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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 37 vs. Preston North End

What can Fulham not do these days?

Preston North End v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Robinson/Getty Images

What else is there to say about Fulham?

After a 3-0 demolition of Sheffield United, it seems like there is no stopping this club at the moment. With the victory, Slavisa Jokanovic and his team are now unbeaten in 14 games and are just 15 points away from their tally in last year’s league table. Along with returning to lead the league in goals scored (62), they have now accumulated eight clean sheets in their last 18 fixtures after only doing so twice in their first 18. The club is in a very healthy place, but as always, the job isn’t done just yet.

Sure, Fulham can simply coast their way towards the playoffs, but that will mean all momentum is lost and they would be considered underdogs against their potential opponent. Along with that, it’s not like the club are the most perfect team from a statistical perspective. For starts, Brentford (58.9) and Cardiff City (57.1) are actually ahead of Fulham’s 54.6 expected goal tally in attack. Along with that, their 42.1 expected goals against is starting to accelerate more than their actual tally of 38 goals conceded. In fact, since Marcus Bettinelli has been brought back to the starting XI, he has guided the defence to 11 goals conceded in the face of 15.2 expected ones in 16 games. This is not a David De Gea situation we’re talking about here, but if anything, there should be some trepidation to say that the defense is complete. It is definitely improved since last campaign, but their analytical tally has them tied with Middlesbrough and Derby County for seventh in the league.

All these data points indicate a club that is on the way towards becoming among the best in the Championship. Whether that is enough for them to gain one of the two places for direct promotion into the Premier League is what could be too much to ask. Like I stated up until their amazing run of form, Fulham will have to improve some more for them to reach that level. They will hope to continue this rich vein of form against a Preston North End side that are quite interesting.

Sure, they have only lost twice since November 17th, but within those 20 games are nine wins and nine draws. That’s a grand total of just 36 points out of a possible 60. They could squeak into the playoffs thanks to a strong pressing defense, but the loss of joint-leading goal scorer Jordan Hugill will surely sink any club further from proposed targets. Along with that, their mid-table total 45 goals scored off of a solid 13.3 shots per contest is a perfect indicator of just how inefficient their attack has become.

Consider that Preston sit fifth in both shots from outside (204) and inside (251) the penalty area. However, if you only count shots from inside six yards, it will be quite difficult to find a Lily-whites jersey anywhere as they have only unleashed 25 such tallies all season. Add in just 4.17 shots on target per game, and you see why it’s a struggle for Fulham’s opponents to claim wins instead of draws. Still, this is a dangerous unit when they are at their best and are a well-organized and high-effort group under manager Alex Neil. Fulham just can’t afford to take their foot off the gas pedal.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three of their key players.

Callum Robinson

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Now that Hugill is out of the picture and that Sean Maguire is just returning from a long term hamstring injury, eyes will be on the 23-year old Robinson to step up as being the lone striker in Neil’s 4-2-3-1 formation. With regards to shots, the former Aston Villa academy product has certainly done that to the tune of 3.25 per 90 minutes. But with a Sone Aluko-like 31.3% shots on target percentage, Robinson’s efficiency can be much better.

He has proven that he can hit the back of the net with his 10 goals in 2977 minutes last season. However, Robinson is probably more comfortable playing out wide in the attacking midfield three and taking defenders on the dribble. He has done a much better job maintaining possession this season and his defense (2.18 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes) is quite high for a center forward. Still, one has to wonder what his natural position is as Robinson moves further along into his career.

Paul Huntington

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Up next is arguably been Preston’s best defender along their back four. While the likes of Darnell Fisher have been great as well, it has been the 30-year old center back that has been leading the club in aerial duels won, interceptions, blocked shots and clearances. You won’t see him do much in the tackle, but like Tim Ream, that can be viewed in a positive light as that means you’ll rarely find him out of position.

You will not see him do much with the ball at his feet, but Huntington is the no-nonsense defender that Neil has asked for in his first year in charge for the club. That is a massive accolade considering that captain Tom Clarke has been out almost all of this season due to a torn achilles.

Paul Gallagher

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Lastly, we may not be looking at one of Preston’s best midfielders, but we are certainly giving props to their most interesting. While Gallagher certainly is not the creative dynamo that Tom Cairney is, he does know how to unleash a long ball pass and whip in a cross. Considering that he plays in the lower levels of English football, that is certainly traits to build a club around.

Preston are not necessarily known for speedy players that can open up space on their own. So it is up to players like Gallagher that can put a ball into danger areas for their game to work. Again, Alex Neil’s side is not a dangerous attacking side or pleasing team when the ball is at their feet. But if you are looking for a player that encapsulate what Preston North End are about from a stylistic standpoint, Gallagher is your man.