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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 17 vs. West Ham United

Will bubbles burst at Craven Cottage?

West Ham United v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

Just when Fulham are just recovering from their bruises against Manchester United, an important fixture is upon them as they return to West London. Manuel Pellegrini’s West Ham side are coming into Craven Cottage off of three wins in a row and will be full of confidence to claim another three points. As long as you tell them that their last three wins have come against some of the worst competition in the Premier League (Crystal Palace, Cardiff City and Newcastle) after losing three of their first four fixtures against some of the best (Liverpool, Bournemouth and Arsenal).

In all, that makes the Hammers the pure definition of a middle pack Premier League team. Their goal difference and possession are solid enough once you remove the biases of having to get plastered against the League’s top six. West Ham are a tad below average in their underlying numbers (11th in expected goals scored and 14th in expected goals conceded). But what they do have are fantastic dribblers and a more vibrant set up that allows them to push the ball up with speed from midfield onwards. Only Chelsea, Crystal Palace (also known as Wilfried Zaha FC) and Manchester City have a higher successful dribbling rate than West Ham’s 9.1 per contest.

As a result, their miniscule 11.6 shots per contest turns into much more potent stingers towards goal to the tune of 0.116 expected goals per shot. That said, there isn’t a ton of elite talent on this West Ham side to wow you, and they are building one of the longest injury lists you’ll see in the Premier League right now. Marko Arnautovic is out for the rest of 2018 with a knee issue while Andriy Yarmalenko could be out for almost the rest of the season due to a torn achilles. Even former Cottager Ryan Fredericks is out of action due to an injured shin. As a result, Pellegrini has had to adopt his side into a 4-4-2 unit instead of one that started out with a 4-1-4-1 formation. Even so, West Ham are in a good place with their form and more of the squad is chipping in to get the results necessary to avoid setting off any usual panic buttons.

As for Fulham, Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa may have had no business receiving that second yellow card in his “challenge” on Marcus Rashford, but the Cameroon International will be suspended for Saturday’s fixture while Maxime Le Marchand is a major doubt due to injury. That said, Kevin McDonald and Calum Chambers could be back in Fulham’s 18-man squad as Claudio Ranieri is still looking to find the correct rotation of players to use.

It will be important for Fulham to get their attack working as efficiently as possible as West Ham are not known for having a strong press (13 passes allowed per defensive action). The Hammers will also not have much of the ball themselves (nine passes completed per defensive action against) and their attacking exploits could lead them exposed at the back if things break right for them. The center back combination of Fabian Balbuena and Issa Diop are still a new pair working things out as is new starting left back Arthur Misuaku. If Fulham can gain advantages in those areas, they could be in for three points.

It should be a thrilling game of football as both sides are at their best when they are playing to their attacking strengths. In the meantime, here are three players to watch from the other side of England’s capital.

Felipe Anderson

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People, Felipe Anderson is really good!

I seriously have no idea why he’s not a squad player for a big six club by now. There’s no denying how good he’ll look if he were to play for a Chelsea, Arsenal or even Liverpool as Xherdan Shaqiri cover. But instead, he’s West Ham’s most expensive player and he’s been worth every pound to them. It has taken awhile to get accustomed to Premier League football, but it’s safe to say that five of his six goals coming off of his last six contests surely means that he’s used to it now.

He will need to increase his shot rate (just 1.55 per 90 minutes) and his efficiency (3.03 expected goals), but he can more than make up for it with his killer passing as only Arnautovic can match the Brazilian’s 2.90 expected assists among West Ham players. Now that the Austrian International is out, Anderson will play an even more focal point within the team’s successes and failures in the near future.

Robert Snodgrass

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When returning to the Premier League after trying to help Aston Villa towards promotion last season, especially as a 30-year old, you would have thought Robert Snodgrass would not be able to compete at this level ever again. Instead, the Scottish International has flourished wherever Pellegrini has wanted him to play within West Ham’s midfield. He’s been quite strong picking out good passes out on the wing or he can drive play from central midfield while Mark Noble and either Pedro Obiang or Declan Rice do all the dirty work in deeper positions. No other West Ham player has been able to generate more than 2.54 key passes per 90 minutes and only Michail Antonio and Felipe Anderson have generated more than Snodgrass’s 1.5 dribbles per contest. People may be watching some other attacking star from West Ham’s side, but don’t say you’ve been warned about this guy’s ability to generate attacking play this far into his career.

Pablo Zabaleta

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Speaking of veterans, that leaves us with the man that Ryan Fredericks should have replaced this season. Instead, Pablo Zabaleta has done what he can to retain his starting right back place on this West Ham side despite turning 34 in January. The former Premier League winner with Manchester City may not be the same as he was from seasons past, but the former Argentina International has proven that he still has plenty left in the tank to contribute to West Ham’s fine first half of the season. Diop and Balbuena have really started their first spells with the club quite well, but don’t sleep on the veteran fullback for what he can still offer in defense as well.