34 successful dribbles per 90 minutes is amazing all in itself, consider that 22 of Cairney’s 37 total successful dribbles this season have all come within the past five fixtures alone! For consistency’s sake, that is 4.40 successful dribbles per 90 during that span. Even when the captain is not at his best, he still finds a way to be elite.

Meanwhile, Fulham’s attack is kinda meh

I leave you today with a bit of rapid fire radar evaluations for Fulham’s most used attacking players. And while all of this can be done in greater detail, I do think it’s important to see where each of these players are now. Plenty can change before seasons end and it will be quite fascinating to see how each of them progress. Still, it will be quite obvious to notice that if it wasn’t for the hot streak of the first player to be profiled, there’s plenty of uncertainty across the entire attacking trio.

All data from whoscored.com

First we got to talk about our machine gun of a striker in Aboubakar Kamara. Yes, the man known as “AK47” has been tearing it up of late with four goals in his last two games, and his seen his shot rate rise to 3.30 per 90 minutes. I have my doubts he can keep his hot streak up based on having only 26.5% of his shots go on targe. But if he can maintain that for the rest of the season, the 23-year old Frenchman is going to be a valuable player for Fulham in the long term.

All data from whoscored.com

Along with that, I love me some Sheyi Ojo. With 3.27 shots per 90 minutes, 1.90 successful dribbles and an always consistent 44.2% shots on target percentage, the Liverpool loanee has been everything Jokanovic wants of an attacking wide player. I would like to see him pass the way he did during his loan spell with Wolves (2.68 chances created per 90 minutes), but otherwise, there shouldn’t be much to complain about him.

All data from whoscored.com

This is where I come in being negative about Ryan Sessegnon again. Again, I love how he’s leading the club in minutes...at 17 years old!!! But again, Sessegnon should not be considered good at attacking play unless you think that 1.01 shots per 90 minutes is an acceptable rate. I get that his numbers have come from him playing fullback for most of the season, and his dribbling and passing should translate well in a more advanced position, but somewhere along the line, that 26.9% goal conversion rate is going to regress to the mean. Only the greatest footballers of their generation can maintain that for a career. Via the eyetest, Sessegnon has what it takes to figure it out. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t relax and expect Sessegnon to be the finished article right now.

All data from whoscored.com

If I have qualms with Sessegnon, it’s also because I personally like Neeskans Kebano. While he certainly has been productive as a supersub these past two seasons, I would like to see him start more. Like Ojo, Kebano’s passing (0.83 chances created per 90 minutes) was so much better in previous campaigns (1.54 per 90 minutes in 2016/17). Somebody has to spell relief for Fulham’s midfield to provide some assists.

All data from whoscored.com

Sadly, I think this is the beginning of the end for Floyd Ayite. To his credit, he has been a more accurate shooter while at Craven Cottage than he ever has been while playing in France, but at 29, the potential output just doesn’t look that rosy in the long term. With his contract running out in 2019, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is sold in the summer so Fulham’s board can balance the books just like they did when they sold Sone Aluko.

All data from whoscored.com

Lastly, Rui Fonte...

Personally, I’ve never rated him as a player Fulham should have gone after. He just didn’t do enough by way of shooting output and accuracy to lead a attacking three. He’s been mired out wide way too many times by Jokanovic that it has horribly stunted his career. Still, Fonte’s production at this level, and as a 27 year old that has been through it all in Portugal’s Liga NOS, has been non-existent. Strikers are always going to cost a ton of money because the object is to score more goals than the other team. However, Fonte came in with a £2.7 million market value before he came to Fulham and he costed the club £9 million. Especially in the lower leagues, that is bad business. Let’s hope Jokanovic and new director of football operations/stats man James Lovell know what they need to do to resolve not just the issues up front, but across the rest of the team.