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Just the Stats: Fulham 0, Crystal Palace 2

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How did the numbers tell the story of Fulham’s defeat last Saturday?

Fulham FC v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

In the first of many throughout this Fulham campaign, I hope to bring an analytical approach to explain what happened after every Premier League outing. Last Saturday’s 2-0 defeat was disappointing, but it was not without a few moments of excitement. Let’s go ahead and take a deep dive into the data to see if we can explain how the events unfolded.

Jean Michael Seri was really good

When you become the most expensive player in club history, pressure will surely be on you to deliver. Surely enough, the former Nice man delivered this past Saturday with a confidence that was required for a football club playing it’s first game of top flight football in four years. After 90 minutes have passed, Seri went on to lead all Fulham players with 119 touches and was tied with Tom Cairney with 93 completed passes.

As we have learned from watching Fulham in the Championship, however, just because you dominate in possession and passing ability doesn’t mean you can automatically break a defense down. That is where statistics such as xG Chain and xG Buildup come in.

According to Understat, xG Chain is the total amount of expected goals a player’s team will score whenever he is involved in the run of play. Meanwhile, xG Buildup is almost like xG chain except it takes away key passes (also known as the pass before a shot towards goal) and shots. In short, the purpose of researching these data points is to find out who the best were at being involved when a player’s team is in possession.

In Fulham’s case, Seri was definitely the best on his team at both xG Chain and xG Buildup at 0.31 and 0.25, respectively. However, that total is quite small once you prorate it to a 90 minute performance of 0.34 xG Chain and 0.27 xG Buildup.

To put those numbers into perspective, let’s compare Seri’s performance against the per 90 minute averages among all Premier League players that played over 850 minutes in 2017/18. Unfortunately, Seri’s xG Chain would have only put him in a tie with the likes of former Fulham transfer target Steve Mounie and Xherden Shaqiri for 124th. On a brighter note, Seri’s xG Buildup has him up there with Jesse Lingard for 64th place.

If anything, these two statistical categories can draw to two conclusions. The first is that Seri’s style of play is still quite effective without having to be involved too much in attack (only one chance created and no shots). Let’s also not forget the yeoman’s work he did in defense where he too led all Fulham players with six successful tackles and with four interceptions. Yeah, if that doesn’t give you Man of the Match by the club website, I don’t know what does?

But the second key point about the small xG stats coming from Seri is...

Was the attack really good enough on the day?

When you look at a stat sheet and see that Fulham outshot Crystal Palace 15-12, you expect the good guys to look like the better team throughout the 90 minutes, right? Welp, a 0.64-0.94 disadvantage in expected goals will tell you otherwise, according to Understat.

If anything, Fulham’s defense of their own goal actually didn’t turn out to be that bad considering the circumstances. On average, a typical Eagles shot towards goal was only had an expected 7.8% chance of going in. That ended up being tied with Brighton for the 13th lowest rate in the Premier League this past weekend. But there’s always a downside to that bit of information.

That’s because the owners to the least efficient attack just so happened to be Fulham with all their shots only expected to go in 4.3% of the time. That was barely worse Southampton’s 0.77 expected goals output off of 18 shots performance in their 0-0 draw with Burnley. After all the weekend’s action, the Premier League had a collective expected goals conversion rate of 10.8%, which is amazingly almost identical to the 10.9% conversion rate the league put up over the course of the 2017/18 season.

Individually, it was quite evident that Andre Schurrle looked like he was out of fuel before halftime while Aleksander Mitrovic seemed to be the lone man that was downright hungry to score. Mitro might have left Craven Cottage with seven shots and an xG count of 0.37, but only Aboubakar Kamara came close to putting up more than one shot and a total of 0.10 expected goals. Along with that, only substitutes Kamara and Luciano Vietto put up more than one key pass. Oh, and I don’t think you needed stats to show you that Cyrus Christie’s crossing was dreadful. But if you were curious, how does 1 completion out of 12 sound!?

So yeah, Fulham really need to sharpen up more than two fold in efficiency if they are to maintain their style of play and stay in England’s top flight.

Speaking of efficiency at one end of the pitch...

Yeah, let’s talk about that new backline. After some more deep diving, Fulham actually weren’t too bad in defense. In fact, their pressing game was fantastic as they led all Premier League sides with 4.67 completed passes allowed per defensive action. However, if we really want to see how effective their pressing game was, we need to look no further than the supposed kings of this style of play: Liverpool (But really, it’s Man City). In their 4-1 win over West Ham, Jurgen Klopp’s side was second best on the weekend at 7.78 completed passes per defensive action against, but it also gave up just three passes completed within 20 yards from goal. That is in line with their second best rate in the Premier League where they only gave up 148 of such passes in 38 games last season.

As for Fulham, they went on to give up eight passes completed in the final 20 yards. If we were to magnify that to a per 38 game total, that would give the Cottagers 304 such passes, which would put them down their with the likes of Burnley, West Ham and now-Championship side Swansea City. Yes, we’re balooning one bad day in the office to an entire season, but all three of those clubs I just brought up were not trying to play a possession based brand at all in 2017/18. Clearly, this is not a good sign for Slavisa Jokanovic’s side.

While Crystal Palace were actually more inefficient in long ball passes (24 completed off of 55 attempted) than Fulham were (40 completed out of 70), they were able to use their collective aerial prowess to control the game. While Wilfried Zaha will get all the accolades for his dominating performance at Craven Cottage, Christian Benteke was brilliant. In the end, the Palace target man went ahead and won eight aerial duels and linked up really well with his teammates as a result with two key passes and leading his club with a 0.83 xG Chain and 0.45 xG Buildup. Even goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey was strong with his distribution with a 0.36 xG Chain.

So on the whole, this was an interesting game to observe, statistically. I’m nowhere near ready to hit the panic button just yet for a side that was introducing so many players and had a few more already starting the season hurt. Let’s just hope that a few key areas begin to improve and that will end up leading to Fulham getting their first goal, let alone their first win in the Premier League in four years.