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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 21 vs. Arsenal

Can Fulham start 2019 like they left 2018?

Arsenal FC v Burnley FC - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

If only we had some time to revel in their last gasp victory over Huddersfield last weekend. Better yet, I hope the players and supporters can revel in what has happened throughout all of 2018. It was truly a special year for Fulham Football Club as they finally returned to the Premier League after four long years of hard work and adversity. Now the lows that have been presented since then have tainted what happened in that special Championship season that resulted in a famous Playoff victory at Wembley. However, no one will ever take away that special day at the home of English football, with a white wall made by 30,000 of Fulham’s finest and a team that was so together, that the sky was the limit on their potential.

The sacking of Slavisa Jokanovic really brought an end to a magical era for the club, but it is the cruel and miserable reality of what it takes to survive in the Premier League for the long term. Heroes don’t last forever and the past is only told by those who win. Slav stopped winning because he couldn’t solve the defense, made horrific substitutions and lineup decisions, and stopped sticking to who he was. Therefore, the Premier League swallowed him up versus what should have been the other way around.

No matter the case, Claudio Ranieri has come in and has done his best to create a cohesive unit again, but with a rock solid backline this time around. He has gotten wins over Southampton and Huddersfield, and draws against Newcastle and Wolves as a result. But much more will be required as the likes of Cardiff and Burnley got crucial wins over the weekend. What has been possible for teams above Fulham to avoid relegation so far is to grab three points against a team that they have no business beating. That team could be Arsenal if things break right for them. Boy, what a way to start 2019 if Fulham were to pull off that result!

Since going unbeaten in 14 Premier League fixtures in a row, the Gunners have now slipped a bit by losing twice in their last four contests. Now Unai Emery has had his squad over-acheive his team’s underlying numbers all season, but this past month has finally had them regress to the mean a bit. Starting with their defeat to Southampton, Arsenal have been outscored 7 to 10 in actual goals and 5.80 to 6.74 in expected goals.

All of this includes the 5-1 thrashing they just received from league leaders Liverpool, but that still doesn’t dismiss the fact that this club has given up 30 goals this campaign: poor enough to not even be ranked in the top ten in goal prevention. Along with that, their 42 goals scored well exceeds their 30.36 expected goals accumulated. If it wasn’t for their Premier League best 8.71 passes allowed per defensive action and taking advantage of teams on the counter as a result, their attack would be much worse.

So Fulham can treat tomorrow’s contest at the Emirates as two ways. They can either see this as an opportunity unlike any other to claim another famous victory. Or they can sit back some more, as they have all season against top six sides, and hope their defensive wall can hold down the fort like they did against Huddersfield and unlike they did against Wolves. With that said, here are the three players from Arsenal that will be key to getting their season back into gear.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

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It was quite odd to have one of the Premier League’s leading scorers not profiled in the home fixture back in October. But take note that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s place in the starting XI wasn’t a guarantee at the time. That’s quite odd to say in comparison to where his form is now, but with Emery previously implementing a 4-2-3-1 system, there just wasn’t room for him and Alexandre Lacazette both playing together unless one of them played out of position.

Of late, Emery has been trying different formations to get them to both play as strikers, but it is quite clear which one is getting the most out of this season. The things to watch out for for the Guinea International is that his shot rate of 2.77 per contest is the lowest it has been since 2010/11 and his 25.0% goal conversion rate is the highest it has been in his professional career. So bad luck could be upon him in the coming future and it would be nice if that all starts this fixture.

Granit Xhaka

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Next up is a midfielder that divides opinion depending on which side of the argument you are on. Some see Granit Xhaka as someone that can start Arsenal’s attacks well from central midfield. Others see the Switzerland International as a walking red card or penalty waiting to happen. Fortunately for Gunners fans, his foul rate has decreased dramatically since arriving to North London from 2.49 to 1.48 per contest. However, his interception rate has decreased at roughly the same rate as well from 2.42 to 1.23 per contest. Either way, these numbers don’t make him less of the “hard man” he is advertised since arriving from Borussia Dortmund in 2016. Considering how porous and untrustworthy Arsenal’s backline has been, there is no denying Xhaka will be among the reasons why they will look strong in defense or not on New Year’s Day.

Lucas Torreira

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Lastly, because of so much uncertainty on that Arsenal back line, I will not be highlighting an opposing defender for the first time this season. So instead, let’s pay attention to the closest thing Arsenal has had replacing Patrick Vieira. That might be saying a lot, but Lucas Torreira has come on in and done a fine job in his first season since arriving from Udinese. And at 22 years old, there is plenty of time for him to fulfill his potential as a hard-nosed defensive midfielder.

Shkrodan Mustafi and Xhaka can only come close to the 69 total defensive actions the Uruguay International has accumulated, so the foundations are there to build something solid in defense. But another center back to pair with Mustafi, plus another fullback to replace the aging Nacho Monreal is vital to put Arsenal back into Champions League contention. For now, Fulham’s effort in midfield will determine whether they can be able to score on an Arsenal side that has shown enough signs to be vulnerable.