Despite conceding two goals in the defeat at Old Trafford last weekend, the Gunners still have the best defensive record in the Premier League. Fulham come into this game with the third best goals scored tally. I don’t think many would have anticipated either situation at the start of the season, nor the fact that both teams will be tied on 15 points after 10 games.
Arsenal started the season with a strong defence which seemed to come at the cost of offensive bite. In the last week or so we’ve seen a slight improvement in the attacking efforts but the Gunners are no longer protecting their goal as well as they did earlier. The issue has always been about balance and starting with this game against the Cottagers, we’ll have to see how that evolves.
The visitors have similar issues of their own. After starting the season with a 5-0 win over Norwich, the Cottagers have sustained their attacking impetus and have put 21 goals, in total, past their various League opponents. But they’ve also conceded 16. Only the bottom three and Norwich have let in more. Only Southampton, currently propping the League table, have conceded more goals in away games (18) than Fulham’s 12.
Balance – such a simple word, such a elusive quality to attain and sustain. Put simply, the team that shows better balance will return with the desired result.
Martin Jol has created an excellent ball-playing side that likes to go forward. Berbatov – one of the players that I’ve wished Arsene would sign during the last couple of seasons – has settled in effortlessly and makes the entire attack tick. His movement will a be a constant cause of concern for the Arsenal defenders. Allowing him to get into pockets of space and turning on the ball will be an open invitation to trouble.
Fulham have players who can score from set-pieces or shots from distance if the marking or closing down is lax.
The visitors also have excellent quality on the flanks and they have the players who are comfortable in circulating the ball in search of an opening. The Gunners’ tendency to back off and defend deeper could help the visitors as they can use the width of the pitch to stretch the defence.
In that regard, the midfield battle will be crucial. Arsenal look the most secure at the back when they can dominate possession and push teams deep into their own half. Arteta and Cazorla can play their part but the choice of the third midfielder could be decisive. Arsene doesn’t have many choices with Diaby injured and Wilshere suspended.
At the back, I think Fulham are somewhat fragile but not through the middle. Walcott against Riise and Podolski against Riether could be vital battles. Wenger will have to ensure his players don’t drift into a congested centre where Fulham’s organization and quality will neutralize their threat. That doesn’t mean the wide players should simply stick to their flanks, just that their movement has to be opportunistic and shrewd.
Giroud’s aerial strength might not be that useful against Hangeland and Co. but clever movement can catch the slow-ish defence off guard. The Frenchman has to prove he can be a quality all-round striker and this game should offer a good benchmark at the other end. Berbatov has completed a whopping 81.7 percent of his passes this season while Giroud is below 60 percent. The Bulgarian succeeds with over 78 percent in the opposition half while the Arsenal man barely crosses 50 percent. The Fulham striker also has more than double the passes/minute ratio, which shows he’s more involved and able to influence the game. 22 recoveries – which I assume is some form of regaining possession – by Berbatov compared to 11 by Giroud, despite the Gunner playing a lot more minutes, further illustrates the difference in overall impact. The most telling and tangible difference is in the goals and assists figures. Berbatov has 3 goals and 2 assists or 1 G+A every 99 minutes. Giroud has 1 goal and 1 assist in the League or 1 G+A every 311 minutes. All this despite the former United man’s image as a lazy, often disinterested, player.
The Frenchman’s contribution can make or mar the Gunners’ quest for balance, not just in this game but over the course of the entire season. Of course, it’s his first season in the Premiership and we must not expect overnight miracles but a steady improvement and visible effort (not just hopeful running) will be reassuring. In the Arsenal system, it’s imperative that the striker not only contribute through goals and assists, but also help improve the contribution of his teammates through anticipation, link play in attacking and central third, and by creating and utilizing space.
As far as the starting line-up goes, there are two positions which seem up for grabs. Vermaelen played at left-back against Schalke but I’m not convinced he’ll offer sufficient attacking quality that the Gunners will need in the wide areas against Fulham. Santos could be a weapon in the opposition half but will his positioning leave the team vulnerable in the defensive areas?
In midfield, Arsene will probably have to decide between Coquelin and Ramsey. The Welshman is likely to start if fit but Coquelin might get a game if he doesn’t pass the fitness test.
Mannone – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Santos – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey/Coquelin – Walcott, Giroud, Podolski.
I understand the argument in favour of Vermaelen starting at left-back. But at home Arsenal have to take the initiative and need greater offensive threat from all possible avenues. And frankly, if Santos is not deemed fit to start against Fulham at home then it’s difficult to see a meaningful future for the Brazilian at the Emirates. I think he can be a useful squad player as long as his role is well-defined and clear to him.
At this point, both teams seem to have a fair shot at winning this game. The result will go in favour of the side that is able to dictate the patterns of play to its liking. As always, the presence or absence of unforced, elementary errors will also be decisive.Follow @goonerdesi