Goal: Mertesacker (43)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Monreal (LB), Ramsey (CM) Arteta (CM), Rosicky (CM), Walcott (RF), Cazorla (LF), Giroud (CF).
Arsenal got the all important three points in another extremely stressful game against Fulham. The home side played almost the whole game with 10 men after Sidwell received a straight red card for his atrocious tackle on Arteta in the 12th minute.
In my tactical preview, I had emphasized how the German right back Riether has been key for Fulham in the way they build play from the back, but Fulham’s Player of the Season (according to ESPN’s Fulham blogger Phil Mison) missed the game with a late injury. In his absence, Martin Jol started with the Bulgarian utility man Manolev at right back. As expected, Ruiz was placed behind Berbatov in a 4-4-1-1 shape with Enoh and Sidwell in the center of midfield, and the on-loan left-footed Dutch winger Emanuelson deployed on the right. Given a depleted squad, Martin Jol also called Kacaniklic back from his loan deal at Burnley and started him on the left side of midfield.
Despite Fulham creating an early chance through Manolev, Arsenal soon monopolized possession and started zipping the ball around with confidence. In the first 10 minutes, the possession statistics indicated that the visitors had 91% of the ball. I had mentioned in the preview that Sidwell is typically too eager against Arsenal whenever the two sides meet, most probably because he was let go by the Gunners after his Academy years. Clearly frustrated with chasing shadows in the first 10 minutes, Sidwell committed an atrocious over the ball tackle which could have broken Arteta’s leg if it was a fraction early. The referee Andre Mariner had no hesitation to send off the midfielder.
With Fulham reduced to 10 men, Arsenal, as they so often do against opposition that they perceice as weaker, decided that the game will be eventually won if they just keep on passing the ball around. Fulham responded by Ruiz dropping deeper to replace Sidwell, and the two wide midfielders tucking in and working very hard off the ball not allowing Arsenal any penetration. When the home side gained possession in their own half, they broke with admirable pace mostly through the excellent Emanuelson. The Dutchman created the next big chance of the game with a 50-yard run with the ball after Giroud (who was terrible all game long) surrendered possesion meekly in front of the Fulham box. Emanuelson played Berbatov in, but the Bulgarian forward shot straight at Szczesny who saved at his near post.
After the physically draining midweek clash with Everton, Arsenal looked quite lethargic. Giroud and Walcott hid behind their markers most of the time (see the above chalkboard). In Arsenal’s midfield Rosicky, Cazorla and Ramsey, although looking comfortable on the ball due to a man advantage, had to keep passing the ball sideways and backward with alarming frequency. Cazorla had one of his least effective performances of the season. In terms of the number of times Arsenal had to play the ball backwards, the performance was as bad as the Norwich away loss early in the season (see below).
Except a Giroud shot midway in the first half which came back from the far post, the visitors could not test Scwarzer at all. Yet, they took the lead with a well worked out set piece. Walcott’s delivery to the far post was good, and Koscielny got away from Ruiz marking him and headed the ball across the goal. Mertesacker freed himself from Senderos and headed home from close range. Arsenal had found the crucial goal they needed just before the half time whistle.
The less said about the second half, the better. Arsenal kept passing the ball sideways, and looked quite exposed whenever Fulham broke with pace, especially through Emanuelson. Wenger tried to inject some dynamism by taking off Rosicky and the truly awful Walcott and sending in Wilshere and Podolski, but the substitutions looked to switch Arsenal further off. Fulham looked the likely side to score despite playing with 10 men, constantly winning dangerous free-kicks around the Arsenal box. When Szczesny could only parry a Ruiz free-kick, Manolev scored from the rebound but he was correctly ruled offide.
Arsenal fans kept biting their nails in the last 10 minutes, with Koscielny and Mertesacker making important goal saving clearances. In the last minute of normal time, Giroud was harshly shown a red card after going over the ball in a tackle, but replays showed that it was hardly a foul, let alone a red card. Probably the referee was just trying to be consistent with his early red card to Sidwell. In the end, Arsenal were able to hold on for another golden three points. Torturing their fans week in week out has now become a routine exercise for the Gunners.