In another thrilling encounter between Arsenal and a side they really should be beating without too much difficulty, the Gunners twice declined the offer to take a much needed three points meaning they are now worse off in the league than this time last year and any time in the last 30 years.
Arséne Wenger started with a much-expected side; Andre Santos’ poor form and controversial actions at Old Trafford meant he was reserved a seat on the bench to warm as Vermaelen came in at left-back. The only slightly surprising decision was starting Theo Walcott for only the second time in the league this season while Aaron Ramsey took to the bench and Oxlade-Chamberlain was deemed not quite ready to return.
First Half: Role Reversal
Unsurprisingly, Martin Jol decided to go with a fairly defensive (and that’s not a criticism) 4-4-1-1 formation. Chris Baird and Steve Sidwell rarely ventured out of their deep central midfield zone and even Dimitar Berbatov spent the majority of the first half – or certainly the first 30 minutes – around the centre circle.
Arsenal were gifted two early goals by a catalog of errors that both summed up the nature of the game and yet do not really warrant analysing. Despite this, the home side never looked entirely comfortable – in a complete role reversal, a spell of 10-15 minutes saw Arsenal dropping off and Fulham happy to keep the ball around the halfway line and patiently wait for a space to open up in the final third.
Fulham’s patience paid off less than 20 minutes after Lukas Podolski had doubled Arsenal’s lead when a fine team move exposed the home side’s lack of defensive organisation to give Alexander Kacaniklic a free header inside the box which Vito Mannone really should have kept out. It’s not the first time Arsenal have been guilty of taking their foot off the gas and letting weaker sides get back into games without a great deal of effort or tactical know-how. If the Gunners are to win a trophy anytime soon, the mental side of the game will need as much practice as the practical side.
D-Unit: Importance of rest and midfield cohesion
Mikel Arteta has played 9 of the last 10 Arsenal games (the only one he missed being the Carling Cup tie at Reading). Santi Cazorla has played 9 of the last 10 Arsenal games, and 167 minutes for Spain in between those matches (again, only missing the Carling Cup tie). Neither player have been substituted for Arsenal in any of the 9 games.
Even players in the peak of their physical condition need rest, and this has become increasingly obvious in the cases of most of Arsenal’s team to even the completely untrained eye in recent weeks. Against Fulham, there was a blatant lack of team cohesion all over the pitch. I’ll talk about the attacking side of the game later but for now I’ll focus on the defence and midfield – in particular Arsenal’s latest back four experiment and Lukas Podolski’s work ethic.
After the away side pulled one back, it always looked likely that they would get an equaliser – though once again, the nature of the goal raised serious questions. The (attempted) conversion of Thomas Vermaelen into left-back extraordinaire is still very much a work in progress and the whole defence seems to need time to get used to it.
To avoid a repeat of Jefferson Farfan’s equaliser for Schalke in midweek, Vermaelen was clearly detailed to stick tightly to Ashkan Dejagah on the wing; a job he coped with pretty well for the majority of the game with four tackles and two interceptions to his name. Unfortunately for Arsenal, Podolski wasn’t quite on the same wavelength and half-heartedly drifted inside and attempted to take Koscielny’s job of marking Berbatov. The result was that Vermaelen wasn’t close enough to Riether and Koscielny was left marking no one while Mertesacker declined to close down the late run from the Swedish winger.
Two completely avoidable goals conceded and there was more to come when Arteta got caught on the ball and decided it was best to avoid further embarrassment by hauling Berbatov to the floor. Both Spaniards were clearly exhausted and both struggled to stamp their mark on the game.
Theo Giroulski and The Ghost of Movement
One positive to take out of the game was the excellent performance from Olivier Giroud who is clearly growing in confidence and seems finally to have found his feet as he took on a new role as a more straight-forward target man.
The Frenchman scored just one header out of all of his 26 goals for Montpellier last season, but has already scored four for club and country this season.
Furthermore, against Fulham he won six (of nine contested) aerial duels and more than 50% of his touches came around the halfway line (27%) or just outside the box (29%).
From a team point of view, it was a huge pity that Giroud had little to no movement ahead of him for the majority of the game. Even the impressive Theo Walcott was ironically found dribbling with the ball from deep more than he was running onto through balls from Giroud and the midfield.
Andrei Arshavin and Oxlade-Chamberlain both came on and made some difference, with the former offering the first real direct alternative by running into space off the ball. However it was too little too late and despite vast improvements in the second half, Arsenal still found themselves behind before they could even threaten to win the game.
A disappointing and completely unacceptable performance and result that answered several probing questions about the team’s ability to challenge for the title with a resounding ‘No’. The performances of Giroud and Walcott were – in typical Arsenal fashion – counterbalanced by the utter rubbish offered by the rest of the team. The squad needs serious investment and we cannot keep relying on the likes of Tomas Rosicky and Abou Diaby to remain fit for extended periods of time when they keep proving they’re not capable of doing so.