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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 22 vs. Burnley

Another Week, Another Six-Pointer

Burnley v Barnsley - FA Cup Third Round Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Just where on Earth do you go from here?! That must be on the mind of most Fulham supporters after an embarrassing FA Cup exit to the hands of Oldham Athletic over the weekend. Now the senior team only has the Premier League to think about the rest of the way. Last time I checked, any opponent Fulham will face is much tougher than whatever Oldham delivered, regardless of who was out on the field at Craven Cottage.

The best case scenario that will come out of last weekend’s encounter is that will be the last we see from plenty of players that were bluntly not good enough to ever play at this level anytime soon. That will also mean that, regardless of how one feels about those that have played in a competitive game for the first time in a while, they still might be needed in crucial substitution roles. If they can’t make an impact at any point against a League Two outfit, how on Earth are we expecting them to compete in such crucial matches down the stretch.

One in particular is once again upon us in an away trip to Turf Moor; a ground Fulham haven’t won in since 1951. Another 24 matches between them have past in that hollowed ground since and Fulham have only been able to draw with fellow relegation strugglers Burnley five times. Plain and simple, only a win will do and nothing else.

Now that will be difficult since the Clarets have won their last two league games themselves and their underlying numbers showed that they fully deserved them. Manager Sean Dyche has changed formations a bit in order to bring their defense back to the peak performances that were happening over the previous two seasons. Along with that, the club brought in former Middlesbrough center back Ben Gibson in this January Transfer Window. However, a return to a 4-4-2 formation and the return of Tom Heaton has breathed new life into the squad. Add in the raucous home support and it’s difficult to see how Burnley are not the favorites for tomorrow’s contest.

There’s just such a vibe that anything Fulham have tried to do since August has turned into a complete failure. Whether that is finding the right manager to steer the ship around, finding transfers that will either perfectly mesh with the squad at hand or be complete upgrades, or even unintentionally price gauging the tar out of their own fans on tickets this first go back in the Premier League, just nothing has gone right at all. Ranieri and Co. have to prove themselves once again if their morale will ever be boosted, because they have to give the supporters incentive to believe again and not the other way around.

With that, here are three player to watch from the men in Claret and Blue.

Dwight McNeil

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First up, I couldn’t care less if he has only played 260 minutes of Premier League football this season. At 19, Dwight McNeil has already become Burnley’s best attacking player. That shows immediately how dire the options are for Dyche that he has to bank on a teenage wide forward to create anything for them. Plenty of blame has to go to both Dyche and the board for setting up the team in that fashion to begin with. But with an aging Aaron Lennon, plus very big but very slow center forwards in Sam Vokes and Chris Wood up front, what else should you expect out of this team? That is why McNeil will be counted upon so much in such a short period of time into his football career to deliver victories for his club.

Ashley Westwood

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If there was anyone that could create any chances at a high level before McNeil’s inclusion into the Starting XI, it was most certainly Ashley Westwood. In fact, it was his interception that set up the counter-attack that lead to Burnley’s first goal the last time these two sides met at Craven Cottage. Now the central midfielder has a club leading 23 key passes, joint-leading four assists and club leading 0.17 xG buildup per 90 minutes among players with over 450 league minutes played. Only Johann Berg Gudmunsson can rival Westwood’s production and he plays out on the wing. The next closest Burnley players in chances created after those two are Jack Cork and Ashley Barnes, with nine. Again, as it can’t be stated enough, Burnley are dire when they have the ball. There’s no denying this contest can be another “fate worse than death” full of action for 90 minutes. But otherwise, you know who will answer the bell for the Turf Moor faithful if they were to deliver such a massive win.

Tom Heaton

Lastly, let’s talk about the man who should be back in the England squad. Bluntly, it is downright stupid that someone in the thick of a burgeoning international career would be pursuing a transfer to Leeds United or Aston Villa down in the Championship. I guess that’s what happens when the manager ever thinks it’s a good idea to have Joe Hart as the club’s number one keeper.

Before Heaton dealt with shoulder and calf injuries over the past twelve months, Burnley were a side that continued to play well beyond their expectations, especially in defense. In 2017/18, Dyche’s team gave up a tad over 52 expected goals (or 1.36 per match), but actually went on to give up just 39 actual ones. This season, with Hart in goal, Burnley regressed miserably giving up almost 39 expected goals in 19 contests (or 2.05 per match) while giving up 41 actual ones.

Yeah, it was getting dark on that side of Lancashire and they needed someone familiar to the rescue. I’m not saying a man of Heaton’s stature is the key to Burnley’s previous two wins. But with him giving up just one goal out of 1.28 expected tallies is not a bad way to start. Surely, he won’t have too much trouble against a struggling attack in Fulham, right?