September: The State of Play (Attack)

This is the first in what will become a series of articles summarising the detailed statistics that are available on sites like FBref.com relating to Fulham and their performance in the Premier League.

The objective here is look for outlier stats, things that suggest areas where Fulham are doing particularly badly (or well) to try and understand what is happening with Fulham and why.

In short I want to filter the key stats for Fulham, to give you, the reader, the most relevant Fulham facts at your fingertips. The range of data sources should widen as I get the hang of the various sources that exist now Fulham are in the premier league.

This is being written in the aftermath of the painful Fulham defeat at home against Aston Villa, and although there is much discussion of Fulham’s defence, in this post I will focus on attack, which, as we will see, is also not performing well at all (at least in the opening games).

I hope to follow up with an article on defensive stats in a couple of days.

I will give a summary at the top of the article but you can continue on to explore the underlying numbers in more detail.

A general caveat to these numbers is that they reflect just 3 games played, and may be dominated by particular games or even phases of games. I will keep updating these monthly so we can observe the numbers moving towards their long term position.

Summary

Although they are taking a decent number of shots, Fulham’s attack is struggling to generate goals….

  • 11.33 shots created per game is the 11th highest in the league, however,
  • Fulham have been shut out in two games and although 3 goals were scored at Leeds, the average of 1 goal scored per game ranks 15th in the league,
  • underlying that, the attack ranks 18th in the league for expected goals generated & 19th if penalties are excluded.

.…this is because despite reasonable quantity, the quality of chances created by Fulham this season, so far, has been extremely poor….

  • excluding penalties, Fulham’s chances created are, the lowest quality in the league, rated at an average of 0.055 expected goals per shot.
  • this is a lot lower than even the 17/18 season where Fulham’s season long average was 0.09 expected goals per shot.

….however there are some encouraging signs, for example Fulham have been effective at possessing the ball and advancing forward into the attacking third…

  • The team is 7th in the league for passes into the attacking third of the field and Tom Cairney, in particular, is ranked 7th in the premier league for completed passes into the attacking third with 19.
  • Fulham are 5th in the league for progression towards the opposing goal through passing and 4th by dribbling
  • They are 9th in the league for completed passes and 7th for pass completion percentage (with Tim Ream and Harrison Reed both in the league top 10 for pass completion)
  • Fulham are ranked 7th in the league for ball possession

….once in the final third, Fulham are fairly successful at getting into the box, using crosses….

  • Fulham lead the league in successful crosses into the box,
  • Kenny Tete is also is the league leader on an individual basis for successful crosses while Ivan Cavaleiro is 6th in the league for attempted crosses
  • Driven mainly by crosses, Fulham rank 9th in the league for successful passes into the opposition box

….but the approach into the box is one dimensional and overly reliant on crossing.

  • Fulham rank 15th in the league for successful passes into the box, excluding crosses, and have played just 1 ‘through ball’ to date
  • Because crosses don’t, typically, generate possession, Fulham are average just 18 touches a match in the opposing penalty area, which ranks 17th in the league.
  • The ratio of touches in the penalty box to touches in the attacking third (a measure of attacking penetration) is 19th in the league.

Shooting (Detailed)

The table below summarises the key stats for Fulham on FBref.com. I have converted all stats to a ‘per game’ basis to allow for better comparison and have shown how Fulham’s performance ranks within the Premier League this season and also how it compares to Fulham’s full season performance last time they were in the Premier League (2018/19).

Alarmingly, these overarching attacking performance stats look very similar to what was happening in Fulham’s 2018/19 premier league season.

As was the case in the last Premier League season, Fulham are generating a respectable volume of shots and getting a decent proportion on target.

The main issue in the games so far, as was the case in the previous Premier League season, is the quality of shots being taken. We can measure this as the (non-penalty) expected goals per shot, which uses xG modelling to rate the average quality of the shots.

So far this season Fulham’s average shot quality is the worst in the league (0.055 xG per shot) which is significantly below the performance even in 2018/19 when they generated a league 17th ranked 0.09 xG per shot.

The scatter plot below shows how Fulham’s shot volume (shown on the x axis) and shot quality (xG per shot on the y axis) compares to other teams.

Fulham are positioned as having average shot volume, but terrible shot quality. This will likely evolve over time, and Man Utd are unlikely to keep Fulham company at the bottom of the shot quality ratings for long, so Fulham will be in danger of being cut adrift in terms of goal production if they can not find a way to generate more clear-cut chances than they have to date.

Passing (Detailed)

The following table highlights some of the key passing stats available on Fulham for the season to date, and here the story looks a little better…

*Passing progression tells you the distance advanced through completed passes, toward the opposition goal

**Proportion of passing progression towards goal tells us the proportion of passes which advance the team towards the opposition goal and is therefore a measure of directness.

So far this season (caveat: its only 3 games), Fulham’s passing stats look pretty good. The number of passes, the pass completion rate and the passing progression metrics look strong compared to peers (we seem to be slightly less direct than the 17/18 team in terms of the proportion of passes which advance us towards goal).

The numbers look positive as well for passes completed into the attacking third of the pitch (we rank 7th in the league for this), passess into the penalty area (we rank 9th for this), and we lead the league in successful crosses into the box (defined as a cross that finds a Fulham player, rather than leads to a goal).

And it is these penalty area penetration stats which jump out to me as, not just being good compared to other teams, but significantly better than the 18/19 season too.

Indeed when it comes to crossing, we have gone from a bottom of the league team (in 18/19) to a the top team. This is heavily caveated by the observation in the previous section that the crosses are not leading to quality chances or, generally, goals (1 goal generated so far from a cross at Leeds).

It is also noted that, crosses aside, the number of successful passes into the penalty area is rather less impressive, with 4 per game ranking 15th in the league, and falls behind the 18/19 team as well. Although early days, our ‘through ball’ numbers are also weak, with only 1 recorded to date (Anguissa’s assist to BDR at Leeds).

On the Ball (Detailed)

The following table highlights some of the key stats related to Fulham’s ball possession…

There are also some positive looking numbers in this collection of stats. Fulham have had decent average possession (although again noting this is only off of 3 games), and related to this are a high number of touches of the ball per game.

These don’t mean much in isolation, but it is encouraging that Fulham are at least able to complete for possession of the ball. It is noted that they achieved similar numbers in the 18/19 season as well for possession and touches.

Particularly encouraging is that Fulham are getting the ball into the attacking third quite a bit, ranking 7th for touches in this part of the field. 

The dribbling stats themselves look very positive too, they rank highly in the league (and in comparison to 18/19) when it comes to successful dribbles, distance travelled with the ball and progressive travel with the ball (towards the opponents goal).

The signs of a problem, in my opinion, surface with the touches in the opposition box statistic, the figure of 18 touches in the box per game is very similar to the 18/19 season and ranks 17th in the league.

Not shown in the table but Fulham rank 19th for Penalty Box Penetration Ratio (a ratio of touches in the penalty area to touches in the attacking third). As we can see from the scatter plot below, this is positively correlated with the quality of shots created, which is Fulham’s main weakness.

This is consistent with the picture from the passing stats section which pointed to lots of crosses into the box (which are unlikely to generate more than 1 touch), but few other routes into the penalty area.

Individual Stats

A number of Fulham players have achieved individual statistics which rank in the top 10 for the league as a whole to date and I will just highlight those here:

  • Aleksander Mitrovic ranks:
    • 1st in the premier league for shots taken per game
    • 5th for shots on target
    • 7th in the league for individual expected goals (aided by taking a penalty)
    • 9th for aerial battles won
  • Tim Ream ranks:
    • 5th for pass completion % (with Harrison Reed in 6th)
  • Tom Cairney ranks:
    • 7th for passes into the attacking third (despite only playing 2 games)
  • Kenny Tete ranks:
    • 1st in the league for successful crosses into the penalty area
    • 6th for passes into the penalty area
  • Ivan Cavaleiro ranks
    • 6th for attempted crosses into the penalty area
  • Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa ranks:
    • 1st in the premier league for interceptions
    • 4th in the premier league for number of players dribbled past
  • Joe Bryan ranks:
    • 3rd in the premier league for interceptions
  • Denis Odoi ranks:
    • 6th in the premier league for distance advanced towards goal in possession
    • 5th for fouls committed

Final Opinion

As many will point out, there is one number that matters and that is the number of points accumulated in the league, and this stands at nil at the time of writing. The question for me is whether the numbers above tell us anything more about why Fulham are struggling so much in the early games, particularly in attack

The main takeaway for me is that, while Fulham are doing a good job moving the ball forwards, breaking presses and getting the ball to (mostly wide) areas in the attacking third, Fulham are going to need more variation and creativity from these good positions on the field if they are going to score the goals they need.

Simply banging in record breaking volumes of crosses is not going to work because the one available target (Mitrovic) is going to always be heavily marked and xG modelling tells us that headed crosses by marked players, even ones as good as Mitro, rarely lead to goals.

If space is to be created for Mitro to score goals, then defender’s attention must be diverted to alternative threats: runners breaking into the box from mid-field, high quality shooters on the perimeter of the box and overlapping full backs seeking to cut the ball back from different angles.

Simply put, the existence of a credible plan B, and even a plan C, for getting into shooting position will spread defences and make plan A more effective. This is easier said than done of course, but right now, in my opinion the predictable approach to target Mitro’s head is unlikely to generate enough goals to win games and an urgent change is needed.

2 thoughts on “September: The State of Play (Attack)

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