Last Saturday, Fulham looked like they had a tricky fixture on their hands away to a Sheffield Wednesday side that looked like they were improving under new manager Jos Luhukay. Instead, the result was anything but that to the point where you wondered what the Owls even did during the entire 90 minutes.
In one of Fulham’s most dominating performances this season, they outshot Wednesday 22-4, with an 8-0 domination in shots on target. If anything, the 1-0 result did a very poor job of describing the club’s dominance all game long. In the end, that is quite fine because this club has been playing with a chip on their shoulder throughout their recent run of good form.
There is a true sense of belief right now that any challenge you put towards Fulham will be met with as much commitment as possible. Now that Aleksander Mitrovic has completed their attack, there is almost little to no weakness within the starting XI and a handful of positions have become interchangeable without the squad needing to skip a beat. It has been beautiful to watch when you consider the run of fixtures being thrown at them.
With five fixtures in 16 days, it would be understandable for any club to go through a bad night in the office or two due to fatigue and forced squad rotation. Instead, Fulham has seemed to not only relish the challenge but get better with every game that is being thrown at them. It has been the staple of this club now since December and long may it continue into May!
Their latest challenge now is to find a way to put all misery behind against their true arch nemesis from a season ago. That is against a Reading team that, despite being under a new manager recently in Paul Clement, has continued to give Fulham fits with their style of play. And with that boring long ball passing (also known as feeding it to Yann Kermorgant’s head), the Royals were able to pass through to the playoff final with two of the most boring playoff fixtures you will see in some time. Even the two sides’ first fixture since that infamous two-legged affair was miserable thanks to Tomas Kalas’ red card. If it wasn’t for Lucas Piazon’s late equalizer, who knows how fans will feel about tonight’s fixture down at Craven Cottage.
But really, today’s opponents will have a different feel for who came to Southwest London some 11 months ago. We’ve already talked about Clement coming in with hopes of bringing in the defensive stability to a club that was missing that under Jaap Stam. That is certainly required, but let’s also not forget that their attack has been woeful as well. Like his previous stint at Swansea City, Reading has been a real mess across the board and bluntly have been for some time. But with Kermorgant now only playing 1,135 league minutes, Reading’s game plan has fallen apart and their underlying numbers are showing what this club truly is.
How you can only shoot a third-worst rate in the Championship (10.2 times per 90 minutes) while also having the third best possession (54.2%) is anyone’s guess. Add in the fact that Reading’s shot quality defense has regressed horribly (0.116 expected goals per shot) and you have the recipe for a club that has truly stumbled towards mediocrity. Surely though, there have been a handful of players that have done their best to make this season worth it. Let’s go check out who they are as they key men to watch tonight.
First up is a player that has been previewed before at Cottagers Confidential during Fulham’s playoff semifinal. At 25, Moore seemed like a center back that was ready to take the next step towards becoming a ball playing defender that top-flight English club needs. While that is still looking like the case, his long ball passing numbers have deteriorated slightly this season. Along with that, all of his statistical categories when it comes to defending have seemed to decrease slightly across the board.
However, I am not prepared to have statistics being proof as to why Moore is worsening a footballer this campaign. At the end of the day, he is hoofing the ball towards Jon Dadi Bodvarsson more often these days and his center back partner of late has been the less dependable Tiago Ilori instead Paul McShane. While those changes seem minor, it has been able to through Reading’s season, let alone Moore’s, off-kilter.
Next up, we go to one player that has actually seen his reputation improve in the 25-year old Gambian International. Before coming to Reading, Barrow was struggling mightily to break the Swansea City first team. But after signing a permanent contract to Reading, there has been a new lease of life for him and he has rewarded the club with 10 goals and four assists.
Along with that, Barrow has been Reading’s most dribbler for a club that is lacking plenty of options in that department. John Swift and Garath McCleary have regressed horribly this season and Reading have struggled to find replacements for Danny Williams and Roy Beerens. In all, it’s led to a midfield that is found wanting in the attack, especially when their one secret weapon is no longer receiving playing time at 36 years old.
Lastly, we take a look at a former Fulham player who some may feel is having a torrid time with his current club. While playing for the 19th best club in the Championship will surely bring misery towards anyone, let alone a consummate professional in Aluko, we have all witnessed what the 29-year old is capable of.
While he will never be an efficient scorer, a record of three goals and four assists is still right up there among the club’s best offensive contributors. Sadly, that is more an indictment towards Reading for not having enough potency in attack than it is a compliment towards Aluko’s quality as an attacking wide player. Still, Fulham fans all know what he is capable of and have had font memories towards a player that added leadership towards a club that desperately needed at the time. If Slavisa Jokanovic’s men return to the Premier League in the near future, they will all know that Aluko played a major part in getting them to that summit.