Monday, January 20, 2014

Arsenal 2 Fulham 0

Despite the fresh injury scare from Monday night's clash with Aston Villa, Arsene Wenger named the unchanged side from those that started in the 2-1 victory at the Villa Park. Nacho Monreal was a major doubt prior to the London derby after suffering a twisted ligament in his foot, which was initially feared to be a broken metatarsal. The Spaniard recovered in time and kept his place in the starting XI ahead of the fit-again Kieran Gibbs, which demonstrates how much confidence the Spanish left-back has earned from the boss over the past few weeks when the England defender was sidelined. The same story goes to Jack Wilshere. Playing his preferred central midfield role week in week out helped the English midfielder come back to his best while Aaron Ramsey was injured.

Another doubt was Tomas Rosicky who had a broken nose in two places during the Aston Villa game. The Czech went through  surgery and passed fitness tests in time to make the bench. If he were to come off the bench in this game, he would be playing with a protective mask on. Mikel Arteta (calf), Aaron Ramsey (thigh) and Thomas Vermaelen (knee) had been ruled out of this game and the boss thinks that they will also miss the FA Cup tie against Coventry on Friday night, but should be available for the next league game against Southampton. Flamini retained his place in the holding midfield role. Although Arteta's calmness and immaculate distribution have been missed at times, the French midfielder has been doing fine in his absence.

We must say that it was a poor display from the Gunners in the first half. You may praise Fulham's stubborn defence, which welcomed back their experienced leader Hangeland and the goalkeeper, Stekelenburg, after their lengthy lay-offs, but Arsenal also made it difficult for themselves, just like in the second half of the Villa game. They were far from their fluent best with so many unforced mistakes in passing. Their passes struggled to find their own players. That said, their overall passing success rate came to 91.1% at the end of the game, an impressive figure even by their high standard.

At Rendezvous bar, we were all frustrated by Arsenal's lacklustre performance in the first half, rather than Fulham's resilience. When Wilshere tried a chipped pass in the box, our frustration exploded in the bar. Arsenal's style of football is easy on the eye when it's successfully executed, but otherwise, it just stretches your patience to the limit. But finally, just before the hour mark, Arsenal had started to show some urgency. After Laurent Koscielny failing to net the rebound in the goalmouth scramble, a goal always looked to come. Santi Cazorla's well-taken effort found the back of the net after a lovely build-up play involving Olivier Giroud and Jack Wilshere, initiated by Santi himself. Five minutes later, another goal arrived through the same player's low drive. This was Santi's fourth goal of his injury-ridden second season in English football.

An encouraging difference from the previous games this season was that Arsenal kept attacking to look for more goals after they scored two goals. It may be down to their maturity or confidence in their improved defence, but this season, the team tended to shut up shop and defend when they went 2-0 up. In this game, however, the team kept going in search of a third goal. Arsene Wenger encouraged the move by making two attacking substitutions, bringing on Lukas Podolski for Serge Gnabry and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Mesut Özil. In fact, we were unlucky not to be able to add to our goal tally as Poldi went very close to score goals.

We were disappointed that Arsenal didn't win this and the last games more comfortably. These two oppositions were both struggling to hit form, fighting against relegation. Meanwhile, the title favourites, Manchester City are scoring for fun. However, this is the Premier League. Nothing can be taken for granted. As their performance against us suggested, Aston Villa were on the up. They gave Liverpool a good game this weekend, unlucky not to come away with all three points from Anfield. Three points, that's all that matters.

Quite a few fans feared that Theo Walcott's injury might have the same impact on our title challenge as the horrific injury to Eduardo did on our 2007/8 campaign. Arsenal had been top of the table since September, extending their lead to 5 points in February, but after that fateful Birmingham game in late February (which was also remembered by Gallas' controversial protest), their form collapsed. The north London club ended the season third. So far Walcott's injury seemed to have had no psychological impact on the team. It is partly because the current team is more mature in comparison with the group of those young players 6 years ago. Even younger players of the current team, such as Ramsey and Wilshere, have already experienced their own career-threatening injuries, more serious than Walcott's in terms of the length of their lay-offs, and have both successfully come back to their best since then.

Walcott offers totally different qualities from anybody else in the team and in that sense he is a valuable asset for the team. Gnabry was slotted into the void the Englishman left. Although the 18-year-old was also a talented sprinter when he was younger, Gnabry is a different player to Theo. He is more a dribbler who tends to cut inside rather than run onto through balls. The Ox is also expected to cover the absence of Theo as a pacey direct wide player, but Wenger admits his future is in the central midfield as a box-to-box player, stating he is a "Ramsey-type" player. Arsenal managed to crack Fulham's resistance eventually by keeping playing their brand of passing football, but against top teams, we might come unstuck without Theo's speed to get behind the defence.

Players rating

Szczesny: 7
Made a great save to deny Sidwell's screamer. Timed perfectly to come out to save at the feet of Dejagah and Kacaniklic. On the other hand, he fumbled the ball but gathered it back just in time when two Fulham players were ready to pounce on it.

Sagna: 7
Some of his passing in the first half was appalling. On the other hand, he found himself in great positions and had two shots on target. Unlucky not to score.

Mertesacker: 7
Assured display.

Koscielny: 7

Missed a great goal-scoring chance. On the defensive side, he made 4 tackles, 5 interceptions and 11 clearances.

Monreal: 7
Joined attack whenever he could.

Flamini: 7
Did his job well.

Wilshere: 7
Provided an assist for Santi's first goal through the exchange of incisive passes with Giroud. Made 106 passes with a 91% success rate and created 3 chances.

Cazorla: 8

Took two goals superbly. Created 5 chances.

Özil: 6
Unlucky not to score when his effort beat the goalkeeper, but then was blocked by Hangeland. Made 3 key passes. 
It was a subdued display from the German playmaker this afternoon. Some fans argue that Cazorla and Özil cannot play together as they both seem to thrive in the No. 10 role. One may eclipse the other's performance, but for us, as long as the team get three points, who takes the centre stage does not matter. Özil always plays for the team, creating spaces for his team-mates by engaging defenders. That's not a bad attitude for a £42.5 million star. Hopefully, Özil will shine in another game.

Gnabry: 7

Looked dangerous and nearly scored. This was his third start in a row and he has been putting in a decent performance every game. The consistency is encouraging for his age. His defensive display was also impressive for his age.

Giroud: 6

Missed a great chance when Gnabry's pass found him in a great position in the first half. However, he was always involved in Arsenal's attack and cleared a Fulham effort off the line as well. 



Podolski: 7
71st-minute substitute for Serge Gnabry. He nearly scored with his first two touches and his powerful shot forced a finger-tip save from Stekelenburg, which subsequently hit the post.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 6

Came on in the 85th-minute to replace Özil. Had a glorious chance in close range after Santi crossed the ball at the far post, but headed it over the bar. Gave away a foul in a dangerous area in the dying minute.

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