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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 35 vs. Derby County

What can Fulham do for an encore after their win against Wolves?

Derby County v Brentford - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

You could not have asked for a better performance against the best football club in the Championship. It is flat out surreal that Fulham could pull off such a 90-minute shift after looking to have no answers back in October and November. Now, they not only put a clinic on Wolverhampton Wanderers, but they have shown that when everything goes right, their squad is better and deeper than any in the Championship.

Now the way I’m waxing poetic makes it sounds like Fulham’s job is complete. It is not. At the end of the day, they still sit fifth in the league table and fourth in the league in expected goals ratio. To put the cherry on top, Fulham hasn’t exorcised every demon out there. For starts, Fulham always seems to have a hard time against structured defense-first clubs. To be specific, they struggle against Gary Rowett coached sides.

To go along with that, Fulham always seems to have a hard time against Derby County. Let’s never forget that in the second fixture last season, a comedy of errors led to David Button losing his job as starting goalkeeper. Also, it hasn’t been since 2001 that they have won at Pride Park. So yeah, Fulham can not treat this game like a cake walk.

Sure, Derby is having a rough time this calendar year by falling from an automatic spot towards promotion to fourth. And sure, they were probably the worse of the two sides in the 1-1 draw last Autumn. However, this could be a precursor to this May’s playoffs. It is beyond critical for Fulham to, at minimum, not give Derby any positive thoughts going into the two-legged fixtures of torture.

With that in mind, here is who Fulham have to look out for beyond those that were observed in the reverse fixture.

Richard Keogh

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First up, we have the second half of a center back partnership that has worked very well for Derby this season. While Curtis Davies is more of a no-nonsense defender, the 31-year old captain is a bit more of a ball-playing center back that prefers to have others (Tom Huddlestone in particular) to hoof it out of the final third. Don’t mistake that as being a weak link on the side, however. As you will see on his radar, Keogh is also willing to put his body on the line by way of blocking shots and winning headers.

Coming into this season, Keogh has played over 235 times for Derby, which is a major part of his 512 appearances in professional football. Add in the fact that he has captained twice for Ireland and you see a man whose resume is stacked. All that is missing is being on the team sheet for a Premier League outing. If there’s one player for Derby that would love that to happen to him, it will be quite difficult to find one more desperate.

Tom Lawrence

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Up next is a former Manchester United product that is having a confounding season. At 23, there is no denying that Lawrence is a talent. However, he is still at a stage in his career where it’s difficult to pinpoint where he is a reliable attacking player. In his first season with the Rams, Lawrence is only producing four goals and four assists for the club. This comes off the back of having nine goals and nine assists in his final loan move to Ipswich Town before signing a permanent contract with Derby County from Leicester City.

But if you really looked at Lawrence’s 2016/17, you will notice that his goal conversion rate was at 15.7%. While that is solid for any attacking player in world football, Lawrence tends to be an all flash and no end product type of forward. That is why it should not surprise you to see that his career norms are what they are this season; in that, you see him only turning 5.7% of his shots into goals. He is a great dribbler and he fits the mold of a modern-day wide player, but if Lawrence were to establish himself more at the professional ranks, he has to find a way to take his scoring opportunities. Let’s hope today is not one of those days.

Craig Forsyth

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Lastly, I could go with our good old friend Chris Baird, who genuinely is having a career season at age 35. But instead, I’m going with his fullback partner that is returning from not one, but two, serious knee injuries. He clearly is someone whose data shows that he is coming back from two serious knee injuries. But when he is at his best, Forsyth is a wonderful passer of the ball, as well as being a defensive force down the flanks. However, his defensive work rate is almost 150% worse than what it has been in previous seasons.

Fortunately, Derby County is more than just Craig Forsyth in defensive situations. But if the club were to achieve all their goals, they will need a much healthier Forsyth to contribute on both ends of the pitch. It will be hard for him to overthrow Kiernan Tierney and Andrew Robertson on future Scotland Teams, but the 29-year is about as good as they come for his country when he is in his prime.