The Contrasting Perception of Fulham and Leeds' Opening Day Defeats

13 September 2020 09:00

Most managers - and grizzled ex-pros-turned-pundit - firmly maintain that the league table is of no significance before Christmas, at the earliest.

However, if you dared to cast an eye over such a chart on Saturday evening, Fulham and Leeds United's record would read exactly the same: one game, one defeat. Yet the outlook for each promoted side wildly differs after 90 minutes of the 2020/21 campaign. At least on the face of things.

At the home of the defending champions, Leeds went blow for blow with Liverpool. Marcelo Bielsa's side were level going into the final knockings before an 88th-minute penalty saw them lose 4-3. A handful of hours beforehand, Fulham succumbed to a limp 3-0 defeat at home to Arsenal - last season's eighth-placed side.

Both Fulham and Leeds enjoyed success in the Championship last season with a healthy helping of possession - although with quite different intensity. Bielsa asserted prior to kick off: "We play every game the same way."

And that is exactly what they did.

Alongside the expected blur of pressing which commenced from the first whistle, Leeds were actually able to lay claim to a larger share of the ball than their hosts. This was the first time Liverpool have had less than 50% possession in any match since November 2019.

Fulham, on the other hand, were barely able to impose themselves upon Arsenal. But perhaps more worryingly, the same weaknesses which dogged their promotion campaign sprung up again on Saturday afternoon.

Scott Parker's side were very slow in transition last term. By the time they'd creaked into an attacking set up, more often than not, they were faced with a defence which has had ample opportunity to organise itself.

Under Mikel Arteta, Arsenal showed themselves to be surprisingly resilient towards the end of the season just gone. Carrying this through to the current campaign, the Gunners' rigid 5-4-1 formation out of possession offered their hosts little in the way of opportunities of any kind, let alone clear cut chances.

The Cottagers carved out just five shots in the match, all but one of which was from outside the box - and the single effort which they did fashion inside the area was blocked.

However, despite the fact that they found the net on three separate occasions, Leeds only had one more shot than Fulham could muster - six in total.

All three of their efforts on target got the better of Alisson but they can hardly be expected to replicate this scoring touch - a conversion rate which flies wildly in the face of last season’s efficiency. Leeds topped the charts in terms of chances created last season but converted less than 9% of the shots they took - the worst finishing rate among the Championship’s top 15 clubs.

After the game Bielsa touched on this inimitable clinical edge, saying: “To be able to score three goals is a positive thing,” as quoted by The Guardian. “We should have created more danger when we attacked. We were very efficient but we didn’t create enough goalscoring opportunities.”

Their finishing may have differed on Saturday but both Fulham and Leeds built their promotion successes on a solid defensive foundation. Yet each manager will have been bitterly disappointed with the goals their sides shipped on the opening day.

Leeds only conceded three penalties in the entirety of the previous Championship campaign but gave away two against Liverpool. The other two efforts came from set pieces and Bielsa was clear in his assessment of the concessions: "A lot of those goals could have been avoided."

Fulham themselves fell foul of a dead ball delivery. Parker described his team as 'a little bit weak' when defending the corner kick Gabriel nodded in Arsenal's second from. Fulham’s last two Premier League campaigns - 2013/14 and 2018/19 - both ended in relegation and saw the Cottagers concede the most top flight goals that term.

Yet while Parker’s possession-based style lacked the pace towards goal, it helped contain the opposition and earned Fulham 17 clean sheets last season - a tally only bettered by, you guessed it, Leeds.

Bielsa's side may have been one lazy, outstretched leg away from a point at Anfield but the gap between the teams was significantly larger than that narrow margin according to the expected goals (xG) for each outfit - Liverpool boasted a total of 3.3 compared to Leeds' 0.6.

By the same metric, Arsenal's return of 1.8 bettered Fulham's measly 0.2, but by a smaller difference than Liverpool's underlying superiority over Leeds.

While the scorelines of these opening fixtures saw Leeds lauded for their front-foot approach (which was admirable) and Fulham tossed aside under the tag of relegation candidates, both were quite comfortably beaten by establish Premier League sides.

That's, of course, not to say that each will fare as well as the other over the course of the season - there is some reason to the sentiment of avoiding conclusions after a single match. Although, the picture should be a fraction clearer after the pair meet next Saturday.

Source: 90min