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How to Fix Fulham’s Attack

It’s time to be a bit unconventional

Fulham FC v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Just like that, another International Break is on. The Craven Cottage fateful had the opportunity to watch the England Women’s team go toe-to-toe against a strong Australia side. Ryan Sessegnon continues to get valuable experience at the Under-21 level while Aleksander Mitrovic stayed on fire with two goals against Macedonia. Even Kevin McDonald continued to garner attention on the International seen as a late blooming midfielder.

But lest we forget, Fulham are battling for relegation after a miserable 5-1 defeat to Arsenal. It’s one thing to lose to one of the best clubs in England that is in resurgence under new boss Unai Emery. It’s another thing to lose to an Arsenal side that really didn’t do much to win the contest. Consider that the Gunners only took nine shots, but seven of them were on target and five went in the back of the net. According to Understat, that performance generated 1.14 expected goals with a 12.7% chance of any shot expected to go in the back of the net.

None of these numbers are new to Fulham. Everyone and their mama knows their defense is horrible no matter what personnel or formation they use. Plenty will argue that Slavisa Jokanovic ruined the club’s afternoon and the supporters’ trust by subbing Tim Ream, who is returning from injury, with Aboubakar Kamara after Lacazette’s second goal when he had no business making such a change at that point in the game. Regardless, Arsenal’s performance was in line with what Fulham usually concede. This season, 14.0% of Premier League opposition shots are expected to become goals against the Cottagers. Only Watford are worse (14.3%), but they do so off the back of a very strong press that limits opponents to the fourth least shots and shots on target in the league.

But what if I were to tell you that Fulham need to start looking at the other end as a major concern as well? While Arsenal decided to beat Fulham with a proverbial rope-a-dope counter-attack, Fulham were racking up a wasteful 21 shots that only generated one goal, four shots on target, and 1.34 expected goals according to Understat. That means that Fulham were only able to generate a 6.4% expected shooting percentage throughout the course of the 90 minutes. Throughout the season, that number only increases to 8.5% while the Premier League average is 10.9%. Only Crystal Palace and Huddersfield are more inefficient with their shot selections.

Yep, this ain’t the Championship anymore where teams can rely on grit and quantity to rule the day. Fulham have to be more clever in the way they attack the opposition. This past week, I was introduced by the work of Cheuk Hei Ho, who goes by tacticsplatform on Twitter. Among the many items he does is to break down players of various football clubs based off of the style in which they attack. An example of this can be seen by the charts made for Liverpool’s and Chelsea’s squads.

From my understanding, normalized data points (expected goals and assists per 90 minutes and xG Buildup per 90 minutes in this instance) are the standard score calculations versions of them. Without me having to bore or confuse you all as to what this all is, it is to determine what and by how much each data point is deemed below or above average within a given group. In this case, that given group are all Fulham players that have played in the Premier League this season.

With that in mind, here is my attempt to pull off the good work done at Tactics Platform to pinpoints Fulham’s problems when they have the ball. The following players have been grouped in four quadrants.

Attacking only players (positive in xG+xA, negative in xG Buildup)

Aleksander Mitrovic, Andre Schürrle, Floyd Ayite

To have Mitrovic in this group makes perfect sense. He’s the star man up top and he’s there for one reason and one reason only: to score goals.

Andre Schürrle, while not shocking to see him here, is a problem. While Mitro is deservedly grabbing all the headlines with his play, the former German International is actually the club leader in shot rate (4.34 per 90 minutes). And while Schürrle has scored three goals in the top flight, he has only been expected to score 1.73 times. That means that his shooting percentage is expected to be a dreadful 6.0%, while the big Serbian is sitting pretty at 13.2%. With further comparison, since Understat has recorded data back in the 2014/15 season, Schürrle’s 2018/19 campaign would be the worst of his career based off the underlying numbers. Simply put, he either has to be much more efficient and productive with his attacking play or this football club is going south fast.

Lastly, Floyd Ayite’s 68 minutes of game time is not enough to determine if he’s the answer to Fulham’s problems, but it shows how little score first options there are for Jokanovic to operate with.

Builders and Attackers (positive in both xG+xA and xG Buildup)

Aboubakar Kamara, Tom Cairney, Jean-Michael Seri, Luciano Vietto, Cyrus Christie, Ryan Sessegnon

So if Mitrovic and Schurrle can’t get anything going in Fulham’s attack, this cohort will be required to pick up the slack. This is a much more unique group in that they can be able to attack teams when they are at their best and they can be able to progress the ball well and pick apart defenses with their passing and guile.

Tom Cairney and Jean-Michael Seri are of no one’s surprises to be here. They came into this season as the most creative players in the club and Cairney’s absense has been greatly felt this past month. Along with that, Seri playing as part of a double pivot has drastically hampered his impact as a passer and ball progresser. That being said, Luciano Vietto has taken his opportunities with both hands and has performed well as the interim number 10.

Cyrus Christie and Ryan Sessegnon are also not a surprise to see in this quadrant as both play more as attacking wingbacks while starting from deep.

What comes as the biggest of all surprises in this exercise is to see the work that has been done by the enigmatic Frenchman. On a per 90 minute basis, his buildup play is second in the club to Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa (0.61 xG Buildup) and his attacking play (combined 0.52 expected goals and assists) is only bettered by Vietto and Mitrovic. Plenty will argue his wastefulness is why he has no business getting on a Premier League pitch and gives many the impression as a rich man’s Cauley Woodrow. But at 23 years old and with seering pace that can play multiple positions, surely there has to be a place for Kamara in Jokanovic’s plans.

Builders only (negative in xG+xA, positive in xG Buildup)

Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Maxime Le Marchand, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Calum Chambers

Next up are the ones deemed the ball-playing types, but you’ll very rarely see those on this list bombing forward to get on the end of a created chance or be the one creating the killer pass themselves.

It’s good to see Anguissa on this list as his value over Kevin McDonald has increased over the course of this season. He clearly has a tendency to lose the ball and miss a tackle or three, but his energy across the pitch is so much greater, that he can’t be afforded to not start anymore.

Meanwhile, Le Marchand, Fosu-Mensah and Chambers have shown throughout their careers to be good ball playing defenders that can play in multiple positions. This trio can give Slav food for thought if he considers playing three at the back.

Meh (negative in both xG+xA and xG Buildup)

Joe Bryan, Denis Odoi, Kevin McDonald, Alfie Mawson, Stefan Johansen, Tim Ream, Fabri, Marcus Bettinelli

Lastly, this group is neither one to generate that much in attack or in ball progression. That’s not to say that this group is worthless, and everyone knows Fulham would like to have more defensive-minded types in the starting XI. It’s just that this group is not expected to do that much with the ball at their feet.

We all know that Kevin McDonald, Tim Ream, and goalkeepers Fabri and Marcus Bettinelli are their to get involved in the attack anytime soon, so their placement in this cohort makes sense. Denis Odoi could be a surprise, but his involvement as a center back limits his opportunities for bombing forward.

The rest on this list has been a bit startling. How Stefan Johansen been so poor in his opportunities, I have no idea and his lack of production is killing any potential of a strong midfield cover for Jokanovic. Alfie Mawson has had some woeful performances as well and the best case scenario to this matter is that he is still recovering from the knee surgery he had over the summer. The worst case scenario is that the fact the him and Chambers are not the set-in-stone center back pairing based on their potential and Premier League experience because of their poor defensive performances is the biggest reason Jokanovic gets sacked before this season is over.

Lastly, Joe Bryan has had a bit of a weird 2018/19. Deemed as more of a well-rounded fullback, the former Bristol City man has been seen bombing more up the pitch and actually becoming Fulham’s best crosser of the ball when he is playing (see Mitro’s goal versus Tottenham as proof). To see him not be considered effective in buildup play is an interesting tidbit and something to look out for once he returns from his hamstring injury.

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So there we have it. A major profile of who’s good at doing what with the ball shows just what type of roles certain players can do for the club and how Jokanovic can best utilize them. The emphasis throughout the past month has been the three at the back system in defense, and Fulham might be best suited for that as their go-to formation for both sides of the ball. I would love for Seri and Cairney (assuming he’s back healthy) to be more further up the pitch and with Kamara or Vietto or even Schürrle using their pace and creativity supporting Mitrovic in attack.

If for anything else, Fulham’s attack becomes more unpredictable with their best goal scorers in more central areas of the pitch and their best play makers given more license to create while having protection behind them. Along with that, the foundations are there in defense with the use of wingbacks, two mobile center backs and Anguissa at the base of the midfield. Here’s hoping this becomes the XI we’ll see more often come October 20th.

Marcus Bettinelli

Calum Chambers, Alfie Mawson, Tim Ream

Cyrus Christie, Jean-Michael Seri, Zambo Anguissa, Tom Cairney, Ryan Sessegnon

Aleksander Mitrovic, Andre Schürrle