Despair, Frustration, or Triumph?
When in November I did a survey of eight future matches, including my projection of their likely results, I thought both Fulham games would be difficult for Arsenal. Nonetheless, I thought Arsenal would win the first leg since they would play at home.
It turned out to be a frustrating match for the Gunners due largely to two factors: fatigue and a stubborn defensive organization from Fulham. Moreover, Fulham nearly ran away with victory after forcing an error from the Arsenal defense, an error that resulted in an own goal by Thomas Vermaelen.
However, Arsenal fought back in the last quarter of the game to force a draw, the equalizer coming ironically from the same Thomas Vermaelen.
In that November projection, the full list of which appears in the diagram below, I had Arsenal either drawing the second match or losing it.
Although saying this will not inspire warm feelings from Gooners or endear me to them, I came to this conclusion based first on the advantage of knowing what transpired in the corresponding fixtures last season.
In the first leg at the Emirates, Fulham proved stubbornly frustrating to Arsenal.
High class assists and the individual brilliance of Samir Nasri were required to give Arsenal the breakthrough in that match. Watch the highlights here. Be mindful though that they don't capture the difficulty or the frustration that Arsenal endured for long stretches in the match.
The return leg was Arsenal's last match of the reason. Arsenal required a victory to place third on the Premiership table to avoid the UEFA Champions League playoffs in the coming season, a 2-2 draw was all they could muster. In fact, they had their stars to thank for snatching the draw in the end.
The second factor, then, for my projection of a draw or a loss in today's match flowed from the first.
What becomes apparent from last season's matches—to which we now can add the first leg of this season's—is how organized and dangerous Fulham can be.
Their discipline and organization compensate for their lack of native talent. The danger they pose comes from the strength of Moussa Dembele, Bobby Zamora and Clint Dempsey. Between them, the three are capable of winning any match. (Dembele did not play in any of last season's matches.)
My projection of this match from the November survey wasn't therefore a result of a defeatist deposition; it was more of a rational and realistic consideration of factors available to me.
Since we know that only three results are possible from this match—a loss for Arsenal, a draw for the two teams or a victory to Arsenal, where the reverse is also true of Fulham—which is the likeliest of the three possibilities?
I give my answer in the following slides, starting with things to expect in the match.
Fulham will look to crowd the midfield.
Fulham will play their normal compact and well-organized structure. They'll look to put two banks of four players behind the ball in a 4-4-2 formation. This will give them their normal defensive sturdiness. They could also play a 4-5-1, with Zamora isolated at the tip.
Or, they even could have learned a thing or two from both Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa, both of whom ran away with unlikely victories on difficult territories—Manchester United and Chelsea, respectively—using the 4-1-4-1 formation. Success, as we know, spawns imitation.
What is sure is that Arsenal are not going to have it easy either in the midfield or in putting the ball in the Fulham net.
Using their defensive sturdiness to stifle Arsenal's attack, Fulham will look for every counter-attacking opportunity to hit Arsenal and nick a goal. If they do, they'll likely put nine men behind the ball, ranged deep in their own half. Naturally, this will make it more difficult for Arsenal to score.
However, expect to see Fulham begin the match on the attack, hoping for the early break. If this break comes, and if they're able to sit on the lead for the entire first half, they, again, will likely put nine men behind the ball and sit deep in their own half on resumption.
Coquelin had a good game against QPR.
Arsenal currently do not have any natural full-back available. All are out with one injury or another. Andre Santos was a constant attacking threat down the left flank. This was a major factor in Arsenal's victory at Chelsea.
Because of his attacking instincts, the opposition had to cope with a dual-prong threat from the left flank, his and Gervinho's. His overlaps allowed Gervinho to make angular decoy runs, which provided an added confusing element for the opposition's defense to deal with.
The same was also true of Bacary Sagna or Carl Jenkinson with Theo Walcott. After the loss of the full-backs, Arsenal have labored in attack in the matches that have followed—Everton, Villa, Wolves, QPR.
Expect to see the same problem today.
Nevertheless, look out for Johan Djourou's transverse movement from Arsenal's half—up from his defensive position—into the heart of the opposition's midfield and toward their goal.
It is his particular strength, a delight, even if he leaves a lot to be desired in other departments. More on this in the following.
Djourou is good at cutting diagonally across the field from his defensive position into the heart of the opposition's midfield
If the QPR performance is anything to go by, Arsene Wenger will look to play Francis Coquelin at the left full-back position.
From a torrid time at Villa, Coquelin produced a noteworthy performance against QPR on Saturday when he was brought on to replace the injured Thomas Vermaelen. His overlaps also were good.
Therefore, although this still will be a match in which Arsenal make use of makeshift full-backs, Djourou and Coquelin should both provide adequate cover to these positions.
Gervinho would need to track back to help with defending the full-back position.
Aston Villa targeted Coquelin through long balls and through Charles N'Zogbia. QPR targeted Djourou.
This was strategically astute and flowed from the understanding that both are not natural full-backs and as such lack the instinctual ability to make the particular kinds of tackling this defensive positions require.
(See here how easily Wolves bypass Djourou to mount their first attack in the Arsenal-Wolves game.)
Expect, therefore, to see Fulham target both positions. It is very important then that both Walcott and Gervinho (or whoever plays in their positions) track back to help out in these areas.
The Theo Walcott factor could prove critical in this match.
If Fulham play a medium defensive line (they're unlikely to play a high one due to the Theo Walcott factor), Arsenal should still be able to exploit it by using through passes, which could set up Theo Walcott.
True, he missed a glaring chance against QPR, notwithstanding, he's bound to score from these kinds of runs one of these days, so why not today?
Gervinho could prove equally dangerous if set loose by such a pass. Since Robin Van Persie is likely to be marked tightly, it will be useful for him to drop deeper into the midfield to confuse his markers and to set up assists.
Furthermore, Aaron Ramsey's role could be critical to this match. Since it will be tight in the midfield, he should look for these passes with every given opportunity.
What I therefore foresee in the midfield is Alex Song and Mikel Arteta battling Fulham for dominance. If they succeed in winning this battle, it should allow Aaron Ramsey to link up more adequately with the front three to create meaningful and fluid attacks.
One other thing that could prove critical in the match could be the unexpected forward drives that both Song and Arteta could make. Such runs, when timed well, are capable of unlocking defenses. Let's hope they do today.
Fulham may want to exploit Mertesacker's residual defensive naivete.
Corners could be critical and decisive in this match, especially for Fulham. Although this Arsenal side is stronger than recent teams defensively, it is a known fact that Arsenal don't know how to defend set pieces. Therefore, Fulham will look to exploit them to their advantage.
Similarly, Fulham, more than Arsenal, will use long and direct balls over the top to try to trouble the opposition's defense. It will be very important, therefore, that both Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny remain alert to this danger throughout the match.
The head-back corner could prove fatal for Arsenal. Therefore, they should have men at the far-side of the post whenever Fulham take corners.
Fulham will likely drive the corners deep, to be redirected back toward goals. Arsenal conceded from a number of such corners last season. I have observed that teams are beginning more and more to use these kinds of corners.
On a different note, Mertesacker is still not completely wise to the fact that Premier League forwards do not stop chasing or pressuring the defender when seemingly he has the ball covered.
This is what led to the Norwich goal, as you'd recall. I seem to have notice attackers trying to hustle him in situations where he appears to have the ball well-marshaled. It's something he'll get more alerted to with time. It is, though, a weakness Fulham could try to exploit in this match.
This match could be a foretaste of triumph to come.
The "X" factor is that thing that was present at Chelsea to give Arsenal the day. It is the factor that makes things work to your favor.
Concomitantly, it's the factor that makes your day frustrating. It can, for example, make you toil all day to put the ball in the net—an easier task than hitting the crossbar or the post—to no avail.
If this factor works to Arsenal's favor, you will begin to smile quite early in the match. If not, if will be a long day of frustration. So what is it going to be?
Here's what I think.
If things work out to Arsenal's favor, you should begin searching e-bay for a tuxedo or a dress for the end of season party because this will indicate quite strongly that this year is Arsenal's, notwithstanding the darkness that enveloped the season at the beginning.
When it is your year, remember, factors combine to favor you.
Having said that, we should be mindful that this is only halfway through the season. A loss today will not necessarily prove fatal, although a win could further solidify Arsenal's position on the table.
Let's compare notes at the end of the match.