Fulham’s Defensive Woes
“Wow, what the f*** is this?” said Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic, according to the Telegraph, after watching footage of Bournemouth battering his side 3–0. Fulham, now probably at their lowest point so far this season after a 1–0 loss to Huddersfield Town in an important fixture in the relegation battle, have some work to do to stay in this division.
A lot of people, myself included, thought the newly-promoted Fulham would do pretty well in this Premier League season: the London side did a lot of things in this summer transfer window to look to secure their stay in the Premier League.
They signed Aleksandar Mitrović on a permanent deal after a successful loan spell, kept key players Tom Cairney and more notably the 18-year-old Ryan Sessegnon at the club and loaned in Sergio Rico, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Luciano Vietto, Andre Schürrle, and Calum Chambers. They bought Alfie Mawson, Joe Bryan, Fabri, Maxime Le Marchand, promising midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and, most excitingly, the Ivory Coast midfielder Jean Michael Seri, who was linked with a bunch of patrician European clubs and nearly joined Barcelona last summer. All this cost around €109 million. Fulham’s transfer window was the second-most expensive in the league with a net spend of negative €104.5 million.
And here we are in November 2018 with Fulham in last place, behind 19th-placed Cardiff on goal difference. The underlying numbers tell a similar story, with FiveThirtyEight’s expected goals (xG) numbers having them second-last in the league in xG difference. This all comes with Fulham having the 7th-best possession and passes in the league, which means there’ll be some attributing the results to their possession-heavy style.
Let’s break the results down into goals scored and conceded. Here’s the bad stuff: Fulham have conceded the most goals in the league with 29 (2.63 per game). Fulham’s attack’s been doing better, with 11 goals scored (1 per game, 15th-best in the league), but they’re overly reliant on two players — Mitrović and Schürrle — who’ve scored 9 together. And Mitro, who was boomin’ (pun intended, obviously) earlier this season, hasn’t scored in his past five Premier League games.
However, the good-ish news is that the bottom seven of the Premier League are all around the same level. Just three points separate the 20th-placed Fulham from the 14th-placed Crystal Palace. So-called ‘relegation six-pointers’ like the games they played against Huddersfield and Cardiff could end up contributing to a lot.
Alright then, what’s going on at the back for Fulham?
First off, let’s talk about intent. Fulham, just like in the Championship, clearly press high. For example, look at them pressing Arsenal’s build-up in their 5–1 loss to the Gunners, with this particular piece of pressing resulting in a shot for Fulham:
They packed the middle of the pitch against City and tried to restrict the defenders and Fernandinho from passing to Bernardo Silva and David Silva frequently. Of course, this didn’t stop City, who found it easy to get the ball to the wingers, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane, and attack the wide areas and the channels between the wing-backs and the wide center-backs, ending in an easy 3–0 win for Pep Guardiola’s men.
However, with all their actual pressing, the outcomes indicate that their press hasn’t been all that effective. They have conceded 12.3 passes per defensive action in the opposition half (which is around the league average), and only 9.75% of their total possession regains come in their attacking third (the opposition’s defensive third), which is the third-lowest in the league. And 49% of their possession regains come in their own defensive third, which means most of their actual defensive work comes in advanced areas, but they only manage to win it deep into their own half.
While Schürrle, Mitrović, Sessegnon and Vietto are very good at applying pressure upfront, most of the pressing is unorganized and devoid of cohesion. And when the initial press is broken, teams find it easy to advance into Fulham’s half. But this is something that can be improved over a period of time, and they clearly have the attackers and midfielders to apply an effective high press. Plus, with the sudden influx of starting eleven players, it’s hard to find harmony right away, so time and more training sessions could go some way into fixing their pressing problems.
Now where do the attacks they concede come from? Maybe more than most other teams, Fulham’s issues in passing also contribute to a lot of their defensive problems. Many of the dangerous attacks they concede spring from counter-attacks.
Not only are these counter-attacks from actual Fulham attacks where the ball goes into more advanced areas in the opposition half, but they also often come from a bad pass or a dispossession in Fulham’s own defensive third, when Fulham try to build up play out of their half. For example, look at how Maxime Le Marchand’s inaccurate pass leads to Jeff Hendrick’s equaliser for Burnley in Fulham’s 4–2 victory over the Clarets:
More often than not, the central defenders play the wrong pass, playing the ball into a high-pressure zone. The build-up lacks structure and organization at times; there usually aren’t enough passing options for the defensive line. While this is a big, big issue, it could be solved with a little more continuity in the team selection in defense. Jokanovic has used a different backline in every game. A more stable defensive line could lead to better passing and communication (as well as better defending in general).
Another concern is the distance between the defensive line and the midfielders without the ball. I feel that they’re easy to complete passes against. Arsenal, for instance, exploited this by playing lofted balls over the midfield to Alexandre Lacazette and Danny Welbeck. After winning the second ball, Arsenal found it pretty easy to move into dangerous areas and shoot. Here’s an example of it, ending in Lacazette scoring.
Vertical passes through the midfield line were fairly common too, and one of them resulted in a goal for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
In general, they’re easy to complete dangerous passes against. Only Cardiff and Burnley have allowed more completed passes within 20 yards from their own goal. In my opinion, they’ll need to be better organized at the back (yes, I realize that this is a generic take) and try and be more impermeable close to their own goal.
Is using a back three a solution? While this intuitively makes sense with Fulham’s attacking full-backs, for me it looks like they often had issues when opposition attackers got into the channels between the wide center-backs and the wing-backs. Against Arsenal, these zones were largely occupied by Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Moreover, it seems that they often found themselves overrun in midfield. Four at the back and three in midfield also makes sense for me with their high-quality players in midfield.
While I have no idea about the manager’s instructions and what goes on in training sessions and I can’t say anything with confidence, here are a few vanilla adjustments that I feel could make their defensive record a little better.
1. Try to use more of Calum Chambers and/or Alfie Mawson in central defense. Mawson hasn’t got too much playing time so far due to injury, but now he and Chambers could feature a little more. Both of them are good defensively and comparatively better on the ball, which can make Fulham better both offensively and defensively (if they can decrease the amount of misplaced passes and hence decrease the number of attacks they have to deal with).
2. Use Le Marchand at left-back and have both full-backs more narrow and deep in possession. Le Marchand can play at left-back, and I think they’ll be better of having a more defensive player there and having him narrow in possession because they’re likely to be less vulnerable right after losing the ball.
3. Have less distance between the midfield and defensive lines without the ball. This can prevent a lot of dangerous passes and decrease the workload on the backline.
4. Stick with the back four. Preferably with the same group of players. Again, I think the channels being exploited could potentially take the added value created by the extra center-back out of the game and you could use that extra player elsewhere. The 4–3–3 is an option, but a 4–2–3–1 with Cairney in front of Seri and Anguissa could hypothetically work too.
5. Try to keep the ball well in the defensive half and keep a lot of possession as a defensive tactic. I’m not so sure about this because as we established earlier, Fulham give it away in their own half a lot, and the Premier League is increasingly becoming a league where more and more teams press the opposition high, with most of the big teams, Everton, and even Cardiff and Huddersfield looking to close down passing in advanced areas.
All of these observations and quick fixes are just small stuff and don’t convey the whole story and are all with no knowledge of the manager’s instructions, and these changes can go only some way into solving their dire issues at the back.
A little bit about the attack
Fulham as we established earlier are a possession-based side. They’re also a high-shot volume side; they take 12.6 shots per game, which is the 9th-highest in the league. Which is pretty high for a team that scores just one goal per game.
As for why they’re bad in attack, I’m not certain why. They could pass it around more in dangerous areas more: they’ve only completed 46 passes in the final 20 yards, which is the fourth-lowest and surprising for a possession-heavy team with good passers. They might be able to improve their shot quality — even though these shots may also serve as a better way to lose possession safely — and in general, there seems to be a missing link between middle third passing and high-quality shooting. According to FiveThirtyEight’s model, their non-shots xG is relatively better than their conventional shots-based xG (their negative difference between shots and non-shots xG is 1.65, third-highest in the league). This means they often progress it into good areas without managing to get a shot off.
Again, I know nothing about what goes on in the dressing rooms and on the training pitch, so I don’t have any opinion on whether Jokanovic should go or not. However, with Fulham playing Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester United soon, Fulham have a very difficult run of fixtures now and will probably end up changing their manager. The usual relegation-stoppers — Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew, and David Moyes — are all available. Nevertheless, I’d rather appoint someone who can use Fulham’s excellent technical quality in midfield (Fulham evidently signed players with a clear tactical philosophy in place) in addition to improving things at the back. Quique Sanchez Flores, anyone?
With their players’ quality, I’m rooting for Fulham to stay for longer in the Premier League. They’re also a club with some money and, looking from the outside, a good recruitment process. The London club will have to do really well to stay up, but that’s the outcome I’d assume most people would want.
PS: How can they do well against Southampton?
Fulham’s game against Southampton will be another crucial game in the relegation battle, and it’s also a game that Fulham have a chance of winning.
So let’s start with who they can press in the final third to win the ball back and maybe attack. In their own defensive third, the two Southampton players with the lowest pass completion rates are full-backs Cedric Soares (56.1%) and Ryan Bertrand (58.5%). So Fulham could, in theory, look to press these two and cut off central passing lanes when they have the ball (and Soares and Bertrand complete 4.34 and 3.45 passes p90 in that zone, so those percentages aren’t a result of a small sample). As for dispossessions p90, central mids Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Mario Lemina lose it in the defensive third the most, with 0.38 and 0.37 respectively, followed by defender Wesley Hoedt with 0.36 p90. These three together also complete 0.8 take-ons p90 combined. So when any one of these three have the ball, pressing the player in question wouldn’t be a bad idea.
In attack, Højbjerg gets the most of the ball with 72.1 attempted passes p90. He’s also the second-highest shot creator from open play passes (excluding crosses) with 1 p90 — so trying to restrict passing connections to him would be key in both the middle third and the attacking third. When the ball gets out wide to the right midfielder Mohamed Elyounoussi, he’s likely to put it into the box for a cross. He’s not only Southampton’s top chance creator with 2.1 open play shot assists p90, but 1.4 of these 2.1 are from crosses. And in general, Danny Ings also contributes to a decent amount in chance creation with 1.5 non-cross open play shot assists p90. Preventing him from getting too much of the ball is also key.
When out of possession, Southampton are easy to complete passes in dangerous areas against with 102 passes in the final 20 yards conceded, 4th-highest in the league. Another issue for them is that 70% of the shots they concede come from inside the box (2nd-highest in the league), so Fulham could try and penetrate the defense with some passing.
Another big hole in Southampton’s defense that Fulham could exploit is their relatively bad set piece defending — Southampton have conceded 5 from set pieces, which is the second-highest in the league. With some good work in training, Fulham could maximize corners and free-kicks to score a goal and win.