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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 30 vs. Nottingham Forest

Can Fulham match their perfect January with a perfect start to February?

Hull City v Nottingham Forest - The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images

After a successful January that saw them run the month unbeaten, Fulham now look to continue their winning ways when Nottingham Forest visits Craven Cottage. Along with that, both clubs will be introducing new players into the side. While Fulham has introduced some noteworthy players, it’s not like Forest hasn’t been short in quality from their own signings either. Plenty of that is due to the turnover in playing style since Aitor Karanka replaced Mark Warburton as manager. And bluntly, Forest desperately need them.

They have returned to become one of the worst clubs in the second tier of English football and their underlying numbers aren’t showing anything different either. Despite holding onto the ball 54.6% of the time all season, Forest has only scored 35 goals with very little scoring depth across the team. Plenty of that has been due to their poor shot selection as evidenced by their 0.085 expected goals per shot. There are plenty of elements of a side that knows a thing or two about bringing the ball to the final third, but until they have players that know how to put the ball into the back of the net, they will continue to struggle.

Lee Tomlin and Joe Lolley will provide some support in attack, but I don’t know if those two will be enough to swing the needle their way towards even a mid-table position. Also, you are talking about two attacking midfielders that are providing competition rather than being shoe-ins for the starting XI. Oh, and do we really need to talk about Ashkan Dejagah?

If anything, I’m more fascinated as to what happens to Forest in defense. Coming into today, only Sunderland and Bolton have given up more goals than their 46 against and those two clubs may end up getting relegated to League One by season’s end. Forest are also joint-fifth worst in shots against rate (14.0 per 90 minutes), dead last in being beaten on the dribble (11.5 per 90 minutes) and was second worst in aerial duels won (16.8 per 90 minutes).

Forest may not have gotten stronger along the back end of the defense unless you want to count the behemoth goalkeeper that is Costel Pantillimon. However, they will be much better in central midfield with the additions of Premier League stalwarts Jack Colback and Adlene Guedioura. But with all that said, it just feels like Forest will become the same boring, all-defense-no-attack unit that Karanka produced while he was at Middlesbrough. Maybe it all ends up working out in the long run, but there’s just a sense that this will take years for Forest to ever hit his vision completely. Until then, let’s take a look at those that have been surviving through both manager tenures and who could contribute greatly to today’s game.

Liam Bridcutt

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First up, we talk about possibly the biggest casualty as a result of all the January transfers. At 28, Bridcutt has only played over 2,000 league minutes once in the five seasons recorded by Plenty of that has to do with his outstanding defensive work rate. He has led the club with 104 defensive actions and has never averaged less than 3.33 tackles per 90 minutes during his past five campaigns.

However, teams are beginning to expose him on the counter-attack as he has never been one to retain the ball cleanly. This season, Bridcutt has been beaten like a drum 48 times (or 2.30 times per 90 minutes) off of the dribble in comparison to his 66 tackles. While that ratio is not as bad Stefan Johansen’s, that is very poor when you consider that his sole responsibility is to be the midfield destroyer. In comparison, Colback has gone on to make 242 tackles versus his 90 times beaten off the dribble in the past three seasons and 7,505 minutes of league play at Newcastle. That’s not a ton of volume, but it’s much more efficient and less costly. Even if Colback is used to completely improve a team-wide weakness, I don’t expect Bridcutt’s endeavor to go to waste the rest of the season either.

Kieran Dowell

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Since I last wrote about Nottingham Forest, Daryl Murphy has been injured and predictably lost his run of form. As a result, it has been the Everton loanee that has taken charge of leading the club in goal contributions with nine tallies and four assists. Along with that, the England Under-20 International has proven to be a solid dribbler. Dowell fits the profile of an attacking wide player more so than a number ten, but he has admirably played there under both managers this season. If anything, he fits more as a support striker more so than the number tens we see in modern 4-2-3-1 formations (ala Tom Cairney) today. It will be fascinating to see what comes of Dowell with the new transfers and once Karanka’s system begins to come to complete fruition.

Ben Osborn

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One player that could be affected by the system change the most is 23-year old Osborn. While starting off as an attacking wide player, Osborn has been trotted out at left back, at deep-lying playmaker and at the number ten positions in recent weeks. Through all that, he’s still second to Dowell for the club lead with 81 combined shots and key passes. That said, it’s evident he is best served as a natural number .ten

However, Karanka has experimented with a 4-1-4-1 formation recently and could give that a go-to allow Colback and Guedioura to make the starting XI. Does that mean that Osborn plays out wide where he doesn’t do much by way of cutting inside based on his tiny 1.15 shots per 90 minutes rate? However, his playmaking abilities will still be present there as he is the club leader with 127 attempted crosses. Along with that, his defensive deficiencies should be less exposed as a result of the cover coming from either Eric Lichaj or Tendayi Darikwa from the right back position. Either way, it will be a shame to see an academy product go to waste because of a new boss wanting to change things up drastically.