Just when you thought it was a good idea to savor a well-deserved draw, Fulham are back at it again a day after the Christmas holiday. It definitely is not convenient to go from one fixture to the next so soon, and with a 12:30pm local time kickoff to boot, but that’s England’s fixture list for you. At least this next one is happening at the friendly confines of Craven Cottage, and it’s against a familiar opponent.
Last season, Fulham were battling Wolverhampton Wanderers for promotion spots back in the Championship with both finding a way to succeed in the end. What has made Wolves so successful throughout the past two seasons has been their consistently strong investment by the club’s new ownership and sort of legal association with super agent Jorge Mendes. Along with that, manager Nuno Santo has developed a 3-4-3 system that has translated so well in both leagues that it takes some of the top flight’s best efforts to break them down. Lastly, the players they have recruited simply had no business playing in England’s second tier last campaign. You really mean to tell me that the likes of Diogo Jota, Ruben Neves and Ivan Cavaliero should be traveling to Burton on a cold January night?!
Now this club has brought in Rui Patricio, João Moutinho and the flashy Raúl Jiménez to add to an already strong senior team. The result has been a top-ten position in the Premier League table so far and a defense that sees them fourth in expected goals according to Understat. Now their possession of the ball has dwindled from 53.4% last season to 46.0% this campaign. Along with that, their 13.02 passes allowed per defensive action indicates that Fulham will have time on the ball.
In fact, you could argue that such statistics have led to having a Wolves attack that is surplus to requirements, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the talent to score at will. Until their defeat to Liverpool, they were in the midst of a three-game unbeaten run that saw them score twice in every contest and included a win over Chelsea. So regardless of what Wolves’ profile looks like, this will be a daunting task for Fulham to collect a much needed three points.
Jota seems to be the lone casualty for Santos’ squad as he is dealing with a hamstring injury while Fulham are only missing Andre Frank Zambio Anguissa to a knock he picked up in training. The previously suspended Cameroon International is expected be to out until the New Year, but Ryan Sessegnon and Maxime Le Marchand are supposed to be back to full fitness for tomorrow’s fixture.
With that in mind, here are three players to watch out for coming from the West Midlands this Boxing Day.
First up is the 70 times capped Mexico International who arrived on loan from Benfica. This season, Jimenez hasn’t disappointed at all as Wolves’ front man with five goals, four assists and 3.28 shots per 90 minutes. Outside of having a much more accurate shot, he is everything you could ask for. But at the same time, that’s kind of what has been expected out of Jimenez. After all, he has only scored 15 times in his 70 International caps, has only had a career 10.6% goal conversion rate and has never hit double digit goals in a European league campaign. These are uncharted waters for Jimenez to receive this much of a work load and a role within the team. But as of now, he has handled all challenges as well as he could and he will continue to be a force to be reckoned with the rest of the season.
Next up is the 32-year old string puller of a midfielder that has garnered 113 caps for Portugal and counting. It has been amazing to see such a player with such a reputation only just make his way into the Premier League, but after playing for Sporting Lisbon, FC Porto and AS Monaco, he has finally arrived in the richest league in the world. Even at such an advanced age, no player on Wolves has more than Moutinho’s 33 key passes and only Neves has matched his 0.28 xG buildup per 90 minutes among players playing over 400 league minutes. Add in Neves’ shooting ability from defensive midfield and you can see how Wolves’ double pivot is just world class.
Lastly, we talk about one of the unsung heroes at Wolves that has been able to translate his game from the Championship to the Premier League. In spite of tougher opposition, Boly is still producing quite well at center back by leading all teammates with 85 defensive actions. Along with that, he scored the lone goal that resulted in Wolves’ 1-1 draw with Manchester City earlier this campaign. As if the Neves-Moutinho axis was hard enough to break down, Fulham also have to get past another wall of three at the back to get closer towards goal. But if there’s one from that trio that you can count on the most to be the most active, it is most likely going to be the former Auxerre, FC Porto and SC Braga journeyman.