This wasn’t the kind of game that I wanted to watch at midnight after an immensely enjoyable day with friends and their families who are visiting us for the holidays. And I get no joy in typing this report at quarter past two in the night but writing can also be cathartic at times and that’s just what I am hoping to achieve.
Arsenal blowing away points, while on a good run, in a game that’s there for the taking isn’t at all surprising anymore. Wenger gave the usual “explanation” of “lacking sharpness” citing the midweek battle with Dortmund. It’s a fair explanation but one that isn’t easy to accept when given every few weeks over the course of a few years.
I can understand Wenger’s point. This game should have been won 1-0 despite the tiredness. But the first half was just so soporific. Fulham weren’t really well organized and Arsenal were able to play the ball between the lines with relative ease. But the final pass or the attempted finish were just too lethargic.
I also felt the Gunners made a crucial tactical mistake. In the first half, Djourou rarely, if ever, ventured forward from his temporary right-back role. That in itself was not a problem as the swiss defender isn’t a regular and cannot be expected to run the flank as Sagna or Jenkinson do. But his reluctance to move forward meant Walcott stayed wide all through the game. This left the Gunners a man short in central areas on occasion. Ramsey tried hard but that effort forced errors at vital moments.
It might have been sensible to occasionally shift one of the midfielders, most likely Ramsey, towards the wide areas to free Theo to move inside. Djourou should have tucked in with Mertesacker and Vermaelen could then have moved into midfield alongside Song with Arteta pushing forward to cover areas that Ramsey was getting into. It would have put two relatively slower players in the centre of defence but a more compact attack would have scored against a crowded but rather static Fulham defence that wasn’t able to stop the Gunners from getting in behind as well as some others have.
I don’t want to go over too many events from the game. Arshavin was off-side when he scored early on. That set the pattern for the game. Arsenal were able to find plenty of space around the visitors’ penalty box but either the run, pass, or the finish wasn’t very good. When everything did fall into place, like the intricate move in the 7th minute, Schwarzer made a good save.
After the first 10 minutes the game was tighter but I believe that was more down to Arsenal dropping into second gear rather than a massive improvement from Martin Jol’s side.
It was good to see Fulham trying to build from the back with only the sporadic long ball. Zamora was very strong and prevented Vermaelen from making his usual tackles/interceptions. The visitors were able to get a number of snapshots in all through the half, with Dembele offering the biggest threat.
The second half was similar although it seemed Djourou was given instructions to push up when possible. Arsenal did have a good spell just before the hour mark. Ramsey should have won a foul when Hangeland barged into the Welshman on the edge of the box. Rambo’s sprawling figure inadvertently blocked a pass meant for RvP. The Dutchman then did well to create space for a shot that was cleared off the line a minute or two later.
Vermaelen’s own goal was inexplicable but not entirely surprising. Arsenal defending is not well structured and leads to more freak goals than any other team I have seen. In this particular case a good ball over the top from Murphy found the run of Riise. The Norwegian didn’t really control it well and there was no apparent danger when Vermaelen attempted a clearance that turned into a well placed shot into his own goal. I have no idea what the Belgian was trying. It should have been a routine kick away with the outside of his boot or his right foot. He probably tried to hit the ball away from the goal instead of knocking it for a throw on the right. By mistiming that kick, Vermaelen ended up side-footing it away from Szczesny.
Arsene brought on Gervinho and Diaby in place of Ramsey and Mertesacker. The Gunners played the rest of the game at a tempo that could have put them 2 or 3 up in the first half. But it was desperation stuff against a team that had visibly grown in confidence and were defending deeper and better.
Djourou forced a big save from a corner. Chamakh then came on for Arshavin.
Vermaelen put one in at the right end in the 82nd minute. The assist came from a peach of a cross by Theo who was just superb all through the game.
Arsenal kept searching for the winner but it wasn’t to be.
Szczesny: Made a couple of decent saves. Was a bit hesitant once or twice. Probably never expected the shot from Vermaelen so can’t blame him for the goal.
Djourou: Was strong in the air, made some excellent tackles, very strong defensive game.
Mertesacker: Made a good block, was reading the game well, can’t really fault his effort.
Vermaelen: Showed that just about anyone can make mistakes at the back and look daft. Took his chance well at the other end. Had a fascinating battle with Zamora throughout the game.
Santos: Very, very strong and skillful in individual battles. Got into very exciting positions in attack but the final ball/decision was unusually poor.
It was another sloppy goal to concede but once again it’s hard to blame the back five. I thought Fulham were allowed to get into dangerous positions more frequently than one would want to see. There were patches in the game when the team just slowed down and the pressing without the ball became dismal. The goal came during one such spell.
Song: Excellent tackling with an odd foul thrown in. Was also moving the ball well and got into advanced areas late in the game. Wasn’t able to find the final pass in this game but that’s not his primary role.
Arteta: Wasn’t as effective as he usually is and sprayed a few passed uncharacteristically wide. But still created a few chances, for instance the one that was cleared off the line. Another decent defensive shift.
Ramsey: Apart from a few quality passes and his effort/movement, the Welshman disappointed with his decision making in the final third and the quality of his finishing and passing. The miss after Walcott’s scintillating run was just terrible.
The midfield was good but I thought they weren’t finding the attacking players well enough. Too many balls were being played down the middle to Van Persie even when he had four players around him. They must develop a better understanding with the likes of Arshavin.
Walcott: Outstanding in an otherwise mediocre team effort. Played a number of dangerous passes/crosses. Ran at the defender constantly and was the only one who could have produced the final ball. Deserves the MotM.
RvP: Movement and effort was top notch. Did well while receiving the ball in deeper areas and was constantly looking to create room for the wide players and supply the killer ball. Shooting was below par by his standards apart from the one effort that was cleared off the line.
Arshavin: Had one or two moments when he looked lively and likely to create but the final ball was poor. Didn’t get on the ball often enough. Needs a better understanding with RvP and the midfield.
Subs: Diaby looked strong on the ball but didn’t really know what to do with it in the final third. Gervinho produced an incisive cameo that led to a number of half-chances. Chamakh chased the ball well and showed some good turns but his passing was rusty.
Wenger: His explanation was valid but it’s an all too familiar storyline. Has to get a lot more out of the team. If the manager keeps playing the same starting line-up he cannot really blame fatigue. Squad depth is an issue that has to be addressed.
It’s 20 past 3 now so I will publish this article without giving it a once-over. Apologies for the tired effort but will you really blame me for emulating the team I dearly love.