Right Wing: Fulham’s new problem position

Following the closure of the transfer window, it seems Fulham have now strengthened in a number of areas which were previously considered weak-spots (e.g. full-back, centre-back).

One area which has not obviously been strengthened is right-wing, it is a position with no shortage of candidates, but the available players are mostly either those who did not really excel in the Championship (Cavaleiro, Kebano, Kamara, Decordova-Reid) or are playing out of position (Ruben Loftus-Cheek).

This post will look at the publicly available data on Fulham’s forward players to see who shines brightest and therefore lays the best claim to the right-wing position going forward. As usual I will summarise the findings first, and those who wish to do so can dig down into the numbers further down the page.

This should all be caveated with the fact that the sample sizes are small, most of the players considered have played a low number of minutes and their metrics may change with more data.

Summary

In his excellent post on the Athletic (Link), Peter Rutzler correctly noted that Bobby Decordova-Reid has played well at right wing position this season and has brought a goal threat to the position.

Indeed, penalties aside, Decordova-Reid, like Mitrovic, seems to be getting sufficient goal-scoring chances to score in about 1 in 3 games, which is a healthy return. Unlike Mitrovic, Decordova-Reid is achieving this via a small number of good quality chances (whereas Mitro is getting lots and lots of poor quality chances). This suggests he is able to find space in the box which is an important characteristic for Fulham, because this Fulham team has struggled to create good quality scoring chances, despite plenty of actual shots (and crosses).

The eye-test tells us that Decordova-Reid likes to come into the box from his right-wing position and as such, when the ball finds him, he is often in a great scoring position.

The data also highlights the downside of Decordova-Reid. That is his lack of involvement in chance creation, build-up and possession. Indeed, when he is in the team, Fulham become extremely left-side dominant and channel most attacks down the opposite flanks to where Decordova-Reid is.

Notably, Decordova-Reid lags behind other forwards for many attacking metrics like expected assists, key passes, crossing attempts and successes, touches of the ball, successful dribbles, passing progression and dribbling progression.

He also lags behind some of his teammates for defensive measures as well (tackles won, pressures applied, etc).

When it comes to chance creation, none of Fulham’s forwards particularly shine so far this season, but Ademola Lookman tends to have the best numbers in these areas with Ivan Cavaleiro maybe just shading it in the rankings ahead of Neeskens Kebano, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Aboubakar Kamara.

When it comes to defensive stats, Ruben Loftus-Cheek looks like the strongest player for directly winning possession (tackles and interceptions) whereas Ademola Lookman and Neeskens Kebano stand out for their ability to press and generate turnovers of possession. Kamara stands out as well for the wrong reason, his defensive numbers look terrible.

Overall I would tend to agree with those who say that Bobby Decordova-Reid is the best player for the right wing position, no other candidate really brings enough creativity to outweigh the pure goal threat from Decordova-Reid but I do wonder if a tactical change is called for. Decordova-Reid is good on the right wing, but only so far as he doesn’t actually play there and tries to come in centrally to support Mitro. The team’s attack is heavily unbalanced as a result.

Might this suggest that Decordova-Reid should be partnered with Mitrovic from the outset in a front two? Or is it better to keep the current fundamental shape and accept that we wont be attacking much down the right-hand side? These are difficult questions for Scott Parker to consider and the answer is not clear from the data.

I think Ivan Cavaleiro is probably the next best player for the position based on these numbers, but it would also be worth seeing more from Neeskens Kebano as he has produced some decent metrics across all areas (and brings the free-kick threat).

I would also conclude that Kamara does not do enough offensively to justify his apparent weakness out of possession, he might have a role as an impact sub with his pace, but should not be considered a candidate for starting the position.

Approach

In this analysis I am using FBref data as at gameweek 8 of the season (after the West Ham defeat). The goal is to identify the player or players best suited to the right wing/forward position in the Fulham line-up, I am assuming that Ademola Lookman and Aleksandar Mitrovic have the other forward positions locked, but their numbers will be considered as well.

For all metrics I will look at averages per game to adjust for the fact that players have had different levels of gametime.

Goal Scoring

The simplest and most obvious statistic to look at is the candidate player’s output in terms of pure goals.

Here Bobby Decordova-Reid is a clear leader, currently scoring at nearly a goal every other game, and he has achieved this feat without taking any of the three penalties Fulham have won this season. He has also had a goal disallowed (for a foul by Mitrovic) and had a ball cleared off the line in very improbable circumstances (although he should have put the chance beyond doubt). Its only actually two goals scored though, the small sample size having an affect!

A better measure of goal scoring proficiency might be to consider the number of shots a player takes. The chart below showing total shots and shots on target (per game). A surprise lead here for Neeskens Kebano, who has fired off a high volume of shots in his limited appearance time, although is yet to register one on target.

In our reviews of the attack so far (for example here) we have noted that Fulham are taking a lot of shots, the issue has been the quality of those shots and whether the shots taken are likely to lead to goals. With this in mind we can look at the numbers for expected goals per game (below). Notable here is the high Expected Goals per game figures for Mitrovic, although its worth noting that a lot of that Mitro xG comes from the two penalties he has taken. Ademola Lookman also features highly in this metric.

Again Bobby Decordova-Reid makes up the ‘best of the rest’ generating roughly one expected goal every three games (so he is outperforming his xG so far this season).

The two leaders in the xG chart above have benefited from taking penalties, so in the chart below, we remove the impact of spotkicks and look only at non-penalty expected goals (npxG). The picture changes somewhat and it now looks like Decordova-Reid and Mitrovic are both generated expected goals at about the same rate, and both would be expected to score roughly every 3 games. Lookman drops to fourth on this measure, behind Neeskens Kebano.

As mentioned above, a key issue this season for Fulham in attack has been the low-quality of chances created. We can measure this with the expected goals generated per shot. As a team Fulham average around 0.08 expected goals per shot, meaning you would expect them to need around 12.5 shots in order to be likely to score a goal. This is one of the lowest shot quality ratings in the premier league.

The chart below looks at this measure for individual players. Mitrovic is generating just under 0.1 xG per shot, but the clear leader here is Bobby Decordova-Reid. His chance quality is very good, which suggests he might not be shooting with the frequency of Mitro, but he is fashioning good/clear goal scoring chances.

Aboubakar Kamara also does well here, but his stats are heavily influenced by a single big chance, away at Wolves (which he fired straight at the goalie).

In summary then, it seems that for simple goal scoring potential, Bobby Decordova-Reid is a stand-out performer. He is creating good quality chances and is finishing them at a rate higher than one would expect for an average player.

At the other end of the spectrum, I would note that Ivan Cavaleiro is not getting goal-scoring chances at all, shooting infrequently and even then, only from very low quality positions.

Goal Creation

Being a winger is about more than just banging in goals though, so we should think about the attacking service provided for teammates, which of these players creates the most, and best chances for others?

The simplest measure is probably to look at assists, and the story here is not good for our forward players, only Aleksandar Mitrovic has any assists at all, the two he got against West Brom.

A better measure would be expected assists, where we see that Mitro remains the main source of expected assists, but that Ivan Cavaliero is following fairly close behind with Lookman and Kamara also close. The figures shown though are low, around 0.13 for Mitrovic and lower for the others, Mitro, Cav and Lookman rank 50th, 64th and 73rd in the league, respectively for expected assists. Note that Bobby Decordova-Reid hardly registers at all in this metric.

So when it comes to Expected Assists, Ivan Cavaleiro looks to be a reasonable creative option (although, as mentioned, none of these numbers are particularly strong).

A similar measure for creativity is Key Passes, that is passes that lead to a shot being taken. And this tell a similar story to the xA stat above, with Cavaleiro joining Lookman at the top of the Fulham rankings.

One other factor I want to call out here relates to crossing, Kamara, Kebano and Cavaleiro are the forwards slinging crosses into the box with decent volume as shown below,

, but we can also see that these crosses are not, typically, proving successful, indeed not one of our forward players is completing a significant number of crosses per game (so they are sending in low quality crosses which are not finding Fulham players). This contrasts with Fulham’s fullbacks who are having much more success in this metric.

So when it comes to chance creation, there is not a lot to write home about in this group of players, Ivan Cavaleiro perhaps stands out as the person creating the most chances (outside of Lookman / Mitro).

Ball Possession

Aside from pure goal scoring and chance creation, I also want to look at the contribution these players make to Fulham advancing down the pitch and getting into good positions. This is something the team has done quite well this year, so it is worth seeing which of the forward players are important here.

One of the first measures I am interested in is the simple number of touches, a measure of how involved each player is in Fulham’s attacking play. Touches (per game) are shown in the chart below.

It is fairly consistent across the players, Ruben Loftus Cheek is the most involved, however, arguably he is more of a natural midfield player than a forward anyway. Mitro lags behind as one might expect as a target man/striker and Bobby Decordova is also lagging the others slightly, reflecting the suggestion above that he plays his right wing position as more of a centre-forward partner to Mitro anyway.

If we think about where the players are getting these touches, we can consider the charts below, the first shows touches in the attacking third of the field,

, here we see Cavaleiro and Loftus-Cheek drop back in the rankings, reflecting perhaps that their involvement tends to be in deeper positions.

If we look at touches in the opponents penalty box, we, unsurprisingly, see Mitrovic, Lookman and Bobby Decordova-Reid with the strongest numbers, a reflection of their xG stats above.

Another statistic I wanted to look at is ‘Progressive Passing Yards’ this measure the distance (in yards) advanced towards the opponents goal through passing. This is a good measure of which of these players is helping advance the team down the field. Here Ruben Loftus-Cheek dominates, and am slightly surprised to find Cavaleiro more in the middle of the pack.

On a similar note, the chart below shows yards advanced towards the opponents goal via dribbling. All these players actually dribble towards goal more than they advance by passing, perhaps reflecting that they tend to be the most advanced players (so limited opportunity to pass forward).

Worth noting that Mitro and Decordova-Reid are lagging behind the pack here.

The last measure I will look at is successful dribbles, a measure of the number of times a player advances the ball by beating a defender with the ball.

Unsurprisingly, Ademola Lookman is a standout performer here, with Kebano and Cavaleiro the pick of the rest.

From looking at this set of data, the main comment I would have is that there are a number of forward / wing players who seem to make a pretty even contribution to ball progression, there is not a lot to chose between Cavaleiro, Kamara and Kebano when it comes to being Fulham’s best winger (after Lookman) for advancing possession.

However, Bobby Decordova-Reid lags behind in many of these metrics, again supporting the suggestion that, while Decordova-Reid is effective in getting decent goal scoring opportunities, he is not contributing much to the build up. A further observation supporting this comes from Whoscored.com where it is noted that, the the games where Decordova-Reid has started at right wing, the majority of Fulham attacks have been down the left (for example the split below from the game against West Ham).

Defensive Actions

A Fulham winger has a big and important job to do defensively, pressing to win the ball back high up the field when we lose possession and forming part of the first line of defence when out of possession. This is a difficult attribute to measure, but I will show some of the numbers I have access to that help identify which of our forward players stand out in this measure.

The first stat I will look at is the number of tackles made per game and this is shown below:

Ruben Loftus-Cheek is the clear outstanding performer here with Lookman and Cavaleiro also contributing well. Kamara stands out as lagging in this measure.

I also looked at interceptions made and again Loftus-Cheek is the standout performer and it is noted that neither Mitrovic or Kebano has actually made an interception this season.

The next measure looks at the number of times, per game, a player puts pressure on the opponent leading to a change of possession. This is useful when considering the effectiveness of these players in the press. Ademola Lookman stands out here along with Neeskens Kebano. Kamara again the least effective.

A better way to consider how effective these players are in pressing is the percentage of times their pressure leads to a change of possession, Lookman clearly dominates here and again Kamara lags behind.

To summarise the defensive data, I think the key observations are that Loftus-Cheek has some good numbers for winning the ball back directly (tackles and interceptions) but when it comes to applying pressure out of possession, Ademola Lookman and Neeskens Kebano stand out. Aboubakar Kamara is fairly consistently the least effective defensive player among the group (as evidenced by his clumsy red card against Crystal Palace).

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