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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 18 vs. Newcastle

Can Fulham finally get a nice present this Christmas holiday?

Newcastle United v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

I think we all know how grim it looks for Fulham’s chances to stay in the Premier League. At just nine points and with one of the worst defenses in the league, more than just a new coach and a player or two will have to be done in order for them to improve massively. Now you could argue that last weekend’s defeat to West Ham was against one of the hotter team’s in the top flight. However, Newcastle aren’t that far behind in terms of their run of form.

Since the beginning of November, the Magpies have claimed 13 points in seven games. That being said, they only scored eight goals during that span and are still four points above the relegation zone. As long as Mike Ashley is within the vicinity this far north of the country, Newcastle will continue to be a defense-first club while Rafa Benitez is still managing the football club. There is just so much instability at all times at St. James’ Park, that a city wide protest could happen any fixture considering how little has been invested in such a “big” club.

I mean, Aleksander Mitrovic was under contract with them and they thought it was a good idea to replace him with an older Salomon Rondon! Yeah, this Newcastle are about as cheap as they come, but they have such a world class coach that he masks everything toxic surrounding him. Bluntly, they have so much worse talent than Fulham do, but because they know their strengths and weaknesses is enough to be better than the rest of the the worst in the Premier League for now.

Until then, everything about Fulham is about as weak as it can get right now. As always, Fulham can keep changing tactics all they like and instill further belief, but as long as their attack is completely reliant on Mitrovic and the permanently inefficient Andre Schürrle, and their defense depends on the out-of-position Denis Odoi or the out-of-his-league Tim Ream, wins will be hard to come by. Maxime Le Marchand and Ryan Sessegnon are still injury doubts and with the way the club is going, that is still enough for this club to be so low in form and confidence right now.

Now Fulham will have plenty of the ball, and this tie could be a 0-0 draw if both teams aren’t in the mood to work hard up front. But the visitors have to claim a win, so I continue to expect an open game, even if Newcastle don’t want that to happen. Still though, the winners of Saturday’s contest will clearly be the ones whose attacking players are most in the mood. Let’s hope that, for once this time, Fulham have finally brought their shooting compasses and know exactly how to get past Martin Dubravka.

Until then, here are the players to watch out for the most at Tyneside.

Salomon Rondon

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I personally prefer Ayoze Perez much more than Rondon in terms of who is the most dangerous forward in the team. But with a club-leading four goals and two assists this season, you can’t ignore the Venezuela International’s contribution. Along with that, Rondon has essentially doubled his goal contribution in his last three games. To top it all off, his 3.20 shots per contest are the highest rate he’s had since he was at Zenit St. Petersburg back in 2014/15.

Now he has been an inaccurate shooter since arriving in England and that hasn’t changed much since his move to Newcastle. His shots go on target just 31% of the time and, while improving, his 13.8% goal conversion rate is still well below his 15.0% career average since 2010/11. Add in the fact that he lacks other skill sets into his game, and you can see how easy it is to beat such a one-dimensional player. But Rondon has known who he is for a while and he will use that to as much of his advantage to guide Newcastle to victory.

Jonjo Shelvey

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We go from one player that shouldn’t really be that much of a danger with Fulham to another in Jonjo Shelvey. But because of what he brings as a ball-playing central midfielder is what makes him so dangerous. In fact, this seems to be like year-two of the former England man’s career nosediving. This season, Shelvey’s xG Chain and xG Buildup are the lowest they’ve been since 2014/15. His completed long ball passes, on the other hand, have reached career highs at 8.22 per contest. If anything, it just goes to show how conservative Benitez in terms of how he sets his players up tactically.

Mohamed Diame and Ki Sung-Yeung will provide the talent they need to shore up the defense, but Shelvey is easily their most important creator after all these seasons. While not high, Shelvey’s 0.20 expected assists per 90 minutes is the highest among Newcastles that have played over a quarter of the Premier League season. The fact that you will not find a better creator on the team that is as good as Shelvey as a result.

Paul Dummett

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Finally, Newcastle’s defense has been the one saving grace from further embarrassment. However, plenty of their goal prevention has been from the work of Dubravka between the posts. However, if you are looking for someone who represents Benitez’s system the most, its the longtime homegrown talent.

At 27, Paul Dummett should finish off the season with well over 200 appearances with the club and has basically not lost his starting left back position since 2014. However, you will not find any offensive output out of the four-times capped Welsh International. If anything, you’ll be seeing loads of aerial duels won and little to no mistakes. Safety can known as death, but in this case, safety brings safe results. In the Premier League, avoiding being bad is half the battle for a club that is not in the top six. With Dummett in the lineup, you could do much worse than so many other fullbacks that can wow you and dissapoint you at the same time. Just check out Timothy Fosu-Mensah the last handful of games he’s played.