A win against a team that has proven hard to beat in the last four meetings spread over more than two and a half years is definitely worth cherishing. In some ways this win over the Cottagers showed why Wenger’s team has kept on securing one of the top four spots over the last four seasons despite being written off on a constant basis. The math is simple, Arsenal get results more often than most teams. For instance, top four contenders Everton drew with the Gunners at the Emirates but went to Sunderland and succumbed to a defeat. They didn’t play well and couldn’t get a result.
However, that argument also has an equally valid corollary. The performance against Fulham wasn’t as good as one would expect from a top side against an opponent that was down to 10 men for over 80 minutes. The probabilities work here too, if a team continues to make heavy weather of such games they’ll drop more points than those at the top of the table. A freakish goal, a wrong call by the ref, a moment of brilliance form an opponent, or something else will and do cost Arsenal points over the course of a season in games they should be winning comfortably.
These are two sides of the same coin and fans focusing on only one are simply betraying their own biases.
The game itself was entertaining for a while before it got tense. The goal made it comfortable, which in turn led to some tactical confusion before a very nervy finish.
The opening minutes were evenly contested and it seemed like this was going to be an open game with both sides looking to build from the back. Fulham created a fantastic opening in this period when Manolev burst down the right flank. Arsenal’s covering defending was reactionary and a fraction slow, which allowed the full-back the opportunity to simply knock the ball forward and chase after it. Better and quicker reading of the situation by the defenders would have curtailed this move high up on the left in the Arsenal half.
Nevertheless, Emanuelson made the wrong choice and danger was thwarted.
Over the next seven to eight minutes, it was all Arsenal.
The Gunners had raised the tempo of their passing and were doing an excellent job of moving the ball around. Their positioning higher up the pitch and cohesive pressing made it difficult for the Cottagers and, if the graphic above is accurate, Martin Jol’s side didn’t make a single successful forward pass in the 3-10 minute period!
With a full complement of players on the pitch, Fulham were playing slightly higher up the pitch. Their first line of defence was about 10 yards inside their half while the back four were sitting a few yards behind them. The idea was to prevent Arsenal from getting into central areas in front of the defence by cutting passing channels and pressing the man on the ball at the back. A number of teams have been successful with this against the Gunners this season, as have Fulham in the past, but in this game it felt like they were not completely into it. Maybe it was simply a matter of not being motivated enough.
I’d a feeling Arsenal were going to score because Fulham were too open and the Gunners rampant. It was just a matter of finding the right ball. For instance, Giroud received a pass in front of the defence and almost played Walcott through. Theo was off-side but the spaces, particularly between the lines and behind the back four, were clearly visible.
Then came the first decisive moment of the game. Sidwell lunged into a terrible tackle. I’m not sure if he went in really hard but it was high and dangerous. Some refs might have let him off with a yellow but it’s hard to argue against that Red. The Fulham manager said pretty much the same thing,
Sometimes you hope the referee will book you because it wasn’t intentional, but if you are consistent it is a red card.
The hosts retreated deep into their own half after going down to 10, which is understandable. Their back four was now just on the edge of their box or deeper and the first line of defence was roughly five yards in front. A deep and narrow defence with two banks of four is also something that works against the Gunners, at least on occasion.
For a while it seemed the Cottagers will frustrate Wenger’s side as they were extremely disciplined and made it impossible to play through them down the middle. Arsenal’s wing play is in general weaker than other top teams and they couldn’t really use the width available to them. It’s worth noting that Fulham attempted more crosses than Arsenal despite having less than 30 percent possession.
Even when the ball went wide there were few bodies in the box and Giroud was often isolated against four defenders. I thought the midfielders were really trying hard to stretch the defence with their movement but none of them really joined in the attack and there were no penetrating runs that come to mind.
Of course, in such a case there is no reason to panic early in the game and the players could have been confident that a goal will come if they keep at it. The 10 men would have eventually tired and we usually see more defensive mistakes late in such games. As it was, Arsenal finally made a set-piece count. Ruiz lost his concentration for a moment, Walcott’s delivery was excellent, Koscielny rose to meet it but could only direct it back across the goal. Ultimately, it was Mertesacker’s poaching instincts – I liked the way he continued his run and lost Senderos – that resulted in the goal.
The second half was characterized by the confusion we’ve seen from Arsenal all season. The players weren’t really sure whether they should play out the game or go for more goals. As a result the passing and movement lacked sufficient purpose. In such cases we also see situations where the defenders start dropping deep while some players are chasing the ball high up the pitch. The team does not perform like a unit in sync.
For a while the game meanders along but opponents soon start sensing a chance when the Gunners don’t click together because it counters their biggest strength – their technical superiority.
Fulham grew into the game as it progressed and they got really direct towards the end. The ball spent a lot more time in Arsenal’s defensive third and the hosts were close to getting something. Desperate blocks and interventions from the Gunners were enough to keep Szczesny safe for the most part but we’ve seen plenty of games where Arsenal concede a freakish goal in such circumstances. That’s the point I was making earlier about the gap when compared to the top sides.
The Cottagers must be disappointed they didn’t make the most of their chances but their position in the table is not a fluke. Berbatov showed a tendency to sulk and moan when greater concentration and diligence would have helped. Many of their players, Kacaniklic in particular, showed good qualities on the ball but couldn’t really produce a decisive moment in tight areas.
Neither side created much in the second half.
For the Gunners, Ramsey went closest deep in injury time. Fulham had a couple of free-kicks but little else to register on the charts.
With Spurs winning against City and Chelsea again dropping two late points, Arsenal should be delighted with their three points. All is not well, that much is pretty clear, but the season could still end on a strong positive note if the spirit continues to shine through.
Szczesny: A correct off-side call saved his blushes as he spilled a free-kick into a dangerous area. Had a pretty decent game otherwise but he wasn’t really made to sweat by the hosts.
Sagna: Had a fairly comfortable game defensively till the late Fulham rally. Spent a lot of time high up the pitch but wasn’t able make use of the space out wide. Crossing wasn’t very good but often he lacked targets in the box.
Mertesacker: Scored the winner and produced some crucial interventions in the Arsenal penalty box. Passing was steady and reliable. Gets the MotM vote in my book.
Koscielny: Again he was the busier of the two centre-backs from a defensive point of view. Won a number of vital duels and cleared the danger late in the game. It wasn’t perfect – for instance, late in the game he shanked a clearance straight up in the air in the penalty box; made the wrong choice and slipped in the build-up to the Berbatov chance – but it worked. Picked up a useful assist.
Monreal: Saw a lot more of the ball than Sagna and had a pretty busy defensive game. He too couldn’t really make use of the width available. There were a number of small mistakes that in another game might have been more visible.
I thought the full-backs were too far up the pitch during the first half and contributed to the congestion at times. They might have been better off picking their moments, but this is an approach Wenger seems to prefer. The central defenders made the decisive impact at both ends.
Arteta: Excellent ball circulation and good defensive contribution across the width of the pitch mostly in the central third. I did feel this was a game where a deep-lying playmaker would have been handy and it’s something the Spaniard can do. Don’t know why he’s not asked to stay further back and pick out more penetrating passes.
Rosicky: Another one who saw a lot of the ball but most of it was a fair distance away from goal. I felt he should have been getting closer to Giroud after the red card and making more runs in behind.
Ramsey: Work rate was again superb. Was involved with the play all over the pitch, probably more often than any other player on the pitch. Almost scored at the end. He’s another one who could have either attempted some creative passes from deep or made more runs to join Giroud as he seems the best equipped midfielder when it comes to attacking crosses.
Cazorla: Looked tired and wasn’t able to influence play anywhere near as effectively as he has done for most of the season. It’s unfair to be harsh on the guy but was some way below his own high standards.
The midfield was dynamic but in an ineffective way. There was a lot of movement and sharp passing but it lacked purpose and penetration. They’ll have to find some tweaks as one or two of the remaining games might see teams parking the bus.
Giroud: Saw very little of the ball in the penalty box despite his team dominating possession and territory for most of the game. Arsenal have to learn to use his physical strengths to their advantage when a team drops so deep. The Red Card at the end seemed the right call at first sight but replays showed he slipped while trying a turn. Hopefully, it will be overturned.
Walcott: Movement was disappointing as he didn’t know where to go once the space was cut out. Has to learn to come across the face of the penalty box and use the horizontal space when vertical is in short supply. Good delivery on the set-piece for the goal.
The forwards just weren’t able to get into the game, which really is a failure of the system as a whole. Giroud and Walcott have very different attributes and the Gunners couldn’t use any of their qualities.
Subs: Wilshere had more defensive work to do and barely got into the attacking third. Podolski too came on at a time when the team had lost its impetus. Vermaelen barely had a few moments on the pitch.
Wenger: The ‘psychological problem’ that he talks about has been around for almost the entire season now. IMO it is directly related to indecision and tactical uncertainty in the players’ minds and it’s the manager’s job to guide them. There’s just four games left but this issue could still cause major damage.Follow @goonerdesi