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Arsenal floored by late one-two punch

Fulham 2 Arsenal 1

Sidwell 85, Zamora 90+2; Koscielny 21

Arsenal were comprehensively outplayed in the second half by a determined Fulham side who snatched two late goals after the sending off of Johan Djourou to complete a dramatic turnaround. The visitors’ cause was not helped by some poor decisions by referee Lee Probert, but they had only themselves to blame for not taking full advantage of their domination before the interval.

Coming just 48 hours after the 1-0 win over QPR, Arsene Wenger surprisingly made just two changes. Gervinho came in for Andrey Arshavin on the left side of attack, while Thomas Vermaelen‘s injury meant that Francis Coquelin started at left back, where he had filled in coming off the bench on Saturday.

Szczesny

Djourou – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Coquelin

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Walcott – van Persie – Gervinho

Vermaelen scored at both ends in a 1-1 draw at Emirates Stadium five weeks ago, while at Craven Cottage on the closing day of last season a late Theo Walcott equaliser snatched a 2-2 draw.

Stockdale saves, and saves again, and again, and …

Arsenal nearly got off to the best possible start. Only a minute had passed when Gervinho found space inside the Fulham penalty area to unleash a volley, but was unable to keep his effort down. The Ivorian had a lively start to the game, missing the target again from a Robin van Persie corner and then bursting into the box, only to be brought down by Philippe Senderos. The contact was a light one, but sufficient to upend the forward. However, referee Lee Probert waved play on.

Fulham threatened only occasionally in those early stages, largely through the unsettled Bobby Zamora. The twice-capped England striker was the regular target of long balls into the channels, but was equally effective holding the ball up with his back to goal. An early effort was directed too close to Wojciech Szczesny, and he was just unable to connect with a cross from the left by John Arne Riise. Brede Hangeland also headed a free kick over the bar when he should really have done better.

Koscielny opened the scoring with his first goal of the season (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Arsenal were marginally the better side in the first 20 minutes, and they eventually pressed home their advantage. Aaron Ramsey, who had been lively and threatening as the most advanced of Arsenal’s three central midfielders, swung in a measured cross from the left which was met by an unmarked Laurent Koscielny, who directed a powerful standing header past David Stockdale.

The goal threatened to bring with it an opening of the floodgates. Barely a minute later Stockdale saved brilliantly from Ramsey. In the ensuing melee Steve Sidwell‘s attempted clearance flew goalwards, but Stockdale managed to palm it onto the post. Gervinho followed up, but from an extremely tight angle blazed hopelessly wide.

The rest of the half saw Arsenal create a succession of chances as Fulham defended with their backs to the wall. Van Persie met a Francis Coquelin cross with an insouciant flick with the outside of his right boot, but the shot flew straight at Stockdale. Another van Persie effort, this time from the edge of the area, was also comfortably saved by the Fulham keeper. And in stoppage time Ramsey unleashed a crisp, rising drive from the corner of the box, stinging the watchful Stockdale’s hands.

Half-time came with Fulham relieved to be only a goal down. Arsenal had had nine shots on target in the opening 45 minutes – more than they have mustered in the entirety of all but three previous games this season.

Arsenal run out of steam, luck and points

If Arsenal had dominated the first half, Fulham equally clearly had by far the better of the second. Bryan Ruiz had become increasingly influential as the first half had worn on, twice carrying the ball into shooting range, only to shoot wide and then be denied by a fantastic sliding tackle by Alex Song. And the Costa Rican set the tempo in the early part of the second half too, firing a shot from just outside the box which Szczesny easily held.

Having been well on top in the opening period, Arsenal found themselves impotent against the home side’s defences and losing the majority of 50:50 balls. They struggled to string any decent passing moves together as suddenly Fulham looked the more assured of the two sides. Slowly but surely the Cottagers took control. Sidwell fired over with first a header and then a shot from the edge of the area. Senderos should have scored with another header after Szczesny came for a ball he had little chance of reaching.

Arsenal’s only tangible response was an incisive run cutting in from the right by Gervinho, which ended with him screwing a left-footed shot horribly wide. It was as close as they would come to scoring in a second half in which they achieved zero shots on target – in stark comparison to the first half.

Fulham continued to press forward as Arsenal’s defensive and midfield lines dropped deeper and deeper. Ruiz was twice denied by Szczesny’s sharp reflexes when he might have scored with more adroit placement.

Djourou's sending off turned the game decisively in Fulham's favour (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

But with the visitors’ goal under increasing pressure, the turning point was always more a matter of when rather than if, and it duly arrived with 12 minutes remaining. Johan Djourou had been booked 15 minutes earlier for an unnecessary sliding tackle on the excellent Moussa Dembele, but then tussled with Zamora as they chased after the ball on the edge of the area. It looked like Djourou put his arm across the striker, initiating the lightest of contacts under which Zamora crumpled like the proverbial house of cards. A foul? Arguably yes. A bookable offence? Incredibly harsh. Probert, however, had no hesitation in reaching for his pocket and Arsenal were reduced to ten men.

The sending off was the cue for Fulham to lay siege to the Arsenal goal, and the equaliser duly arrived with five minutes remaining. Szczesny came out to punch away a corner but only managed to palm it weakly away. One former Gunner, Senderos, nodded the ball straight back into the danger area where another, Sidwell, headed it in from close range.

Roared on by their own crowd, Fulham pressed on for a winner with Arsenal looking spent physically and psychologically. In the second of three added minutes right back Stephen Kelly was given all the time in the world to measure his cross. Substitute Sebastien Squillaci attempted to head clear under pressure, but succeeded only in directing it back across goal to where the unmarked Zamora coolly struck a left-footed volley inside the near post. Squillaci could undoubtedly have done better, but the real fault for the goal lay with the otherwise excellent Coquelin, who failed to close down Kelly in the first instance and then did not notice Zamora behind him.

The goal killed Arsenal’s hope of securing any points, and effectively snuffed out any lingering hopes of a second-half title challenge. In a crucial two-week period either side of Christmas, Arsenal have played five games – Manchester City, Aston Villa, Wolves, QPR and Fulham – from which they would have expected to gain a minimum of ten points. Defeat here limited their haul to seven, and the momentum of the previous 2½ months has now stalled. A reserve side will hope to restore some momentum in the FA Cup against Leeds next Monday, while the full first team will seek to recuperate ahead of their next league game, a difficult trip to Swansea on Sunday week.

Post-match reaction and analysis

After the match, an angry Arsene Wenger pointed the finger at poor refereeing decisions:

I think it was 100 per cent a penalty on Gervinho from Senderos in the first half. The referee had a massive influence on the game like that. You want the right decisions in a game of that importance.

However, he accepted that his side should have built a decisive advantage themselves in the first half:

We had the chances to kill the game off before that and to win. We are guilty because we still gave two goals away, I felt, in a stupid way and we didn’t take our chances.

There is little doubt that Probert made key incorrect decisions which hampered Arsenal, but it should never have come to that. Wenger’s side were so dominant in the 15 minutes following Koscielny’s goal that a three-goal margin at half-time would not have flattered them. It is easy to say that profligate finishing was to blame, but there were few poor misses by Arsenal in the first half – less so than Manchester City during their  1-0 defeat at Sunderland on Sunday, in which they had only five out of 27 attempts on target. Sometimes statistics simply do not translate into goals, and though it is natural to want to blame somebody or something, sometimes it just happens.

Not for the first time in recent weeks, Arsenal’s problems were more up front or out wide than at the back. Van Persie often cut a lonely figure up front as Gervinho wasted several good runs with poor passes or shots, while Theo Walcott was again disappointing. The England man has lost his form of a few weeks ago, and looks like one of a number of first-team regulars who would benefit from a break.

In midfield, Arsenal struggled to control the tempo in the second half after doing exactly that in the first. No one was particularly bad but no one was particularly good either, and as the team struggled to retain possession in the second half the physical effort of chasing Fulham all over the pitch began to take its toll.

Defensively the team was solid until capitulating in the closing minutes. Djourou’s sending off did not help in that respect, and although the Swiss defender can consider himself unlucky to have received a second yellow, he put himself into that precarious position with a silly and unnecessary foul to earn his first. Per Mertesacker was steady, although he was dispossessed by Clint Dempsey in the build-up to the red card. Koscielny had his customary good game, and has quietly developed into Arsenal’s most reliable defender. Coquelin was at fault for Zamora’s winner, but this should not detract from a good performance as an emergency stand-in at left back.

Perhaps most disappointing was the performance of Szczesny. His determination to dominate his area is admirable and inspires confidence in his defenders, but he was guilty on a number of occasions of charging out to meet balls he had little chance of reaching, including on Sidwell’s equaliser. He also could have done better in covering his near post for the winner. But this was a rare poor performance in what has been an outstanding season to date, and it was gratifying to see him accept responsibility on Twitter after the game coupled with a determination to learn and move on.

It is an example the entire team should learn from. After a fantastic recovery period which saw them climb back into contention for the top four, there have been a couple of wobbles of late. It is now time to see how real the character of this squad is. Can they regroup quickly – perhaps with the addition of one or two January signings – and prove this is just a blip? Or will they plunge into the same sort of decline which blighted the end of last season? I suspect the former, but there are many would-be Nostradamuses already confidently predicting the latter. Only time will tell.

Arsenal man of the match: Laurent Koscielny. Kept his head when all around him were losing theirs, and defended bravely and reliably throughout.

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

8 Responses to Arsenal floored by late one-two punch

  1. The BearMan says:

    Wenger have to believe in the full squad, not simply 15 players. Pat Rice have to keep his eyes peeled for players burnt out on the pitch and suggest taking a player off before they get red carded.

    • Tim says:

      That’s exactly what Wenger did with his shadow XI at this point last season, and all it got us was a tame point at Wigan against 10 men and a succession of shoddy FA Cup performances against lower league opposition. It’s hard for Wenger to trust the full squad when the backups have repeatedly proven themselves to be inadequate. Having said that, I think it was a mistake to only make two changes (one of which was enforced).

      Subbing Djourou is great in hindsight. But I think you have to trust players not to be stupid when they are on a yellow, and Johan was unlucky with the second yellow. If we hauled off players every time they got a yellow card we would never have enough subs. Djourou’s first yellow was unnecessary, but he was playing decently enough before his red. And if Mertesacker hadn’t dallied on the ball and allowed Dempsey to dispossess him, the incident would never have occurred.

  2. kings says:

    That is why the FA must come up with a plan to have consistent ref std.Penalites are given by some of these men in black when a player pulls another’s shirt in the box,has arms all over the attacker.Some don’t dont give a damn about these incidents.Take for example the Chelsea Wolves game.
    Lampard’s double footed lunge was only a yellow.Some would have given a red. Cole crunching tackle was a verbal warning.Until the FA remove the grey areas and force the refs to perform like in the cl,there will be more unhappiness among managers.
    Wenger has every right to be livid. If the Gervino tackle by Senderos had been punished with a spot kick,there would have been no controversy.
    Btw you never know. Some of these guys could have an agenda against the FM.And the FA better know,as if they don’t know,soccer is a billion no trillion pound industry. We cannot allow the guys in black to decide promotion,cl places etc.
    The onus is on the FA to have cleear std on refereeing.If not not more of these matches would be decided by match officials.I don’t wnat to mention the c word.

    • Tim says:

      I doubt there’s any conspiracy. It’s not in referees’ interests to deliberately get decisions wrong, as they will be marked down by the assessors and potentially face demotion from the elite PL set.

      However, the standard of refereeing is currently appalling, and I would say certainly much worse than in the other top leagues. Mistakes will always happen, and there will always be grey areas where one ref does one thing while another does something else, but I agree there needs to be greater consistency and I have always maintained that an appropriate (but not excessive) use of technology both within and after games should be used to assist the refs in their job and would in no way undermine them. They’re only human after all – nobody expects them to be perfect, only better!

  3. jerzak80 says:

    Stockdale was quality against Chelsea on Boxing Day and put in another strong performance against Arsenal. Could have an England cap on the way?

    • Tim says:

      Stockdale certainly had a good game, although I wasn’t entirely convinced by his footwork on Koscielny’s goal. Hart is established as England number one, but for me the position of senior backup is wide open. Stockdale needs more games, though.

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