Sometimes there are games where both teams play well but one side has some special qualities that prove decisive in a manner that the score seems one-sided. Arsenal’s 3-1 win at Craven Cottage could fall into that category.
I thought Fulham performed admirably without having enough quality in the final third. They attempted 477 passes with 87 percent accuracy (same as Arsenal’s). The hosts created 16 chances with 7 shots on target. The difference in possession was marginal and they were as good or better than the Gunners on almost all stats that measure defensive performance.
But the visitors were the better side. They had that quality in the attacking third of the pitch that made all the difference. The quality of chances that Arsenal created was much better as was their finishing.
I also thought Fulham might have underestimated the Gunners a wee bit. They were a bit too gung-ho from a tactical point of view as they often attempted pressing higher up the pitch. Unfortunately for them, Martin Jol’s side showed the kind of weakness that Arsenal have displayed in the past – they lacked cohesion when pressing.
Arsenal’s first goal had a bit of fortune about it when Ramsey dragged his shot (once again!). It fell kindly to Giroud who should get credit for being ready and reacting quickly, calmly, and precisely. But it was the second goal that showed Fulham’s weakness. The Gunners strung together 16 passes in the build up to Walcott’s shot with around 30 seconds of possession. It started wide on the right from a free kick, went all the way back to Szczesny, came up the left to Podolski, then went back to Mertesacker, before Podolski’s horizontal movement opened the angle up.
Fulham were pressing but it was reactive and uncoordinated. The technical qualities of the Gunners, their patience, and composure all contributed to this attack. But thinking from Martin Jol’s point of view, this was way too easy for the Gunners.
Normally, Fulham either set up just inside their own half or they really push up as a unit and press the ball in the central third of the pitch. In this game the gap between their forwards and the defence was too large on numerous occasions. It made Arsenal’s job easier and some of their one touch passing was a joy to watch.
With a makeshift backline in place and no real defensive minded midfielder on the pitch, there was always a doubt about Arsenal’s ability to get a clean sheet. But again, Wenger and his players deserve credit for their defensive tactics and work rate. After the game Arsene said,
I changed the shape of our team today because I rested Jack. We played with four defenders and six offensive players so we had to make it tighter with numbers…
The key aspect, to my mind, was their ability to keep bodies in vital central areas inside and just in front of the box. The central part of the pitch in front of the box is often the creative hub, particularly for high quality chances. Look at the chances created by both sides from open play.
The Gunners have created most, if not all, their chances from that zone just in front of the penalty box or inside the box. Fulham have created chances from wide areas and when they did get close to the box the chances they created were often from passes that were sideways or going back (away from goal).
In fact, if we look at shot taken by both sides we see that Fulham only managed 4 shots from inside the box and these came from only 2 moments of penetration. There was that double save by Szczesny in the first half and then the Berbatov shot followed by Bent tap in. In contrast, the Gunners had plenty of shots from inside the box in good areas.
When we note that Fulham’s shots from inside the box were moments of genuine concern, the benefits of minimizing such opportunities becomes obvious. It wasn’t about one or two players doing a great job defensively or one DM sitting in front of the back four. This was a collective effort and, as Wenger said, a game of numbers. Arsenal compressed the space between the lines and got tight to players in key areas. Fulham didn’t have the one-touch passing and mutual understanding needed to break such a defensive approach.
Look at the black box in front of the Arsenal penalty area. There’s hardly anything played into that zone. It’s worth noting that fewer passes have been played there instead of many unsuccessful ones. This means the Gunners forced Fulham wide by having players in that area thus discouraging passes into that zone.
After forcing Fulham wide Arsenal did an excellent job of attacking crosses and the defenders deserve credit for this (although some blame must also fall on the hosts’ inability to get their act together on this front). Only 1 of Fulham’s 19 crosses was successful and that too because it was picked up by a teammate near the corner flag on the far side.
Having numbers in the right areas gave Arsenal defensive stability and assurance. The back four weren’t forced into hoofing the ball up the pitch to thwart danger. This stability also helped the team going forward. For instance, the third goal came from a controlled long pass by Mertesacker after he recovered possession inside Arsenal’s penalty box. Despite Fulham having numerous bodies forward and Arsenal having all 11 players well in their own half, Mertesacker was able to pick up that ball without much pressure thanks to the team’s shape. It allowed him that little bit of time to play the pass instead of forcing him into a desperate clearance.
Such a defensive approach also countered the skills of Berbatov as he had very little room to work with. Either he just didn’t have time and space on the ball to do something effective, or his touches and flicks went to a player who was offside, or the Gunners were first to his attempted through-balls or clever passes.
Arsenal’s back line was excellent for most of the game. They did slip up once when Sagna and Jenkinson were deeper than Mertesacker, playing Berbatov onside. The Bulgarian made the most of that half a second he got as he turned and shot forcing a save that only delayed the goal by a few seconds. If anything, it just showed how good a job Arsenal did of keeping him quiet.
At this point it’s worth noting that Riether’s pass to Berbatov is not recorded as a cross by Opta. This is where the technicality of stats (angle of pass perhaps?) gets complicated as it would look like a cross to many casual observers.
This article might give the impression that the Gunners were superb defensively. So I have to clearly state that that’s not really the point. The key is to understand how the team improves by making some adjustments and how results are achieved when the players and the manager get it right from a tactical point of view. This was not the kind of performance I’d want to see against a big team that can sustain pressure over a long period of time and has many players who can produce something out of nothing. But this was exactly the kind of performance that gets three points in the kind of games a club like Arsenal should be winning irrespective or transfers and player availability.
Szczesny: Spilled Taarabt’s shot but did well to make the second save. Could only parry Berbatov’s instinctive strike into Bent’s path but it would be harsh to blame him for the goal. On the whole I thought it was a decent game from the Pole as he came for the ball when he had to, made the right choices, and didn’t make any major errors.
Jenkinson: Very busy game for the youngster but I thought Fulham didn’t test him as much as they could have, which is to say Taarabt wasn’t in the game as often as Jol would have liked. Was lucky to escape a yellow card early in the game. At the end of the game I did feel this was better from Jenkinson than I’ve seen in some recent games.
Sagna: Good presence in and around the box, kept things simple, and provided good covering pace on the occasion or two when it was needed.
Mertesacker: Played his part in the build up to the second and third goals with two useful vertical passes. Another player with excellent presence in the vital defensive areas. Should probably have been tighter on Berbatov instead of trying to play offside.
Gibbs: He too had a busy game, more so because Fulham played down his flank a lot more often. Wasn’t as efficient as other defenders with his passing but he was also a bit more ambitious.
The back five had a pretty good game and made the most of the support they received from the other outfielders. Arsenal were safe for the most part and it was good enough for a comfortable win.
Ramsey: Was everywhere, again! Exceptional energy and excellent all-round performance. Should probably get the assist for the first goal. I liked the way he stayed in good areas around the central defenders for large durations and chose his moments to advance carefully.
Cazorla: Excellent at keeping the ball and moving it in all directions. Was involved with almost everything Arsenal did going forward. Didn’t win any of his 6 tackles and only 2 of his 5 dribbles, which confirms he’s still not at his best.
Rosicky: Another player who was there all over the pitch without really being noticeable. Played for the team without trying anything too spectacular and thus contributed to the balance. That said, the first time chip pass for Theo in the 10th minute was something special.
The midfielders showed good game intelligence. This led to a well-structured defence without really compromising on offensive potential. But we must also note that they benefitted from Fulham playing two forwards. Had the Cottagers played three midfielders it might have been a different game altogether.
Arsenal also didn’t miss the extra midfielder because Fulham were one short as well. Santi through the middle worked really well in this game and it’s something Wenger should try more often in games against mid-table teams or those below them.
Walcott: Tried to take responsibility and took players on. Got into good areas and was linked with a number of moves either creatively or by getting on the end of passes. His finishing, as I’ve noted before, is becoming a bit of a concern. Wasn’t really called into defensive duty but the double save in the first half did come when Riise had pushed really high up without anyone marking him.
Giroud: Another game, another goal. That’s a good habit to get into and I liked the speed with which he reacted and the assured nature of the finish. His control and pass for the third goal was admirable too.
Podolski: MotM in my opinion because his contribution was decisive. There aren’t many players who take those kind of chances. Don’t get fooled by the way he made it look easy. Arriving at the box at the right time, striking the ball cleanly and quickly, and placing shots accurately are highly valued skills. His defensive contribution was notable too.
The forwards found some space as Fulham were a bit stretched and lacked an extra midfielder, and they made good use of this space. When the opponents give you the chance to play to your strengths you’ve to make the most of it. In this game the Arsenal attackers did just that.
Subs: Wilshere got half an hour to maintain his continuity and give Rosicky a break. Monreal continues his pre-season with some actual game time. Should probably have done better to close Riether down. Sanogo looked physically strong and enthusiastic but also inexperienced and raw.
Wenger: The defensive approach to this game and the change to formation with Santi coming into the middle are the kind of changes that get vital points while resting key players and dealing with injury related absences. Arsenal need such performances and results on a more consistent basis.Follow @goonerdesi