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Arsenal lose tempo, rhythm and two points in draw with Fulham

Arsenal 1 Fulham 1

Vermaelen 82; Vermaelen (og) 65

On a day on which the entire Arsenal team donated a day’s wages to the charity Save the Children, they proved to be in an equally giving mood on the pitch. Thomas Vermaelen became the 31st player in the Premier League era – and the third Gunner – to score at both ends in the same game as Fulham battled hard and deservedly took a point on a night when Arsenal lacked both tempo and spark until the final 20 minutes.

Arsenal entered the game on a run of five straight Premier League victories. Arsène Wenger made two changes to the side which had started the wins over Borussia Dortmund and Norwich in the past week. Laurent Koscielny was rested in favour of Johan Djourou at right back, while Andrey Arshavin returned to the line-up in place of the out-of-form Gervinho.

Szczęsny

Djourou – Mertesacker – Vermaelen – Santos

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Walcott – van Persie – Arshavin

Last season a memorable brace by the now departed Samir Nasri gave Arsenal a 2-1 win at Emirates Stadium, while a late Theo Walcott equaliser snatched a point in a 2-2 draw at Craven Cottage on the final day of the campaign. Despite starting the day just three points above the bottom three, Fulham arrived at the Emirates with five clean sheets already this season, second-highest in the Premier League.

Go-slow tempo

At their best, Arsenal’s quick interplay is like an energetic tango, a blur of high tempo movement. For most of the first half of this game, however, their lethargy was more reminiscent of a slow waltz in which the protagonists are constantly tripping over each other’s feet.

Arshavin was given a rare start, but failed to shine (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

After the delight of securing top spot in their Champions League group in midweek, Arsenal were sluggish at the start. Nonetheless, they came close to opening the scoring twice in the first seven minutes, with Robin van Persie at the heart of things. First his through ball played in Andrey Arshavin, who finished smartly only to be called back – correctly – for offside. Then a precise lay-off was met by Aaron Ramsey arriving late in the box, bringing a fine save out of Mark Schwarzer.

The game drifted after that early flurry, however, with the ball spending a lot of time pinging around in the middle third as both teams worked hard to press the ball. Theo Walcott emerged as the home side’s most promising threat as the half progressed. With veteran left back John Arne Riise routinely backing well off him, in quick succession the England winger saw one effort blocked, squared for Ramsey to fire over, then tested Schwarzer with a powerful shot from an angle.

Fulham defended solidly but did offer a tangible if sporadic threat, with Bobby Zamora well supported by Moussa Dembélé. Zamora spun away from Thomas Vermaelen but blazed high and wide under pressure as the Belgian defender recovered his ground. And Dembélé’s fierce drive from just inside the area shortly before half-time called Wojciech Szczęsny into action for the first time with a sharp reflex save.

The half nearly finished on a positive note for Arsenal as Mikel Arteta‘s free kick was met by a glancing header from Per Mertesacker, but the ball fell just wide.

All in all, though, it was pretty tame fare. You would probably have seen more incisive movement if you had switched over to watch Strictly Come Dancing.

Vermaelen pops up at both ends

The second half continued in much the same vein as the first. Fulham were content to sit back and look to snatch a goal on the counter, while Arsenal were too disjointed in the final third to pick the lock on the visitors’ defence.

Vermaelen cancelled out his own goal with a fine header (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

However, the game then turned on a pair of defender’s interventions midway through the half. First van Persie’s dancing feet created the space for a shot which left Schwarzer stranded but was brilliantly cleared off the line by Chris Baird. Then Danny Murphy‘s long diagonal ball picked out a rare forward foray by Riise. Vermaelen intervened but succeeded only in prodding it past Szczęsny into the net. It was Arsenal’s fourth own goal of the campaign, the most in the Premier League this season.

Arsène Wenger responded by sending on Gervinho and Abou Diaby, and the former’s direct running with the ball provided the spark to help drive Arsenal forward. Johan Djourou drew a fantastic reaction save from Schwarzer with a bullet header from a van Persie corner. Gervinho wriggled away from two defenders in initiating an attack which ended in van Persie shooting wastefully over.

Walcott again played a pivotal role (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With Fulham penned back in their half, it was left to Walcott to deliver the ball that produced the equaliser. Receiving the ball from van Persie on the right touchline, he sent an inch-perfect curling cross into the perfect spot for the late-arriving Vermaelen to atone for his own goal with a downward header. It was Walcott’s ninth assist of 2011, but the first for a teammate other than van Persie.

Sensing blood, Arsenal hammered repeatedly on the door in the final minutes. Gervinho and Walcott directed tame shots straight at Schwarzer. Van Persie, played through by Walcott, found the side netting from an acute angle. André Santos, who played much of the game as a supplementary left winger, saw a shot strike Clint Dempsey‘s arm at close range. (A penalty? You could argue it both ways.) Van Persie’s low header was too close to Schwarzer.

To no avail. Unlucky though Arsenal were not to find a winner in the last ten minutes, it was in the lethargy of their tempo in the first 70 where two points were dropped. The performance was poor, the result hardly the disaster which was rapidly proclaimed by some dissatisfied fans, who seemed to quickly forget that Arsenal had won their previous five games. But it was certainly an opportunity missed on a day when both Chelsea and Tottenham recorded impressive wins.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger was not too despondent about the result in his post-match press conference:

The positive again is that we have shown exceptional spirit, desire and refusal to lose the game. Many players were on the fringe today and we had not completely digested the Champions League game on Wednesday night. We needed to dig deep.

The circumstances went against us on top of that because when Fulham scored I didn’t see them crossing the halfway line too much in the second half. It was very unfortunate to be 1-0 down but we refused to lose the game and came back to 1-1. It’s disappointing because we dropped two points but at least it keeps our unbeaten run going.

We still had the potential to win 1-0 and if not 2-0 because early on in the game we could have scored. Maybe once or twice we were offside when we should not have been. We also lacked a bit of accuracy in our passing.

We scored an own goal at 0-0 at a moment where it was all us. If we went into the final 20 minutes at 0-0 we had more chance to win the game than lose it. You feel that scoring two would have been difficult today.

And he was (justifiably) quick to point out that this is a game Arsenal would probably have lost at the start of the season:

We could have lost this game earlier in the season. You have to give credit to Fulham, they defended well and their goalkeeper played well.

Arsenal’s problems in this game can be traced back to a general physical and mental lethargy which drained the team of its usual zip. Everything happened a fraction slower than usual: the movement of the front seven lacked some sharpness, resulting in players taking one touch too many or holding the ball for a second too long, making it difficult to unlock a well-organised Fulham defence.

Walcott was excellent, and was always willing to take up the challenge to charge at and beyond the wary Riise. In addition to his perfect cross for the equaliser, his selection of final ball was generally good and he also put in a good defensive shift. On the other flank, however, Arshavin was peripheral throughout. After his early disallowed ‘goal’, nothing he tried seemed to work and his shoulders soon dropped. On a day when the team as a whole lacked tempo, the Russian’s questionable work-rate made him a passenger they could ill afford to carry.

Van Persie was off target with a couple of half-chances the likes of which he has been snapping up recently, but overall had a decent game. Despite lacking his usual level of service, his ability to spin away from defenders with his back to goal or to shift the ball past them with his quick feet ensured he was a constant threat.

The central midfield trio of Alex Song, Arteta and Ramsey were defensively efficient rather than offensively brilliant. Ramsey got forward well and on another day would have converted one of his two good chances. Song chased the ball all over the field and broke up the flow of many of Fulham’s attacks. And Arteta also worked hard defensively, although he was on occasion ponderous in possession. Even when they are not at their attacking best, this current Arsenal midfield are rarely beaten for effort and application – not something which could always be said about some of their predecessors in the engine room.

Despite Vermaelen’s own goal, Arsenal’s back line continue to improve their solidity. Vermaelen and Mertesacker ensured that Szczęsny had little to do throughout the game, Djourou slotted neatly into the defence without undue fuss and Santos, despite reportedly suffering from flu, was energetic, made few errors and showed some flashes of real quality in effectively playing as a winger for long spells.

One final footnote: including substitutes, Arsenal became the first club in the Premier League era to use 14 different nationalities in a single match. It is a fact which is not particularly relevant to the result or the performance, but I thought it was noteworthy nonetheless.

Wenger faces an intriguing team selection for Tuesday’s Carling Cup quarter-final against Manchester City. Key players such as van Persie and Vermaelen are sure to be rested. But the side will almost certainly contain a higher number of first team names than usual – Gervinho and Koscielny, non-starters today, will probably feature – as the manager juggles between fielding a competitive side and rotating his squad. He is unlikely to commit too many of his starters, though. If nothing else, this game will have reminded him of the effects even a touch of fatigue can have on his team’s performance.

Arsenal man of the match: Theo Walcott. Provided an excellent delivery for the equaliser and his pace terrorised Riise, pinning him back in his own half for much of the game.

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

4 Responses to Arsenal lose tempo, rhythm and two points in draw with Fulham

  1. Luc@ says:

    Hi Tim,
    in facts we dropped two points but we came from 5 premier league victories and 10 matches unbeaten. In my opinion if you play every 3 days with the same midfielders you could have difficulty. Midfield is the key. With the return of Diaby and Jack (hope soon) things will change. Sp*rs is the squad in the best shape of the league but it hasn’t the champions league and Barcelona too has lost against Getafe…
    Anyway, I have to thank Vermaelen, because the match could have been a boring 0-0 without his own goal . At least the last 20 minutes have been exciting.

    • Tim says:

      Certainly we can’t play the same 11 players week in week out, and Wenger has talked about players like RvP and Ramsey already being in the red. Fortunately we don’t have to play the first team in midweek again until the Christmas period – we will undoubtedly see heavy rotation tomorrow against City and then again in Greece. It’s no coincidence that Spurs are the team in form right now, as they aren’t playing their first team at all midweek and can focus on being well rested for weekend games.

      Two points dropped was a big shame, but what’s more important is that we respond well next weekend and don’t allow a blip to become a slump.

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