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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 8 vs. Arsenal

Another week, another matchday against a big six club

Arsenal FC v Watford FC - Premier League

The good news is that Fulham have one more Premier League fixture to go against a tough opponent before the International Break and before the next round of matches gets easier. The bad news is that this is against a white hot Arsenal side that has won all of its fixtures after losing Chelsea and Manchester City to start their Premier League campaign. Along with that, Fulham will have to pull the impossible without fullbacks Joe Bryan and Timothy Fosu-Mensah due to a hamstring and shoulder injury, respectively. These two are expected to only be gone for a few weeks, but already the club are showing a true lack of Premier League caliber talent in those positions, so any injury is a major cause for concern.

Calls have been made for Slavisa Jokanovic to implement a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 as they did in their League Cup victory over Millwall. But as has been the case all season, it is another sign that the boys from Southwest London still don’t know what their best XI or system is with almost a quarter of the season past. And with six-pointers against Cardiff and Huddersfield coming up soon, Jokanovic better figure all of that out fast or Fulham might be doomed for relegation before they know it.

As has been the case against previous “big six” teams, the club don’t need to come away with three points. But they do need to come away with a good enough performance and scoreline that will be encouraging for the matchdays ahead. Somebody not named Aleksander Mitrovic has to contribute in the goal scoring and the defense has to be settled enough that it can hang with the best the Premier League has to offer. Maybe that is too much to ask in 2018/19, regardless of how much was spent this transfer window. But somewhere along the line, questions have to become answers.

In a strange way, Arsenal could provide a good opportunity to see if Fulham can push them around. Unai Emery has had a bit of a test in pinning down his playing style and culture after the two decades tenure of Arsene Wenger. In spite of the Gunners being on a good run of form, their underlying numbers paint a different picture. Expected goals only has them scoring 9.27 instead of the 14 actual tallies they have put up. Along with that, Arsenal have given up over 14 shots per contest. That is downright horrendous for a club demanding to return to the Champions League and opportunities will be present for Fulham at Craven Cottage as a result.

The question will be if they can take complete advantage of that. This match could either go as 4-2, 3-3 type of contest or a dull 0-0 or 1-1 draw depending on how committed and efficient both attacks are. But either way, both sides know they will need to put in a great result in order to feel good about themselves with plenty of rest ahead.

And with that, let’s take a look at the players to watch for on Sunday.

Alexandre Lacazette

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First up is Arsenal’s £40 million man that is finally looking to turn good. This past season, Alexandre Lacazette joined North London from Olympique Lyonnais and went from being a consistent 20-goal scorer to only racking up 14 in 2017/18. Plenty of that had to do with his shot output (2.77 per 90 minutes) being the lowest in four seasons. If it weren’t for his 51.5% shots-on-target ratio, who knows how little Lacazette would score.

This season, his two goals in 435 league minutes only has him at 0.39 per 90 minutes: his worst rate since 2012/13. However, Lacazette’s shot rate is back to 3.35 per 90 minutes and if he can get back to hitting his career norms of going more on target (just 35.3%), the Frenchman will be back in business. Here’s to hoping he doesn’t find his groove on Sunday.

Matteo Guendouzi

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I could go for Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey as my midfielder to profile, but along with mostly the rest of their teammates, their radars have looked worst this season than last. Among the exceptions is of their 19-year old wonderkid Matteo Guendouzi. The French Under-20 International has really caught the eye of Emery over the summer and has never left his place as the midfield destroyer next to Xhaka in the double pivot. With 26 tackles and interceptions, no other Arsenal player has contributed more defensively and Guendouzi has already been a smooth passer of the ball in his early career at the Emirates Stadium. Eventually, Lucas Torreira will get himself more acquainted and take over in that role. But for now, the position is looking more like Guendouzi’s to lose.

Shkrodan Mustafi

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Lastly, we talk about a defender who is always struggling to replace someone like Laurent Koscielny, let alone a Sol Campbell or a Tony Adams. Their closest bet is the 26-year old German with a keen passer, but little in the way of defensive effort. Worst case scenario, he is Arsenal’s answer to Tomas Kalas, who seems a bit too cultured of a defender to everyone’s liking. Hector Bellerin, Saed Kolasinac and Sokratis could have been better options to profile, but all three are either not in their best form or coming back from injury.

On the whole, Arsenal’s defense is solid and in line with their nine goals given up. However, their press is the third best in the Premier League at 8.67 passes allowed per defensive action. But their 45 passes along in the final 20 yards from goal is just 11th in the league. The emphasis of Emery-ball has been to commit as many players as far forward as possible and hope the remaining five center backs and center midfielders can cover ground and play solid defense.

That system can work when you have world class talent. But it would not work once that defense begins to break down more often than not with fast counter-attacks. Either way, Mustafi will have a major part to play in determining if his defense doesn’t break down in front of them.