If Chelsea loses or draws, Arsenal will retain this position until the next round of matches, although both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur will have games in hand.
Here are three thoughts from the Fulham match.
Did Arsenal Play Badly?
“For another Saturday, Arsenal played badly,” Jonathan Liew wrote in his match report for The Guardian. Did Arsenal play badly? Having over 60 percent of the ball and playing most of the match in your opponent’s half hardly constitutes playing badly.
I find that pundits are susceptible to confusion of terms. Just about a week ago, Gary Neville described Barcelona’s match against PSG in the same terms. But in both cases neither team played badly. On the contrary, both teams controlled their match, albeit finding it difficult to gain the necessary penetration that would yield them a goal.
This is different than saying a team played badly.
For Arsenal in this match, the problem was reluctance to shoot. Too many times they attempted one pass too many instead of trying their luck with a shot. The result left Mark Schwarzer, the Fulham goalkeeper, with too little to do throughout the match.
Despite controlling the match in terms of possession and territory, it was, in fact, Wojciech Szczęsny, the Arsenal goalkeeper, who was the busier of the two goalkeepers, being called upon to beat away a number of shots from Fulham
Evidently, Arsene Wenger’s wards have never heard the injunction that "If you build it, he will come." Put differently, if you don’t shoot, you won’t score. Nor can you hope for that deflection that comes often as a result.
I was rather frustrated by Arsenal’s possession for possession sake; the neurotic deference to the next person while it is evidently better for the person himself to shoot was on glorious display yet again. I find that tedious and exasperating.
In these terms, Arsenal did not do well. The reluctance to shoot and score the goal that would give them a comfortable cushion left them susceptible to throwing away a winnable match. They were lucky for not being punished by Fulham.
And when one thinks that goal difference may yet factor into this race for top-four finish, one cannot but see the folly of this baffling reluctance to shoot. “Just shoot,” I’d say.
Do Arsenal Players Have Psychological Problem?
Arsene Wenger felt that Arsenal players may have been psychologically hampered in the second half, having scored their breakthrough goal just before half time.
Here is how he answered reporters after the match:
I put it down to psychological reasons and to the fact that we didn't want to be stupid. You are a bit under pressure when you play 11 against 10 because you think that with every foul you risk a second yellow card so they do not go in the challenges. The crowd is behind their team. it becomes a different problem. In the end, we have a fantastic spirit and that got us through. (See Arsenal.com for the transcript of the post-match interview.)
As soon as Steve Sidwell was dismissed for his bad challenge on Mikel Arteta, the complexion of the encounter changed.
One could almost sense the Arsenal team putting down its guard, beguiled by the feeling that the encounter was now easier to control and win. This sort of psychological shift is what sets champions apart from the perennial underachievers that Arsenal have become.
Few can associate Arsenal with the ruthlessness of champions. Rather, one is apt to think of a team so fragile that it is prone to falling apart at the slightest of pressures. In this match, it was as though Arsenal were determined to throw their opportunity away.
If, indeed, psychological weakness was at play here, it isn’t something to be proud of, nothing to appeal to as an excuse. Arsenal cannot realize their potential when they constantly approach their matches with fear.
This sort of mindset is what will make the team crumble against Manchester United on Saturday. These days, one cannot bank on Arsenal to rise to the stiffest of challenges. It is why the team lost out of all the cup competitions this season, and unless this changes, the team may yet find itself dump out of the final place of honor, the thing for which it is now playing.
Was Olivier Giroud’s Foul a Red Card?
Rob Draper of Daily Mail opines that Giroud was harshly sent off. This coming from a paper that is prone to hyperbole for the sake of the effect is heartening. If an Arsenal fan says really what is an obvious fact, it is apt to be dismissed as partisan. But truth be told, Andre Marriner overreacted.
Arsenal may benefit from appealing against the red card.