Fulham are building confidence at just the right time and though they might right now be the lowest placed team in the play-offs, they are also the team many wish to avoid.
For the first six months of the season, their defeats were unfortunate while their victories were hugely convincing. We saw flashes of what they could do on the opening day against hot favourites Newcastle, then in 5-0 home wins over Huddersfield and Reading in October and December respectively. Tom Cairney pulled the strings in those demolitions and, having scored a wonderful strike in the 3-1 win at St James’s Park last month, he has been one of the division’s most creative players.
Super Tom Cairney and his dogged midfield
Not only has he played the Championship’s third most key passes per game at 2.6 (as of 29th April), he also possesses the division’s best pass completion ratio of 92%. In most cases, the players with the best ball retention statistics are not the most productive in attack, because creativity involves risk. Not only does Cairney keep hold of the ball in good areas, he also has the audacity to play a defence-splitting pass when the moment arises.
The former Blackburn man is ably supported by the relentless energy of Stefan Johansen and the metronomic control of Kevin McDonald, who make up one of the best midfield trios in the division. They impressed against Brighton and while the Cottagers lost narrowly to the champions-elect, Expected Goals statistics have always shone kindly on them. The Whites dominated Burton and Derby in the capital but drew, also missing two penalties to inexplicably lose to West London rivals QPR at the start of October, with six of the other 10 spot-kicks failing to land.
Plenty of Attacking Guile
If Fulham are charitable from the spot however, they are anything but in other scenarios with 82 goals in 44 making them the division’s top scorers. Surprisingly, of the 17 Championship players who have scored more than 11 goals this term, none play for Fulham. Of the 30 who have scored between 11 and eight, five ply their trade at Craven Cottage.
This shows that their attacking efforts are not dependent on the form of individuals, which has given Fulham an advantage over other teams. For example, in 12 of the 19 games in which Chris Wood has failed to score this season, so have Leeds United. Garry Monk’s side have often absorbed pressure, knowing that their talisman would take the first chance he gets. That approach worked for them up to a point but it came at the expense of developing a Plan B and in recent games we have seen them pay the price.
By contrast, Fulham are consistently creating chances. While they had some bad luck earlier in the season, their proactive approach is proving more sustainable in the long run. Sone Aluko has completed 2.3 dribbles per game with 10 assists to his name to boot, capable of playing either on the right wing or down the middle. Togolese Floyd Ayite and 16-year-old Ryan Sessegnon also provide pace in wide areas, adding incision to Fulham’s fine passing moves.
A case for the defence
Their questionable defensive record earlier on was not helped by instability, as Slavisa Jokanovic struggled to establish a settled centre-back partnership due to injuries. However, the Serb has been able to stick with the same back four for the last three games, in which his side have conceded just three times.
He will be particularly relieved to have Tomas Kalas fit ahead of the play-offs. Fulham concede two or more goals in 60% of their games without him, but just 24% of the ones in which he plays. The Czech’s presence has brought the best out of Tim Ream, a ball-playing defender who has grown in confidence this term. The duo are flanked by two hardworking full-backs in Ryan Fredericks, who played with Kalas at Middlesbrough, and Scott Malone, who has scored more goals (six) than any Championship defender.
The quartet defended their box heroically at Norwich recently, helping their side to a 3-1 victory despite a man disadvantage. In the subsequent two matches, Aston Villa and Huddersfield had just four shots on target between them. Villa, albeit with 10-men, barely threatened in the box and relied on a long-range screamer from Jack Grealish, while the Terriers’ second half improvement came when they were already 4-1 down.
A fancied favourite
Despite finishing the campaign in 6th, the Cottagers are, as of May 10th, just 13/8 odds to win promotion this month, according to Betway Sports.
Having found title-winning form in their last 15 games, Fulham are clearly a side blossoming at the right time. But with a Huddersfield Town side who have defied all expectations this season, along with Sheffield Wednesday and Reading who are desperate for a return to the EPL, the next few weeks will be the most testing of the Cottagers’ entire season.
After a three year absence from the top flight themselves, the club and its supporters will be under no illusions of what’s at stake over the coming weeks. With a ‘if it’s not broke don’t fix it’ mentality’, these same supporters will be hoping the momentum gained from their fine form over the last couple of months will be enough to book them a place back in the Premier League come May the 29th.