Andrew from fellow SB Nation site Cottagers Confidential gives us the Fulham view ahead of Saturday’s first leg with Reading at Craven Cottage.
How would you sum up Fulham’s season?
On one hand this season has gone about as well as we could hope. Before the season we predicted that Fulham would be a solid top ten team that could make the playoffs if everything broke right. Instead Fulham played closer to the top two than they did to the team in 7th. With a little better luck (Fulham missed more penalties than most teams have even attempted), Fulham could already be promoted. So it depends on how you look at things. Either they overperformed expectations and this season is a success, or the results underperformed the underlying statistics and it is a little disappointing.
The media and bookmakers seem to have loved you throughout the season, what's behind the hype?
Fulham led the league in shots, goals, pass success, possession, key passes, and shots in the penalty area. Fulham have seven players in the top ten of pass completion. Nine guys have scored at least five goals. Five guys have at least five assists. They were the best offense by expected goals and ended the season with a +28 GD. In games decided by more than one goal they were 14-3 with a +27 GD. So if there is one team that might take a big lead into the second leg of their semi-final, it would probably be Fulham. Unlike in previous seasons this team isn't a defensive nightmare either. Only three teams allowed fewer shots per game. Fulham didn't allow a single counter attack goal all season. They gave up the fewest goals on set pieces. No matter how you look at things, Fulham is really good.
You seem to have made the top six without too many big names, who've been the stand out performers?
If there is one player who has been the key for Fulham, it's probably Tom Cairney. He led the league in passes per game and pass completion. He was top 10 in shots, scored 12 goals, led the league in key passes, and was tied for second in assists. I'm not sure what else you would want your main creative force to do.
What have you made of Reading this season?
Reading has been the most confusing team this season. By expected goals, you should be battling for relegation. Your goal differential isn't good. Your defense has given up a ton of goals, and you could still argue that they should have given up more. No team has won promotion with a goal differential as bad as you have or having given up as many goals as you have, and you're trying to do both at one time. It was so hard to wrap my head around, I did a deep dive into searching for answers. What we've discovered is that the things that set Reading apart are their ability to win when they score first. They went 25-1-1 in games where they scored the first goal. It's probably not sustainable to win those games at they high of a rate, but it does explain some of the reason expected goals and shot ratios don't favor Reading, as you spend a lot of time defending leads. Combining this with the fact that you overperformed in close games, and underperformed in games decided by multiple goals, at least gives us some understanding of how you got to where you did.
Score prediction for the two legs?
I think Fulham win 3-1 at home and battle for a 1-1 draw at Madejski. Fulham vastly outperformed Reading at Craven Cottage this year and the game at Reading was basically even and only wasn't a draw due to a late missed penalty by Fulham. I think Reading will struggle when they come up against a team that has a similar possession based style, that simply is better at that style than they are.
Who are you tipping to win through and earn promotion?
6) I hate saying it, because it feel like a jinx, but I think Fulham are the favourites. If the regular season involved just the four teams in the playoffs, Fulham would have been 4-1-1 with a +13 GD. Reading would have been 4-0-2 with a -1 GD. Sheffield Wednesday would have been 2-1-3 with a -1 GD. Huddersfield would have been 1-0-5 with a -11 GD. When Fulham struggled this year, it tended to be against teams in the lower half of the table. To illustrate this, if the playoff teams had only played against the top 6 teams, here are the results:
Reading 4-2-4 -7 GD
Sheffield Wednesday 4-1-5 -1 GD
Huddersfield Town 3-0-7 -11 GD
Fulham FC 6-1-3 +14 GD
Where Fulham have struggled is against the teams at the bottom. Lets show the same table, but against the bottom 6.
Reading 10-1-1 +16 GD
Sheffield Wednesday 9-1-2 +9 GD
Huddersfield Town 5-3-4 -1 GD
Fulham FC 6-4-2 +5 GD
Fulham isn't the worst against the bottom six, but they dropped the second most points and their GD isn't as good as it should be. Thankfully for Fulham though, the bad teams aren't in the playoffs.