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Nasri a class above as Arsenal go top

Arsenal 2 Fulham 1

Nasri 14, 75; Kamara 30

Samir Nasri, the midfielder deemed not good enough by Raymond Domenech for this summer’s France World Cup squad, scored two goals of the highest class to fire Arsenal to the top of the Premier League. But the Gunners did not make life easy for themselves, as their defensive frailties were once again exposed by a dogged Fulham side.

Arsène Wenger kept faith with the XI who claimed all three points at Aston Villa last weekend, with Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner reverting to the bench after starting in the midweek Carling Cup win over Wigan.

Fabiański

Sagna – Squillaci – Koscielny – Clichy

Rosický – Song – Wilshere

Nasri – Chamakh – Arshavin

Arsenal started brightly, with Nasri and Andrey Arshavin terrorising Fulham down the flanks. A lively-looking Arshavin nearly opened the scoring after six minutes, but his volley was well blocked by Mark Schwarzer, who so nearly became an Arsenal player during the summer. Six minutes later the Russian set up Nasri, whose shot from just inside the box beat Schwarzer but rolled the wrong side of the post.

Arshavin has provided an assist in each of his past four Premier League games (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The home side were not to be denied for long, however. Arshavin pounced to dispossess Aaron Hughes and ran straight at the panic-stricken Fulham defence before threading the ball to Nasri. The Frenchman coolly stepped inside Brede Hangeland and then the recovering Hughes before rifling home an unstoppable shot with his weaker left foot. It was a dazzling solo effort, evoking memories of two Argentinian stars: Ricky Villa and that similarly pint-sized fellow who plies his trade at the Camp Nou. You know, that one who’s quite good.

Arshavin has now provided an assist in each of his last four league appearances, and with him, Nasri and Tomáš Rosický pulling the strings in midfield, Arsenal threatened to run away with the game. The Russian saw another effort saved by Schwarzer, and Alex Song and Marouane Chamakh also squandered good chances to double the advantage.

But then, as is so often the case at the Emirates, Fulham equalised with just about their first meaningful chance of the game. And, as is also so common at the Emirates, the goal had an element of the Keystone Cops about it. Laurent Koscielny and Sébastien Squillaci collided as both tried to deal with a routine clearance. Koscielny got up momentarily but was unable to continue. Clint Dempsey took advantage of the resultant confusion to play in Diomansy Kamara, who made no mistake side-footing past Lukasz Fabiański.

Koscielny departed with concussion, to be replaced by Johan Djourou. And indeed the entire Arsenal team spent the rest of the half in something of a daze. Kamara even had the opportunity to send Fulham in at half-time a goal to the good as a simple ball through the middle sliced open the hosts’ defence, but Fabiański saved well to preserve parity.

Arsenal regrouped at the start of the second half and created a number of chances. Rosický flashed a volley just wide, Arshavin saw yet another effort stopped by Schwarzer and Song blazed high and wide after harrying John Pantsil into giving away possession. But Fulham offered enough threat to cause the home crowd plenty of concern. Twice threatening balls had to be hacked clear of the Arsenal goalmouth, while Zoltan Gera‘s overhead kick drifted harmlessly wide.

Nasri's two strikes raised his Premier League tally for the season to a team-leading eight (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Wenger sent on van Persie and Walcott to inject fresh legs and ideas, and the former provided the assist for Nasri’s winner. Again Arshavin was involved, pinging a sharp pass to van Persie. The Dutchman trapped the ball neatly, pivoted and caressed a subtle lay-off for the onrushing Nasri. With the ball seemingly glued to his feet, he evaded two tackles and rounded Schwarzer before pirouetting and finding the open net from a tight angle.

It was a goal worthy of winning any game, but Arsenal still had to endure a nervy final 15 minutes as Fulham’s pressure forced them into conceding possession over and over again. Dickson Etuhu almost equalised immediately when he fired wide in a crowded box. Gera went close with a fizzing low effort from 20 yards which Fabiański did well to push away at full stretch.

But 2-1 was how it stayed, and with Chelsea conceding a late equaliser to Everton and Manchester United‘s game postponed, victory sent Arsenal top.

After the game, Wenger remarked that his side “needed not only quality but spirit and resilience today and we got it”.

He was full of praise for Nasri, speaking at length about the improvement the 23-year old has made since coming to England in 2008:

We scored two exceptional goals from Samir that were a combination of touch, intelligence, special talent and calmness. He needed to be patient to finish in both situations and he did very well. I’m happy because he had a game that at the start was only based on coming to the ball and now he has more variation in his game. His game is improving and of course he is more efficient.

He is showing that he has exceptional talent and I think there is more to come from him. Like every player that is good on the ball he was too much attracted by the ball. We wanted him to do more runs off the ball, going in behind [the defence] without the ball because we have many players who can give him the ball.

He also highlighted Djourou’s contribution and the progress he has made since his long injury absence:

He is doing very well. He has been out for a year and as you have noticed I have rotated him a little bit. We do not want to lose him and a guy that has been out for a year you cannot play him three games a week. From the start of the season he has gone from strength to strength and today, in the difficult period when we had to defend in the air, he was dominant. He has not only shown dominance but also personality. That’s why I am very happy.

Finally, when asked whether he thinks Arsenal are good enough to win the Premier League, he replied:

We are good enough to go on that is for sure. Every single team struggles to be consistent and at the moment we are where we are despite losing three games. We have the spirit and the quality but we faced tough opponents and it will be down to consistency. We are far from winning the championship yet, the only thing I can say is we have the spirit and the desire to fight for it.

As we have seen in previous games, there is something of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde about this Arsenal side. Going forward, they are overflowing with attacking options. Chamakh brings aerial power and prodigious work-rate, and is the first true lead-the-line centre forward the club has had since Alan Smith. Van Persie, when fit, has more trickery and artistry than any striker in England. Nasri is in the form of his life, while on the other flank Arshavin has finally hit his stride, having started the season lethargically. With the emergence of Jack Wilshere, the injured Cesc Fàbregas has been missed far less than expected, and with the likes of Rosický, Walcott and Bendtner available from the bench, there is plenty of backup available.

It is the pivotal defensive midfield position where the problems begin, though. Alex Song’s increasing confidence surging forward has added another dimension to Arsenal’s attack, but has often served to clip Wilshere’s wings and leave the back four dangerously underprotected. Against Fulham, he ventured forward too often as Arsenal strived to break down the visitors’ bustling rearguard, and would have been better served keeping his game simple and allowing the better runners and passers in the team the freedom to do what they do best. I’m not saying that he should revert to being a pure holding midfielder, but he needs to learn to pick his moments. Too often when Song lumbers forward the midfield loses shape and cohesion. He is no Patrick Vieira yet, and Arsenal can ill afford the mistakes that have crept into his game as he learns this new role.

The back four looks doubly fragile for this lack of a consistent midfield screen. Neither Squillaci nor Koscielny are dominating defenders, and both have a tendency to become increasingly passive under pressure, allowing too much space and inviting opponents to run at them. As a partnership, they simply do not work well together. More than anything, the back four needs a vocal and aggressive defender who is willing to step up and deny space – something the injured Thomas Vermaelen or the departed Sol Campbell are both adept at. It has to be remembered that Koscielny had played only one season of top division football before joining the club, and that lack of experience has been exposed frequently. With Djourou shaking off the rust and looking stronger with every game he plays – and he played well after coming on here – it is time to put Koscielny back on the bench and give him space to develop out of the firing line.

The frightening thing about Arsenal at the moment is that – for all their obvious flaws and inconsistencies – they have nonetheless found their way to the top of the league. And although this squad continues to delight and frustrate in almost equal measure, they have perhaps the greatest potential to grow of any of the title contenders. How capable they are of rising to their potential will be put to the test with fixtures away to Manchester United a week on Monday, and then the visit of Chelsea two weeks later. If they are still top on New Year’s Day, then maybe 2010/11 might just turn out to be Arsenal’s season after all.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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