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Statistical Preview: 2018 Championship Playoff Final

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This is it! Can our favorite football club make it back to the top flight?

Stockton Town v Thatcham Town - The Buildbase FA Vase Final Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images

It’s finally here! After two years of glorious football under manager Slavisa Jokanovic, Fulham Football Club has been rewarded a chance to return to the English Premier League in tomorrow’s playoff final in Wembley Stadium. They will go toe-to-toe with fellow former Premier League mainstay Aston Villa for the right to claim that third and final promotion spot and it will surely be nothing short of a cracker!

There are plenty of storylines coming into such an occasion. While Aston Villa is easily the more experienced club with Steve Bruce managing and former Chelsea-legend John Terry as captain, Fulham is a side reborn thanks to Jokanovic’s style of play, Tom Cairney conducting the midfield and Ryan Sessegnon becoming the next young English star. Along with that, this is the Southwest London side’s first-ever trip to “the home of football” since 1975, when Bobby Moore featured in valiant defeat to his former club, West Ham United, in the FA Cup Final.

While this is not a trophy to prove they are among the best in England or a European night like it was in Hamburg in 2010, this is still going to be a glorious occasion for Fulham and its supporters. In fact, all 38,000 of the allotted tickets were sold out for both sets of fans, so tomorrow’s Championship Playoff Final could go down as one of the most anticipated in years. The reputations of the clubs, the backstories of the players and the club histories, and the loyalties of both sets of supporters will truly catch the imagination of this occasion.

Eventually, a whistle will be blown and a game of football will commence. In order to predict what will happen, we’re going to need cold hard facts to help us out.

October 21st Fixture

Teams Goals exp. Goals Possession Formations Total Shots Shots on Target Passes Forward Passes
Teams Goals exp. Goals Possession Formations Total Shots Shots on Target Passes Forward Passes
Fulham 1 0.7 68.2 4-3-3 9 2 616 337
Aston Villa 2 2.1 31.8 4-4-1-1 15 6 286 214
All data from fulhamfc.com and experimental361.com

February 17th Fixture

Teams Goals exp. Goals Possession Formations Total Shots Shots on Target Passes Forward Passes
Teams Goals exp. Goals Possession Formations Total Shots Shots on Target Passes Forward Passes
Fulham 2 1.2 63 4-3-3 14 7 602 342
Aston Villa 0 0.6 37 4-1-4-1 7 2 350 226
All data from fulhamfc.com and experimental361.com

Just as it was for the Derby semifinal, Fulham was a tale of two sides between the two fixtures. The first one at Villa Park was at a time when the club was in the midst of going winless in six games while Villa was in the middle of losing only once in twelve fixtures, and that was to eventual Champions Wolves the week before. Albert Adomah was instrumental on the day with 2 shots, 2 key passes and a goal in the first leg. In all, he was part of a midfield quartet that has been Aston Villa’s bread-and-butter with the 30-year old leading the club with 14 goals this season. The rest of the quartet, in Jack Grealish, Connor Hourihane, and Robert Snodgrass, are all instrumental in helping out whoever the lone striker is up front in Bruce’s 4-1-4-1 formation.

All data from whoscored.com

In the return fixture at Craven Cottage, Fulham returned the favor to Villa as the Aleksander Mitrovic experience was just about to start. While he might not have been on fire just yet, he did have three shots with two of them going on target. Along with that, the rest of the attacking trio contributed as well to combine for 10 of Fulham’s 14 shots. In particular, Floyd Ayite was immense as he went on to have four shots, four key passes and the second goal in a 2-0 victory. Along with that, Ryan Fredericks tore up Villa’s defense with two successful dribbles, three key passes and an assist on the opening goal by Ryan Sessegnon.

While Alan Hutton did not have one of his best night’s on the day, he was one of the key figures in Villa’s semifinal victory over Middlesbrough, where he was responsible for marking Adama Traore out of the game. Both Fredericks and Ayite are more effective than the ‘Boro wide man, but the Hutton’s performance against the quicker duo on Fulham’s right-hand side will be a key to Villa’s victory.

All data from whoscored.com

This will be emphasized even further if Ahmed El Mohamady is not able to play due to a hamstring injury. While James Bree has played admirably in his place recently, the former Hull City fullback is a much more attacking presence and is the lone defender to provide any sort of mobility. Otherwise, you’re talking about maybe James Chester coming in and getting on the end of crosses (4 goals and 1 assist) to add any variety to Villa’s attack. With El-Mohamady at 30 years of age, Hutton at 33 and Terry at 37, it’s just difficult to find anyone else there that can deliver speed from the back.

As has been the case whenever these two teams have clashed, the midfield will be the deciding battleground as to who wins the playoff final. The Tom Cairney-Stefan Johansen duo may not be as emphasized in attack (13 goals, 9 assists in 2017/18) as it was last campaign (24 goals, 19 assists in 2016/17), but they are still a knife-cuts-butter force when they are at their best with Kevin McDonald supporting them in the holding role. If they are able to penetrate through Hourihane, they should be able to get past an aging Mile Jedinak and be able to get off shots and create chances on the break.

That being said, Hourihane has been immense with his two-way play all season with only Adomah bettering his 85 successful tackles for the club. Along with that, Villa was fantastic in limiting ‘Boro’s quality chances during their two-legged semifinal: further proving why they should actually be considered one of the better defending teams in the Championship. This campaign, they were fourth in total expected goals allowed (50.3) while ranking sixth in total shots allowed (11.4 per 90 minutes) and eighth in shots on target allowed (3.87 per 90 minutes).

It’s not so much how Villa are able to just shut up shop as much as it is them being able to retain possession (a solid 51.1% this season) and be able to control the pace of play. It will be critical for Fulham to show their more youthful exuberance and allow the Sessegnon-Mitrovic-Ayite go after Terry and Co. as much as possible. As for Villa, it will be being able to have Snodgrass and Graelish pick apart Fulham’s defense with their passing (both average over 2.4 key passes per 90 minutes) with the rest of Villa’s attack hoping to get on the end of such chances.

Clearly, the better team on the day will be the one that imposes their style the most. Since this is a winner-take-all situation, anything can happen, so that is why determining an outcome is so hard. This degree of difficulty is magnified when you consider that both sides are so similar and right next to each other in quality, expected goals and results in the Championship table. Like anyone else reading this, I would love for Fulham to go through, but it should surprise no one that they will have to be at their best in attack for them to go through. Because there is no more next game. All they can do is give it their all and hope that delivers their moment of glory.