It was a victory that left many fans breathless and wondering where it came from. But it was a victory no less. Fulham’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough thanks to a 95th penalty conversion from Oliver Norwood capped a night in which Fulham did dominate in possession and shots, despite the home side looking like they had the more clear-cut chances. Either way, three points is three points and Slavisa Jokanovic’s team couldn’t care less how they were able to claim them. Now they sit with just a solid point away from a spot in the Championship playoffs with 19 games to go.
For the second straight year, the good guys have found a way to scrape their way back into the top tier of the league after a rough start. But unlike last season where expected goals predicted a change in fortune for the good, this season had to be all about changing the process in order for them to be where they are. In fact, there were times this autumn where Fulham was struggling to have a positive expected goals differential. Nowadays, that tally has improved to the best differentials in actual and expected goals all season. During their five-game unbeaten run alone, Fulham has outscored their opponents 9.9-4.7 in expected goals alone, indicating that the club is getting the job done on both ends of the pitch.
The key now will be for them to continue their run of form against more middling sides, starting with Burton Albion. After all, Fulham’s expected goal ratio is still eighth-best in the Championship, which is where they sit in the table. Bluntly, Burton is still a terrible side and if things go according to plan Fulham should be able to collect another three points and move on with their livelihood. But that’s not how sports, let alone football and Fulham, works. To go along with it, Burton is in the middle of a good run of form themselves. They have picked up seven points in their last six games with three clean sheets to go along with it.
Everyone and their mama knows who Burton is and how they play. They’re a collection of aging parts that are playing in a league that is well beyond their talent level and will sit so deep, they might as well have everyone at Pirelli Stadium joining in and hope for the best. During their run of form, it has worked quite well and has been able to generate some counter-attacking football in the process. Still, only Birmingham has scored less than Burton’s 21 goals and the Brewers’ 21.3 expected goals mean that they aren’t suffering from any bad luck either. Still, Burton is not the worst team in the league and are on a good run of form for a reason and Fulham have struggled to deal with teams of their playing style in recent seasons. Mental fortitude will be critical for them to get the job done this Saturday.
But if Burton were to pull the unthinkable, these three players will play a major role.
In the away leg of this fixture, Akins was the one who scored the controversial penalty to give Burton the lead for good. And while goals play a major part in stats ratings, the 28-year old performed well enough to be the man of the match that day. It’s a fair assessment of a player who has probably been the Brewers’ most well-rounded player all season. Akins can play at both right back and on the right wing to create any semblance of attack for the club. Like Ryan Sessegnon, he’s been immense up front by way of two goals and six assists, but his radar suggests he’s more productive along Burton’s back five. No matter what happens to the club after this season, I would not be surprised to see Akins leave in the summer and continue his venture in the Championship, despite playing with one club for the past four seasons.
Let’s not confuse one fullback named Flanagan with another, because this Flanagan has no criminal record to speak of and will be a key contributor on Saturday. The 26-year old is one of Burton’s youngest regulars and has already played over 60 times for the club since joining in 2015. Beforehand, he was trying to make a name for himself at MK Dons. And while Akins is a two-way dynamo, Flanagan is the pair of safe hands that every club wants. For a fullback, he is well above average in his success at winning headers and being strong on the tackle. Ask him to do anything else and it could be a bit too much of an adventure. His performances have been rewarded with a first cap for Northern Ireland this past summer and Flanagan hopes to have his latest run of form rewarded even further.
Lastly, we go to Burton’s leading goal-getter, and…
Yeah. This is a player radar that you would exactly expect from an attacking player on one of the worst attacking teams in the league. At 35, Dyer does not have much left in the tank and he hasn’t played a major role for a second tier club threatening for Premier League promotion since he scored seven league goals with Leicester City in 2013/14. Since then, he had bit roles with Watford, Birmingham, and Burnley before joining Burton. In fact, his five goals this campaign are the most Dyer has scored since 2013/14, but he is doing it while averaging only 1.12 shots per 90 minutes. That being said, he does have a consistently accurate conversion rate and is a solid passer of the ball. With his four total Premier League appearances happening back in 2004/05, I seriously doubt we’ll see Dyer on the brightest stage in English football. However, he will certainly keep trying as his fascinating career starts to wind down.