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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 32 vs. Aston Villa

Can Fulham continue their winning ways against the hottest team in the Championship?

Aston Villa v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

So Fulham was introduced to a foreign concept last Saturday. It was called a draw: an event in which two teams totaled the same number of goals at the end of a game of football. The good guys didn’t score more than the other, but most importantly, nor did they score less. Therefore, Fulham stayed where they were in the Championship table. Better yet, they came on strong in the last 15 minutes of the game and won the process battle 1.5-0.8. That last portion of the sentence shouldn’t matter at all as it’s the actual goal counts and the results that matter. But at the end of the day, Fulham are still a good side in a rich vein of form at the right time.

If you really want to get a true handle on their recent success, don’t just look at their unbeaten January. Look at when they started to put any form a run together towards now and you’ll see that the boys from Southwest London improved dramatically since their crazy 5-4 win over Sheffield United. Since then, Ryan Sessegnon has been the prospect of the future coming from the second tier of England and Fulham are now the fourth best team, from an analytical standpoint, behind Wolves, Cardiff City, and Brentford. Most importantly, Fulham’s expected goal counts almost match their actual output throughout the entire campaign.

Now you can argue that the club has been quite lucky with their finishing as of late. Since the Sheffield United game, Fulham has scored 33 goals in 14 games. That is well past the 24.7 expected goals they have accumulated during that span, but that is still quite a respectable total. In fact, if you transpose that rate throughout the whole 2017/18 campaign, Fulham would actually have a season-long total of 54.7 expected goals instead of their 47.8. That brand new total would be the best in the entire Championship. So yeah, Fulham are fine when it comes to their process because even their worse case scenario means that they should be able to terrorize every opponent in the remainder of their fixture list.

On the other side, you have an Aston Villa side that is also on a strong run of form. They have won seven in a row and have outscored the opposition an astounding 16-3. However, expected goals will tell you that Villa should have only outscored everyone 8.6-7.0. Almost all of that luck from this hot streak can be encapsulated with how much they have had this entire season. Like Fulham though, this isn’t so much to say that luck was the sole reason for their achievements more than luck is needed to keep a winning streak going to dizzying heights.

After all, Villa is the eighth best team in attack and the fifth best team in defense based off of their season-long expected goal totals. Those high marks make them one of the most well-rounded clubs in England’s second tier and they will be quite difficult to stop. Add in Fulham’s rankings in attack and defense of third and ninth best in the league, respectively, and you have yourself a great matchup at Craven Cottage.

But first, let’s take a look at Villa’s players to look out for the most.

Robert Snodgrass

All data from whoscored.com

First up, we go to a Premier League veteran that is not resting on his laurels. The 30-year old certainly wants to return to England’s top flight one more time and help guide a once-famous club back to where it belongs. With Snodgrass’s consistent rate of 2.16 chances created per 90 minutes, no Villa starter will be more dangerous with the ball at his feet. Thanks to a multi-dimensional attack, his assist rate of 0.39 per 90 minutes are the highest it has been since his data has been tracked by whoscored. It also helps that his shooting has been much more lethal now that he has other teammates that can make opposing defenders and goalkeepers sweat.

Albert Adomah

All data from whoscored.com

Before this campaign started, you would have thought that Jonathan Kodjia would be leading Aston Villa’s line and the goalscoring charts in the league. Then, he has been dealing with ankle issues all year to the point where he has only played in four league games. Enter Albert Adomah: a former Ghana International who is 30 and hasn’t reach double digits in goals since 2013/14. This particular campaign is almost a rich man’s version of what we are witnessing four years ago.

His shot rate struggles mightily to get above 1.7 per 90 minutes, but his accuracy forces goalkeepers to respect his shot. That is why his goal conversion rate of 25.0% has to be respected. No his career conversion rate of 12.2% proves that this feel-good story could all come to an end very soon. Still, Villa has needed a wide man that can take on people on the dribble and track back defensively and Adomah has more than done that. In fact, Adomah leads all Villa players with 89 defensive contributions this season.

Jack Grealish

All data from whoscored.com

Lastly, we go towards looking at a controversial youngster that looks like he has finally come good and looks to be living up to his billing. It’s quite amazing to think that Jack Grealish is 22 years old, but that’s how far both the attacking midfielder and Villa have fallen over the years. Instead of partying till the clock strikes dawn at a local club near you, the now-England youth international has decided to party on the pitch and has shone to spray some good passes all over the pitch. Along with Snodgrass and Adomah, this midfield triumvirate, plus Conor Hourihane is the most dangerous part of Villa’s XI and for Bruce to find a way to implement all of them with their specific skill sets is what has led to the club’s current run of form.

It will be fascinating what comes of Graelish as a shooter because if he were to ever pick that up, his skill-set will match that of a modern day attacking wide player. Until then, he has the look of an old-age winger with a good cross. His style can work, but only if he plays in the right system. Until then, there’s still more room to grow for Jack Grealish. He’s just finally allowing himself to do so after being in the limelight for so long.