Fulham – Arsenal
1 – 0 McBride (6)
2 – 0 Boa Morte (19)
2 – 1 van Persie (36)
“faith: complete confidence or belief in something, esp without objective proof”.
That’s how The Penguin Concise English Dictionary describes the word. And it pretty much sums up how supporting Arsenal is at the moment. I have complete confidence and strongly believe this team will get it right yet this is little or no objective proof for this. When a Priest or Vicar goes off of the rails, they have a crisis of confidence in their faith; I would suggest Arsene must fast be approaching this with 4-5-1.
Another shocking away defeat to a poor team. It leaves Arsene in what he had described as the most important twelve days of the season, facing day eleven at the crossroads between success and oblivion. Having stated categorically that Chelsea and Manchester United were still catchable, Arsene must face facts and know that they are not. Sixteen points separate the leaders and Arsenal; an insurmountable gap even if you take into account the game in hand, a visit to the JJB in a fortnights time. That should be an opportunity to close the gap. On the showing of the last five days, there is no evidence to support that; quite the opposite in fact, that fixture presents the moment when sixteen points (or more) becomes set in stone. A harsh reality indeed.
Once I had seen the starting XI, a nervous feeling came over me. The previous belief of a comfortable victory margin turned to one of a victory but a hard fought one. And a nasty little thought that perhaps Arsene had underestimated his opposition for the evening, resting players unnecessarily, looking ahead to the weekend rather than concentrating on the here and now. If that was the case, he would never admit it. There were so many problems that the team selection created. The absence of Clichy and Eboue in the same match meant that this particular back four had never played together before. It showed. The introduction of what was effectively three new players meant each operated as a separate entity rather than a single unit. Senderos is still gathering his match fitness, something that will have to wait somewhat longer to be regained as his suspension will end at the same time that William Gallas returns. Neither of his yellow cards can be argued with: a rash lunge with both feet in the first half, compounded by poor positional sense allowing himself to be caught the wrong side of his attacker in the second, outdone by pace something that I predicted yesterday I’m rather sad to admit. Throughout his time on the pitch, the young Swiss was continually marking space, unsure of how to react to the impending attack. Meanwhile on the left, the form of last season seemed a distant memory as Flamini looked as ill at ease in the fullback berth as he had in Amsterdam in the pre-season, something that no doubt contributed greatly to his decision to refuse to play there earlier in the season. Surely it would have been more sensible for Wenger to select Hoyte in that position?
Had he done so, then Song may have been spared his torrid evening. He has enough critics within the crowd as it is; that number could well increase following this performance. Cruelly exposed by Boa Morte’s fleet of foot for the second, he was rarely able to compose himself; his performance was a litany of mistimed tackles and wayward passes. Indicative of poor technique? Perhaps but more in tune with the actions of a man who has played little regular first team football, eager to impress but unable to dominate his midfield opponents. If he had been an animal he would have been put down; he got the footballing equivalent when replaced by Fabregas.
The evening was lost within twenty minutes. Before this match, Fulham had not scored in the opening 22 1/2 minutes. Tonight, the overwhelming generosity and seasonal spirit of the visitors defence gave them not one but two presents, something that the hosts fought with every sinew in their bodies to defend and do so they did successfully. The opener was another goal conceded from a corner. Very similar to Faye’s goal at Bolton, McBride was able to escape his markers attentions to headly firmly past Lehmann whose hand directed the ball away from the head of Flamini where it would surely have landed but the German’s intervention.
This type of goal is too readily conceded by the defence and far too frequently. There are two fundamental problems with the way that Arsenal defend corners. Firstly, for those played into the near post, no-one is attacking the ball from a defensive perspective. Should an opponent do so, they will invariably get a free header. If that does not happen then the second ploy is to place a forward on the edge of the six yard box. What should happen is that his marker positions himself between the man and Lehmann. What is happening is that the marker is behind the forward, not totally goalside with his arms around his opponent. Result? The forward moves to head the ball, the defender too far behind to beat him to it. If he does move toward the ball from that position, as with Bolton, he gets in Lehmann’s way. A goal seems inevitable each time a set-piece comes into the Arsenal area, a weakness for all to see and most do so.
If Flamini was unlucky for the first, he was at fault for the second. Having comfortably escaped from Song, Boa Morte put in a superb cross, too far and fast for Lehmann to come for. Flamini was in No Man’s Land at the far post, neither marking Radzinski tightly enough nor attacking the cross to divert it to safety. The end result was inevitable, a well-taken finish by the Canadian.
Once the mountain to climb became clear, the pressue piled on with Fulham only too happy to try to exploit any spaces. Boa Morte could have made it three but Lehmann stood ‘big and tall’ as commentators like to tell us. A pointless phrase if ever there was one: if you are ‘big’, surely you are ‘tall’ as well? I digress. The mountain became a molehill with ten minutes to half-time. Rosenior’s foul on Hleb gave Arsenal a freekick twenty five yards out. van Persie’s resultant shot an absolute peach, Niemi could only flap at it as it flew into the net.
Chances thereafter to both sides; Boa Morte and Walcott hit the bar and post respectively; the ex-Arsenal man had a goal ruled out thanks to the Assistant’s offside flag, Henry the same. Henry narrowly failed to convert Hoyte’s cross whilst Gilberto’s burst following van Persie’s deft flick deserved better although Knight’s tackle merits some applause. I’m not sure if the unmarked Henry would have agreed though.
From Arsene’s demeanour after the game it was apparent that he was furious. Rightly so yet he does himself little credit or favour by bemoaning the state of the fixture list. A timely comparison would be with Manchester United. Arguably they have a weaker squad than Arsenal on paper yet they cope with the rigours of the Champions League in midweek and Premiership on a Saturday perfectly well. The root of this is a problem with the formation and what is becoming a crisis in confidence at both ends. With two London derbies sandwiching the Porto match, the time for experimenting with the line-up is over; no more understrength teams s’il vous plait. Pure and simple, three wins are required out of necessity. Not primarily for the points in the case of Porto but definitely for confidence in themselves and for us to regain the confidence in them.