This game wasn’t that critical from a result point of view so it was good to see Wenger trying something different.
Chamakh started up front with Van Persie in a free role behind him. Nasri was deployed on the left and Ramsey on the right. It was surprising to see Theo on the bench. My guess is that Arsene wanted a good balance between players who could retain possession and move the ball around, and those who are more focussed on creating and scoring. With Walcott in the side the team would have struggled for possession. Some might say that could have worked to our advantage and it’s hard to argue against that conclusively.
Before a minute was up, Fulham had successfully hoofed the ball into the Arsenal defensive third and created half a chance. That particular routine was repeated countless times during the whole game.
Arsenal’s defending was embarrassing at best but I don’t blame the back four. Wilshere is really struggling physically, Diaby wasn’t close enough to the defenders on many occasions, and playing RvP in the hole meant there wasn’t an extra midfielder – this lead to poor cover for the defence and way too many open spaces for the opponents.
The fact that, despite the ease with which Fulham reached the final third, Szczesny wasn’t being tested that often showed that the defenders were working really hard despite the systemic problems.
The first goal for Fulham was a classic Arsenal tragedy of errors.
Ramsey latched on to a loose ball in the center circle. At that point he was the furthest forward and hence had to run sideways to retain possession. Nasri made a good run taking two players with him. Chamakh and Van Persie ran forward down the middle. Rambo attempted a tricky backheel towards Wilshere who just wasn’t alert to the possibility.
Dempsey was able to get on the ball and play it forward for Zamora in acres of space. Djourou played the striker onside by being 5 yards behind all other defenders.
Gibbs did well to charge back and close Zamora down. Vermaelen was jogging back instead of reading the game as the Fulham striker had few options from a tight angle. Sidwell was a couple of yards behind Wilshere but ended up five yards in front of him as the young England international jogged back without realizing the danger. Finally, Szczesny let a tame strike go through his legs.
If Almunia had conceded a goal in that manner people would have claimed even schoolboys would have done better. If Denilson had jogged back the way Wilshere did, he would have been crucified. I don’t have to remind you about the criticism Squillaci received for Villa’s first goal. Why do people think Djourou is any better? Vermaelen again showed he doesn’t read certain defensive situations very well.
Despite all this I don’t really blame the defenders or the midfielders. Blaming individuals is a pointless exercise. Someone else is going to come in and make other mistakes. It is inevitable given the way Arsenal play and will not improve unless there is a major change in training, which can only come with a new coach.
Soon after though, we saw a glimpse of the quality that has gone missing in recent weeks. Diaby beat the Fulham pressing with a neat turn and nimble feet. As he galloped forward with giant strides, Chamakh dropped into space to play a simple but effective one-two. Diaby’s first time through ball was a bit heavy but Van Persie’s touch was excellent. The Dutchman’s finish showed a keen awareness of the Goalkeeper’s technique and the corners of the goal.
Apart from the goal there wasn’t much to cheer in the first half but one piece of attacking play stood out. In the 18th minute, Arsenal moved the ball well with many players getting involved. Wilshere found RvP, his touch took the ball towards Chamakh who played it wide for Nasri. The Frenchman laid it off for Gibbs to cross. The ball was high and went over everyone but I was impressed by the numbers Arsenal had in the box and the fact that Sagna was there at the back to collect it. The Right-Back crossed it back in with his left foot. It looked like a harmless floater when out of nowhere Gibbs attacked it and forced a good save. Both these aspects – someone collecting an over hit cross at the far end and a full-back/winger attacking the back post – are more reminiscent of United than Arsenal. We need a lot more of this in such games. It was a shame this was the only occasion in the game when the Gunners did this.
The second half was very similar to the first. Fulham pushed Arsenal back with ease and the Gunners struggled to get their shape right. Van Persie was booked for complaining as Hangeland got away with a blatant foul. In contrast, Djourou was penalized for a foul when Zamora was grabbing his shirt. Will buying a defender get Arsenal this ability of winning ridiculous decisions from the ref? If so, Wenger should buy half a dozen.
The second goal for Fulham was just as annoying as the first. Hangeland got on the end of a hoof from an Arsenal defender. He was allowed to play a penetrating pass to an unmarked Johnson just outside the Arsenal box. Fulham were able to move the ball across the face of goal with ease before it came to Greening on their left. Sagna didn’t close him well enough, Zamora peeled away from Djourou, Vermaelen couldn’t get in front of the striker in time, and Szczesny was caught in two minds.
Again, how many players do we blame? What’s the point of it all? You could have a big, tall defender but height doesn’t help when the striker moves away from him. You could have a good keeper but if he can’t decide whether to come for the ball or stay on his line he won’t have a chance. Defensive training is a broad term, but Arsenal specifically need to work on balls in the air. Whether it is long balls down the middle or diagonally hit ones, crosses, corners, or free-kicks; everyone in this squad has to do better in terms of maintaining their shape, reading the situation, decision making, and attacking the ball.
Wenger made three changes just after the hour mark. It was surprising to see Wilshere on the pitch even though he is physically struggling, while Diaby was taken off. Walcott came on for Ramsey, Eboue for Gibbs, and Arshavin for Diaby.
The game didn’t change much. Gera received a deserved red card for a dangerous tackle. If all such tackles had led to red cards, Arsenal’s opponents would have been a man down in almost every game. But even with ten men Fulham were able to hold on as the Gunners struggled for ideas and inspiration.
The equalizer was another glimpse of what this Arsenal side can achieve. Vermaelen played a wonderful diagonal ball towards Theo who chested it past the defender and fired home after bursting into the box. Walcott can be lethal when he gets space. Arsenal have to learn to play to his strengths more often. When the ball is given to him after twenty touches there usually are two or three opponents crowding him out. This is another tactic we must develop.
Szczesny: Disappointing again. But as I have said in the past, Goalkeepers will struggle unless Arsenal sort out the systemic defensive issues.
Sagna: Should have done better to block Greening. Put in some delightful crosses. Fairly good on the whole.
Djourou: Very Poor. Bad positioning for the first goal, should have done better for the second, decision making was shaky at best.
Vermaelen: Should have done better for the first goal. Worked hard but tired towards the end. Made a couple of excellent last gasp tackles. Showed his passing range with some passes, especially the for Theo.
Gibbs: Good pace. Good header on goal. Struggled with the ball over the top but he’s not alone in that.
The back five weren’t convincing but they had to do a lot more than their fair share. Wenger could sell all the defenders and goalkeepers at the club and replace them with “proven players”, it won’t change a thing unless the Gunners learn how to defend as a team.
Diaby: Had a couple of great moments. Was instrumental in the first goal. Needs to offer a lot more in front of the defence.
RvP: Wasn’t really playing as a midfielder. Roamed all over the pitch. Work rate was good but didn’t have many options to create.
Wilshere: He looked exhausted but continues to fight. I appreciate his ability to chat up opponents and referees. It can develop into a useful leadership trait.
The midfield should have played much deeper and closer to the defence. This would have reduced the influence of the long balls. It would also have created more space behind the Fulham defence. It would also have given the team an opportunity to better manipulate the tempo of the game.
Ramsey: Didn’t play like a winger. Was more of a working midfielder like Ray Parlour. He has been struggling since his return from that injury. A proper pre-season should help.
Chamakh: Good movement but has to learn to attack the ball better in the box. Should have scored when Schwarzer spilled it (others do it too you know!). Should also have been alert after the Gibbs header. Needs more playing time to develop. Hard work in the summer will help.
Nasri: Won a number of individual battles, often against two or three players. Didn’t have enough options in front of him once he got clear. Still one of his better games in recent times. Good free-kick that forced a save. Good to see him getting into the box more often.
Subs: Walcott scored a beauty. Arshavin struggled. Eboue did a good job in an unfamiliar position.
Wenger: Surprising to see Wilshere in the starting eleven despite his well-documented exhaustion. Starting with Ramsey in the middle and Walcott on the right might have been a lot more effective. It was good to see a genuine attempt at something different. One just has to count the number of times a Fulham player was able to run, with the ball, 20-30 yards towards the Arsenal goal, or the ease with which the ball moved from the attacking third to the defensive third to realize that he needs quality help.