There are stats that could make Fulham’s visit to the Emirates look like a walk in the park for Arsenal. The Cottagers haven’t won away against Arsenal in any competition, losing 22 of the 25 games played. They are currently just 2 points above the relegation zone and have won only 2 of their 12 league games. In six away games, the visitors have scored only 3 goals.
But football isn’t a funny old game for nothing. Any team with players like Dembele, Dempsey, Zamora, and Murphy, among others, has to be taken seriously. Don’t forget Fulham are the only side to take points off of Man City this season.
Tactically, this game should not be very different from the Dortmund one from an attacking point of view. Fulham will probably form their first line of defence around the halfway line and make the game compact in the central areas in their half. I expect the wide players to again play a vital role in creating chances as Ramsey and the other midfielders will not get much time or space.
Offensively, on the break, the Cottagers will not move the ball around as well as the Germans did but will look to get in behind with balls over the top and diagonals for the striker to run on to. Danny Murphy has the skill to make such passes regularly. Zamora can be a big player for the visitors as he can hold the ball under pressure and isn’t afraid of creating shooting angles. In a way the next visitors could prove to be more dangerous than the previous ones as they will move the ball faster and over longer distances due to their relatively direct style. Fulham will also be a bigger threat down the channels and wide areas.
Dembele should be their most creative player on the ball in the attacking areas but I am not convinced Jol has made the best use of his talents. Song will nevertheless have to put in another tireless defensive shift in front of the back four to cut out the through-balls and disguised square passes.
This game presents another tough selection headache for Arsene. Should he rest some of his key players with an eye on the upcoming hectic period or does he start with his first eleven to have the best chance of sustaining this strong run.
There are two ways of looking at it. One could point to the next two midweek fixtures, City at home in the Carling Cup and Olympiacos away in the Champions League with top spot guaranteed, and suggest that the main protagonists of the Arsenal revival can be rested in these games. It’s a fair point and one that might fit Wenger’s modus operandi.
I would however, love to see Le Boss resting two or three main players in this game and then rotate the others over the next few games. Based on my observations over the last few years, I am not convinced Wenger gets the most out of his fringe (second choice) players and hasn’t been very comfortable with rotations. Last season’s debacle of sorts in the Champions League group phase highlighted the issues with wholesale changes. Starting 8 or 9 fringe players in a game does not suit Arsenal’s style as they lack the right level of understanding and focus after a long time on the sidelines.
With that in mind, resting the majority of players against City’s strong second string in the League Cup will not be a wise move unless a poor result is deemed acceptable. Arsenal would be better off playing a few regulars to give the kids a foundation of experience.
Furthermore, involving a couple of fringe players in an important League game is better for their confidence/motivation than introducing someone only when the first choice player in injured or in lower priority Cup ties.
Such rotations though, while interesting in theory, are hard to execute as finding the right balance is nowhere near as easy as writing about it on a blog. A disappointing result in this game followed by another one in the League Cup could undo the momentum generated by weeks of hard work.
I honestly don’t know Wenger is going to do. Most of his past decisions indicate the same side will be retained but every once in a while Arsene does try something different. Hopefully, this will be one of those days and the manager will succeed in resting players; in getting the best out of second choice ones; and consequently, in getting a result.
Injuries or physical state will also be an issue. For instance, Koscielny was reportedly taken off for fatigue in the previous game but it could be more than that.
I’d prefer one rotation in each of the three areas – defence, midfield, and attack. There are countless permutations possible but here are my suggestions,
Preferred starting line-up,
Szczesny – Djourou, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Santos – Song, Frimpong, Ramsey – Walcott, RvP, Arshavin.
Song is on fire and should be able to provide cover for the relatively slower giants on the right. Vermaelen can hold fort with support from Santos and Frimpong on the left. Arshavin could benefit with some minutes alongside the red hot Van Persie.
For the Carling Cup game I’d retain the likes of Djourou, Frimpong, and Arshavin. This will give them some continuity. Koscielny could play in the centre of defence against a strong City attack. Others like AOC, and Park could also come in for that game ensuring a rest for Theo and RvP. Similarly, other changes can be made. This way there won’t be 9-10 changes at once.
There can also be a debate about the players coming in. Many would prefer Benayoun to Arshavin and/or Coquelin to Frimpong. I find it hard to pick one over the other in both cases.
Having said that, I doubt Arsene will make many, if any, changes to the side that beat Dortmund. In that case a solid defensive performance and a momentum-enhancing win will suffice. Other bridges can be crossed when they are reached. Six successive wins in the League will be an achievement in itself.