There’s no better way to leave the interminable international break behind than with an incredibly exciting Manchester City fixture. As an American, Fulham have always held a place in my heart as the club of Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey, and (to a much lesser extent) Carlos Bocanegra.
But more than that, the current incarnation of Fulham have a genuine buzz about them. Only Arsenal games feature more shots and shots on target, they have exciting young talents like Ryan Sessegnon, and they picked up a genuine star in Jean-Michel Seri in the transfer window. In short, get ready for some fireworks.
As with Wolves, Fulham aren’t your typical newly promoted side. Rather than playing defensively and seeking to counter-attack, they use possession to get their shot attempts and are even averaging a greater share of the ball than Spurs, United, or Arsenal thus far this season (albeit having endured a light schedule to date).
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Fulham Usage Rates (minimum 180 minutes)
Fulham’s 4-3-3 formation with Alexander Mitrovic (the embodiment of the phrase “wild card” who is currently leading the league in expected goals and featured in Twelve’s team of week three) up front with two of Andre Schurrle, Vietto, and Sessegnon cutting in from the wing can cause problems for any team. With such a narrow front trio though, the width is largely provided by the fullbacks, who in the first four games have continuously pushed high up the pitch.
That has largely been the downfall of the system, as teams have been able to counterattack with ease once the ball is lost. This was perhaps most evident in the Crystal Palace game, where despite having 66% of the possession and 60% of the shots, Fulham somehow accumulated a lower xG tally than their opponents. It’s not a one-off either with Brighton, Tottenham and Burnley all capitalizing on Fulham turnovers as well.
As a result, I think this would be a great game for the reintroduction of Leroy Sané to the side. Last season’s golden boy had a rough summer with his exclusion from the German national team, which has only been compounded by his failure to get a start in City’s first four games of the 2018/19 season.
However, it’s worth remembering he played infrequently at the start of last season as well and I don’t see any reason to think he isn’t still part of Pep’s plans. It should also be noted that on a per-minute basis, Twelve’s algorithm backs him as City’s best performer this season, though that is in a tiny sample of minutes.
If there’s any City player who can exploit the space behind Fulham’s fullbacks, it’s the pacey Sané. With Riyad Mahrez not off to the best start and Bernardo often required to fill in De Bruyne’s role, it should be Sané’s time to shine. Though the fit of Mendy and Sané is a bit awkward, as both tend to occupy the far wide space, Mendy showed against Arsenal that he can operate further infield and still be very effective.
Here’s hoping that Fulham won’t retreat from their swashbuckling start to the season and we see an entertaining encounter. I think Fulham can genuinely cause City a few problems in defense. Both Anguissa and Seri in midfield can handle City’s pressure, Vietto has had a very promising start to the season as a creator, and Mitrovic has been on fire.
That said, Cairney being out is a big blow for Fulham (leading their attack score as a CM) and their defensive frailties should be exploitable. I think it will be hard for them to switch naturally into the compact shape in the manner of Wolves or Newcastle. If City can get the attack firing on all cylinders, perhaps with Sané leading the way, this game should be an excellent way to welcome the Premier League back. I’m expecting goals, so I’d take Aguero, Sterling, and Mitrovic as my picks for those most likely to provide them.