Why is Fulham struggling in the Premier League this season?

Fulham’s return to the Premier League last year was one of their best seasons in club history as they finished in the top half of the table – a feat not accomplished since the memorable 2011-12 campaign under Martin Jol.

Marco Silva’s team was dynamic and energetic, whose offensive football was easy on the eye last season. Furthermore, their goal tally of 55 was the highest ever achieved by the club in the Premier League.

Although the team began to show cracks on the tail-end of last season, the atmosphere at Craven Cottage was filled with euphoria for accomplishing a task many fans did not even dream of.

However, the start of the new season has shown that Marco Silva has not yet found all the parts to get his Fulham machine going at the speed it once did.

Worrying underlying numbers

Although Fulham’s results have taken a nose-dive since March this year, their underlying data indicate deeper problems that are causes for concern for the Cottagers.

Analyzing the 10-game rolling average data for expected goals scored and conceded is a handy indicator for discerning a team’s performance, as it helps us understand whether a side is creating more chances than conceded or the opposite – with the former being a positive representation of performance.

The reason for using expected figures is that it provides a better depiction of performance and avoids irregularities if we use goals scored and conceded.

Moreover, goals do not quantify the chances a team generates or concedes, as they only represent the converted figure.

The chart below illustrates the 10-game-rolling average trend of expected goal-scoring chances generated (xG – expected goals) and conceded (xGA – expected goals against) by Fulham since 2022-23.

The trend graph above exposes the reality of Fulham’s performance, which might not be obvious when looking at their final league position last season.

The data suggests that since their return to the first division, Fulham has severely underperformed in most matches – mirrored by the xGA trend line (chances conceded) sitting above the xG curve for most of the period since the beginning of last season.

It is unsustainable and impossible to maintain that margin of underperformance and deliver results, however, Fulham still managed to overachieve significantly.

A reason for this was well-explained by Jon Mackenzie of Tifo IRL, who pointed out how Fulham was a better side against the bottom-half teams in the Premier League but gravely suffered when facing the teams in the top half – this influences the average underlying data remarkably.

Although a few significant variances can influence a team’s average output when taking a small sample size, the data still indicates that Fulham is not as good as many assume they are. So, let us analyze their areas of weakness.

Offensive output has considerably diminished

In Fulham’s scintillating promotion season from the EFL Championship in 2021-22, they scored an impressive 106 goals in 46 matches – averaging at least two goals per game.

Fulham understandably could not replicate the same in the Premier League but still managed an average of 1.5 goals per game in last season’s opening months.

However, since then, their chance creation (xG) and conversion (GF) yield has been on a downtrend, with a spike for a short period toward the end of last season and the beginning of the current campaign.

The origin of the drop-off in goals coincides with injuries and suspensions to their former star striker, Aleksandar Mitrovic, who is no longer at the club after moving to the Saudi Pro League in the summer.

However, it is interesting that Fulham’s creativity numbers have not dipped.

Their current season’s underlying offensive numbers look fairly identical to the previous one, but the glaring differences are in two domains: shot-conversion efficiency and average shot distance.

It brings us back to an earlier point – the absence of Aleksandar Mitrovic.

The Fulham management failed to acquire a suitable replacement as neither their summer signing, Raul Jimenez, nor Carlos Vinicius has shown signs of filling the Serbian sharp-shooter’s boots. Rodrigo Muniz showed potential during his first few appearances for Fulham but sustained a knee injury against Manchester United, which will sideline him for the forthcoming weeks.

Without a like-for-like replacement in the squad for Marco Silva, he will have to find short-term solutions until the January transfer window opens.

Defensive susceptibility is a worry

There are various points of concern for Fulham defensively this season. Although most sides they have faced are in the top half of the Premier League table, they have exposed weaknesses in Marco Silva’s structure.

A reason is that teams have constantly found space between Fulham’s midfield and defensive lines, causing the back line to be vulnerable.

Below are two examples, against Manchester City and Brighton, of goals they have conceded after the attacker executing the final pass found space between the midfield and defensive lines.

Individual errors have also played their part in conceding goals – Armando Broja’s opener for Chelsea at Craven Cottage after Tim Ream’s intercepted pass and the two mistakes in build-up against Spurs away come to mind quickly.

Since frailties are easily exposed against top sides, it can make teams look weaker than they may be. However, if Fulham remains defensively liable against teams they should beat, then concerns will start mounting.

The only area of strength in this department is the goalkeeping performance.

Since his arrival, Bernd Leno has been unassailable between the sticks for Fulham. Last season, he was the second-best performing goalkeeper statistically, and this season, Leno has continued that form and ranks among the top five.

The ‘Post-shot xG-GA’ is a metric used to rank goalkeepers’ performance, which is a reliable measure for identifying the number of goals they prevented their team from conceding.

The coming months will be telling

The coming fixtures for Marco Silva provide some relief after encountering a barrage of strong opponents in the opening three months of the Premier League season. However, the pressure to deliver will steeply ramp up as there will be fewer excuses for the Fulham hierarchy to cling onto.

(‘Fixture Difficulty Rating’ for all Premier League teams in the upcoming fixtures. Source: Fantasy Premier League via Premier League)

There has been no indication regarding any immediate threat to the Portuguese manager’s position at the club. But with cut-throat competition in the league this season, it will be intriguing to see the depth of faith the Fulham hierarchy has in their gaffer.

In the meantime, Marco Silva will have to conjure up the needed components to get his machine back on track, or a new mechanic will have to take over the helm soon.

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