Fulham fight and spark shines light on their current absence in Arsenal’s stalling season

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Staff Writer

Joined: Nov 2016

First the good news for Arsenal. They end 2023 just two points off the top of the table.

It’s understandable that they’re vexed after back-to-back defeats in games they’d expect to win, but nothing is f***ed. You’re being very un-Dude.

Their performance in going down 2-1 at Fulham was deeply troubling, though. The West Ham game was more easily chalked up as One Of Those Things. One of those cliched nights where the ball just wouldn’t go in, where Arsenal could have played until midnight and not scored, and where West Ham take two of the maybe three chances they created.

There were worrying elements that night, of course. The way Arsenal had few answers to West Ham’s diligence and organisation. The frankly baffling decision to spend the last 20 minutes aiming crosses at some very large Hammers. The general lack of inspiration. But it was still vaguely absurd for that game to end 2-0 to the visitors on the overall balance of play. One statistical analysis had Arsenal more likely to end that game with five goals than zero. We’re not quite sure about that, but it sort of sounds right.

In criticising Arsenal that day we cautioned against too much ‘outcome bias’. Yes, Arsenal were significantly short of their outrageous best but it was still a performance that on another night yields a comfortable 2-0 win and nobody calls it lucky or undeserved.

There really is no such mitigation for the Gunners here. This really was a poor, tired performance against a Fulham side who have apparently hit upon a ruse of veering dramatically from the sublime to the ridiculous. Back-to-back 5-0 wins were followed with three increasingly limp defeats without so much as a goal to show for it before this barnstormer of a performance made all the more impressive by coming in a game where they found themselves a goal down inside five minutes. Those recent defeats could easily have been eating away at them, but in truth from the moment Bukayo Saka somewhat scruffily opened the scoring the hosts were demonstrably the better team.

What was so perplexing about it all was that Arsenal’s opening goal appeared just the thing to allow them to put all that West Ham angst behind them and head into a three-week Barclays break on a high. It was a lovely, classically Arsenal quick break from back to front, starting with David Raya and in which Gabriel Martinelli and Saka both deserved the slight element of fortune that saw the latter just about manage to turn the ball home from close range after Bernd Leno had parried the former’s curling effort.

But far from building on that, Arsenal retreated. Fulham grew both in confidence and into the game. By the time of the equaliser, Arsenal could have few complaints and couldn’t say they weren’t repeatedly warned.

And it was an equalising goal Arsenal would have recognised and grudgingly admired for its speed, precision and slickness. It began with a robust but fair challenge on Saka from Calvin Bassey. He’s an enormously entertaining and relentlessly watchable defender, is Bassey. And that’s not always a compliment for a centre-back. He was great today, though, and particularly here in launching a quick break that ended with Raul Jimenez sweeping the ball home after Willian and the superb Tom Cairney combined expertly down the left to create the chance.

The Gunners briefly rallied, but it was half-hearted and lacked the conviction of Fulham’s own response to conceding.

The winner was a scrappy old nonsense of a goal from a corner, but it highlighted a general lack of calm and composure in Arsenal’s play as the ball pinballed off three defenders to find its way to Bobby Decordova-Reid to lash home. Even William Saliba was frazzled by it all, escaping with a booking for a cynical foul where the borderline presence of a covering defender saved him from a worse fate.

As against West Ham, Arsenal looked worryingly short of ideas when it came to chasing the game in the latter stages. Martinelli, ineffectual after the goal, was withdrawn midway through the second half but Eddie Nketiah remained on the pitch for a full 90 minutes of barely discernible output. If the argument for Nketiah over Gabriel Jesus is that he is a better finisher, this was a day where that positive didn’t really outweigh what is lost in general endeavour and involvement.

As Fulham ended the game with Jimenez attempting a rabona tackle on the edge of Arsenal’s area – an innovation Erik Lamela is presumably kicking himself (left-footed, rabona) for not thinking of sooner – Arsenal had no new ideas at all.

There is still every chance for 2024 to be a glorious one for Mikel Arteta and his men. But those new – or at least different – ideas will need finding fast.

READ NEXT: Arsenal are ‘nowhere near’ as Arteta reacts to ‘worst performance of the season’


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