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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 40 vs. Leeds United

Another Tuesday. Another midweek fixture.

Leeds United v Millwall - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Welp, that was a nervy three points in the bag. With the first 45 minutes being more of a feeling-out process and Norwich really going for it the first 15 ticks into the second half, it genuinely didn’t look like Fulham’s day. But all it took was a towering header by the man of the winter, Aleksander Mitrovic, to be saved sheepishly by Angus Gunn only for Stefan Johansen to tap in the rebound for the good guys to join in on the fold. Fulham may have been outshot 14-10 on the day, but Norwich were wasteful with their attempts and only got 0.9 expected goals to show for it. Thanks to their goals from inside the box, Fulham ended getting their usual tier of efficiency of 1.1 expected goals.

Now the numbers guy in me would prefer for Fulham to return to their days where they held onto possession throughout the entirety of the 90 minutes and found a way to rack up 20 shots per fixture. But I’m sure all football fans couldn’t care less how it gets done as long as the club have the quality from the top down to get the job done. That is certainly what Fulham have at the moment.

Salvisa Jokanovic was able to come away from Carrow Road with three points without Ryan Sessegnon, Tomas Kalas in the starting XI or Neeskens Kebano on the bench. Most importantly, not a single injury was reported after last Friday’s fixture so the squad should be ready to go and continue their expected rotation against another vulnerable side in Leeds United.

Since we last faced them, the historic club from Yorkshire have done their usual dance of flirting with promotion, followed by such a cold spell that they struggle to recover. While this season’s rut happened much earlier, that still didn’t give new ownership enough reasons to sack Thomas Christiansen, who wasn’t even managing the club for more than a season. In comes longtime Barnsley boss Paul Heckingbottom and you can’t help but feel like this is a desperation hire.

The results really haven’t gone the club’s way and it certainly doesn’t help that major injuries are preventing them from hitting their full potential. Add in the fact that their attack has been among the worst in the league based on their meager 11.8 shots per fixture and you’re looking at a not-so-confident bunch coming to Craven Cottage tonight.

Still, Fulham are only sitting two points above Aston Villa for third place while seven points separate fourth through 11th. Anything at the top of the Championship table is still up for grabs and that alone should be a good reminder for Fulham to not take their foot off the gas pedal.

On that note, let’s see who the key men are left standing that will do a shift for Heckingbottom’s squad.

Pierre-Michel Lassoga

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As has been stated already, Leeds will be a side that will make you feel like they poach goals from nowhere instead of having you concerned from minute one. But if there is one player that will give complete effort in attack, it will be the 26-year old loanee from Hamburg with 10 goals and 3 assists to his account. Like Mitrovic, Lassoga is a hulking presence at 6’2.5” and he will be an intimidating presence in the air and on the ground. Add in the fact that this is a player that has been called up to the German national team and has almost 130 Bundesliga appearances under his belt and you realize why he cannot be ignored under any circumstances.

But if he ends up getting bottled up, rest assured that it is almost curtains for Leeds United’s offensive output. Once you pass Lassoga’s 3.7 shots per 90 minutes, the next man up in this leaderboard that has been getting a consistent run of games of late has been Samuel Saiz’s 2.3 per 90 minutes. No other regular has been getting more than 1.2 shots per 90 minutes. Kemar Roofe has been either out of form or out injured as has Pablo Hernandez. Even the previously white hot Ezgjan Alioski hasn’t been getting a run of games of late. These are grim times for a Leeds side that just needs somebody to step up in that department.

Samuel Saiz

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As for Saiz, he has certainly been a useful player for the club after signing from Huesca in Spain’s second division. The former Real Madrid academy product has mainly played in the center of the of the attacking midfield trio in Leeds’ 4-2-3-1 and has mainly been a solid creator for the players around him to attack. However, Saiz has mainly been implemented right behind the striker and not necessarily in the box-to-box midfielder role that Tom Cairney has.

This is all fine when you have the players around you that can be just as threatening at and towards goal as Saiz can be (5 goals and 6 assists). But if it doesn’t work the way it should, it creates a chain reaction of negativity towards the rest of the team on both sides of the ball. Either way, Saiz is not one for Fulham to sleep on and he has a good array of skills to put anyone in a mental funk as to how to best mark him.

Gaetano Berardi

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Lastly, we take focus on one of Leeds’ remaining defenders left standing. Pontus Janssen is still in the fold, but Luke Ayling and club captain Liam Cooper are not. As a result, a unit that has build a solid reputation in goal prevention recently has now given up 17 goals in their past nine games. Add in the fact that Eunan O’Kane (who has gotten worse every season since he’s left Bournemouth) and Kalvin Phillips (a 22-year old youth product that just hasn’t fully completed his development) are just simply not a good enough double pivot in the center of midfield and you certainly have a back four that is stretched more than usual.

That’s certainly not to say that the 28-year old Berardi is not blameless here. His interception rate is down and any semblance of attacking has been non-existent from him all season long. But you would also be afraid too when you have five attacking players that have to put so much effort to create so little and the rest of midfield not be able to prevent counter-attacks from happening. The truth is, individual data in football very rarely are that simple to explain. Context is everything, especially for the never-ending chaos going down at Elland Road.