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Is There a Way to Fix Fulham’s Defense?

Yeah, it’s time to start talking about it.

Fulham FC v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

So after a tried, but poor, outing against Manchester City, Fulham are now facing another point of crisis this early in the Premier League season. This time though, the data points are beginning to congeal and things that looked worrying that haven’t changed are alarm bells that are ringing even louder.

For Fulham’s case, that worry is whether their defense will ever improve.

In five games, Slavisa Jokanovic has not picked the same back four and goalkeeper in a row and the results have lead to conceding two goals or more in every fixture. The totals now read as a league worst 12 goals conceded and 12.93 expected goals off of 92 total shots. Only Burnley has reached double digits in both actual and expected goals conceded while giving up more shots and that is a club staring at the barrel of relegation.

Surely enough, Fulham are now 15th with Arsenal, Everton and Watford coming up next before the latest International Break. Despite how each of Fulham’s next three opponents are in the top half already in goals scored, all are considerably overperforming their expected goals and they are nearly as good of an attack as Fulham’s. So far, Arsenal arte 10th in the league in expected goals, followed by Fulham in 11th, Watford in 12th and Everton in 14th. But this doesn’t excuse the fact that the boys from Southwest London are running out of time to get things better in defense.

Now replacing Fabri with Marcus Bettinelli has paid some dividends. In spite of the former Besiktas number one being very good in stopping 16 out of 21 shots on target from scoring in his two league outings, Understat believed that Fabri actually should have just conceded 3.74 goals instead of five. Now a 1.26 goal difference wasn’t going to be enough to turn a loss to Crystal Palace or Tottenham into a win, but in a league that is unforgiving to newly promoted football clubs, having a goalkeeper perform above expectation can be a difference between of having the backing of teammates and manager or not.

As for the newly-minted England call-up, Bettinelli might have only saved nine of his 16 shots on target faced, but many of those saves would be seen in any highlight montage on YouTube and his seven goals conceded is much lower than the 9.18 goals that should have occurred out on the pitch.

Which leads us to talking about the four men expected to protect the goalkeeper. Even if Manchester City were to balloon Fulham’s horrendous defensive numbers, it can’t be ignored that the home win to Burnley was closer than expected because the Cottagers’ backline gave up two goals off of the only shots they faced on target because both were within the six yard box. Along with that, both shots on target came off of a turnover inside their own half and off of a corner kick, respectively.

Along with that, Brighton unleashed 15 shots on them and this is a club that doesn’t have the most imposing attack out there (none of their players have an xG Chain within the top-100 of the Premier League). Add in the fact that Fulham are conceding those chances while having the ball 52% of the time and it is even more disparaging how leaky they are in defense.

We can look at this in plenty of ways. First, Fulham are 15th in tackles per game and tied with Huddersfield for 11th in interceptions per game. When you adjust for possession since more possession-based teams have less opportunities to make plays without the ball, those numbers actually aren’t quite bad as both statistics give Jokanovic’s squad top-ten production. But what really kills them is their lack of physicality in the air. Fulham might comfortably have the least amount of aerial duel events at 128. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that they have lost 41.4% of all those events. The next closest side to be that inefficient in the air is Tottenham at 43.8%.

You put all those defensive actions together and their press is third worst in the league at 15.44 passes per defensive action. That is more than double the average the league leaders and good old friends, Tottenham, allow their opponents to play with the ball. Which goes to show that individual defensive actions are not what makes this Fulham unit so bad. Rather, it shows how important it is to notice how those events are stringed together that prevent the other team from doing whatever it wants in attack.

If we want to go towards a more individual outlook, fullback seems to be an area of intrigue when you breakdown where chances are being created against based on the defined spaces of the pitch. If we’re simply looking at preventing shots, Timothy Fosu-Mensah has no choice but to be Fulham’s starting right back until further notice. The 20-year old loanee has provided decent cover in that area of the pitch by giving up just one key pass within the far-right hand side of the pitch in comparison to three whenever Cyrus Christie is out there (granted, all three conceded were from last weekend). Also, 12 chances were created in the right-half space (the area usually covered between right back and right center back) while Christie is starting in comparison to six when Fosu-Mensah is out there.

On the far left-hand side, there is some understanding as to why Joe Bryan hasn’t been playing as much as he should. Until the Man City game, the nine chances created conceded on that side of the pitch was tied for second for most frequent area Fulham was most vulnerable. But until Fulham get a more experienced and cost-effective (sorry Matt Targett supporters) left back, Bryan also has no choice to start there as well. Denis Odoi hasn’t been given enough trust by Jokanovic to play over their during his time in the Championship and we all know how much we want Ryan Sessegnon further up the pitch. As for Maxime Le Marchand...yeah, I don’t want to talk about it.

Tops on the list of most vulnerable area that Fulham is being attacked pre-Man City fixture is in the center space (also known as STRAIGHT AT GOAL!) with 13 key passes. You could argue that the center back position is clearly in need of a change and there is no disagreement there. But considering the club’s more aggressive way of winning the ball back in relation to possession, I would consider the midfield to be a bigger area of observation.

All data from whoscored.com

One genuinely has to wonder if Kevin McDonald is done as a Premier League starting defensive midfielder. He may turn 30 in November, but boy does his lack of defensive production show that he looks to have hit the wrong side of that decade. So far, McDonald has only averaged 1.3 tackles and 1.0 interceptions per 90 minutes. Meanwhile, the newly acquired Jean-Michael Seri is producing a club-leading 4.6 defensive actions per 90 minutes while Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa is not that far behind a 3.9. Along with that, McDonald’s totals have dropped every single season he has been at Craven Cottage ever since his career high 4.5 actions per 90 minutes in 2015/16 in his final season at Wolves. Since then, that rate has dropped to 3.9 in 2016/17 and 3.0 per 90 minutes in 2017/18.

Now you can say McDonald should be dropped based solely off of the numbers alone, but the club essentially has no answer for who will wear the captain’s armband now that he’s not picked and that Tom Cairney is injured. Should it be given to Aleksander Mitrovic who has only been with the club since January? How about 18-year old Ryan Sessegnon? Or what about Seri who just joined the club this summer and has shown that he’s looking for greener pastures if he performs at the levels he’s capable of? The pickings for the role are just too slim at the moment. This is why I propose having a double pivot of McDonald and Anguissa in a 4-2-3-1 formation, followed by Seri leading an attacking trio with your choices of Sessegnon, Andre Schurrle and Luciano Vietto out there until Cairney returns to full health. Once the captain returns, Anguissa has to be considered the out-and-out 6 for Jokanovic in his 4-3-3 system.

All data from whoscored.com

But as a result of this weakened midfield cover, the responsibilities have now fallen back towards the center backs to clean up the mess that was made in midfield. Tim Ream and your choice of Odoi and Tomas Kalas were terrific in this department last season, but if there’s no cohesion over there as a result of so many moving pieces in the previous transfer window, how do you expect them to perform to full effect. Let’s also not forget that Ream has just returned to training after sitting out the first month with a back injury.

So yes, plenty has to change for Fulham. Much of these problems are outside their control as a result of two fixtures against Champions League opposition. The fixtures against the Huddersfield’s and Newcastle’s will come soon enough. But until then, this is the time for Jokanovic to find the correct formula fast. Otherwise, the joys of promotion could be dying down sooner than people realize.