Arsene Wenger and Martin Jol: not the best of friends
Given our recent fantastic run of form (and wins), the Gunners find themselves looking down in the table at a majority of their Premier League opponents. Arsenal are now in seventh place, nine spots above the Cottagers, who are 16th.
If we look at history, Arsenal have had the better of the clashes between the two clubs, winning six of the previous 10 league encounters.
But aside from the numbers, most of these clashes have been closely fought affairs, as derbies usually are. The games in which Arsenal have dropped points have been frustrating to watch, and occasionally pivotal in their outcome.
In Robin van Persie, Arsenal possess the form player of the Premiership, if not world football. There was an interesting article I read yesterday comparing his numbers with those of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
And while it would be foolhardy today to place him at par with those two, the stats are both interesting and revealing.
Arsenal go into this game without all their long-term absentees: Jack Wilshere, Bacary Sagna, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson. However, on a positive note, there have been no casualties after the mid-week Champions League fixture against Borussia Dortmund.
It’s a fair reflection of our injury horror-story of recent seasons that I am this sanguine in the absence of three regular starters.
Fulham are in the midst of a minor injury crisis themselves, with Damien Duff, Stephen Kelly, Simon Davies, Orlando Sa, Steve Sidwell and Zdenek Grygera all expected to miss out. However, they are a tightly knit unit, and in Martin Jol, possess a manager with diverse experience and a respectable track record.
While I look forward to celebrating all three points and a sixth league win on the bounce a few hours from now, I believe that there are reasons why this match may end up breaking Gunner hearts.
I took a look at Fulham’s squad stats for the season, and I was staggered to see that as many as nine players had started nine or more of their 12 league fixtures. Of this list, four have started all 12 games.
What surprised me even more was that Arsenal’s “consistency” stats didn’t look too tardy, either, with most of the chopping and changing coming in the first three weeks of the season.
However, the big difference is that whereas many of Fulham’s “Premier League” starters have had the option to rest for the mid-week Carling Cup and Europa League games, most of Arsenal’s first-choice players have been put through a challenging Champions League work-out as well, including tricky away trips to Dortmund, Marseille and Udine.
But aside from his somewhat dour personality, he is a good manager. While he may not have it in him to manage at the very highest level, he is good with mid-tier teams (like Tottenham Hotspur!!), making them hard to beat.
In Mark Schwarzer and Brede Hangeland, though, he possesses two defensive players who can play at the highest level. Both have been coveted by Arsene Wenger at various times, and both have both frustrated Arsenal in games gone by.
Expect the Cottagers to “park the bus” and make it as difficult as possible for Arsenal to score. And expect them to strain every sinew as they try and keep the Gunners out.
Having spoken about Fulham’s impressive consistency in team selection, it is worth repeating that ever since his last-day shopping spree, Arsene Wenger has been able to put a fairly similar team on the park, week after week.
In fact, besides a few injury-enforced changes at the back, I am struggling to remember the last time anyone other than Song, Arteta, Ramsey, Gervinho, Walcott and van Persie formed the front six.
However, having put the same 11 out against Norwich City and Borussia Dortmund, Arsene Wenger’s hand is forced. With one eye on next week’s Carling Cup quarter final against Manchester City, Wenger is bound to make some changes this evening.
I cannot imagine that he will put out a team full of reserves and kids against Man City. In fact, he has already stated that he won’t.
That being said, I can foresee at least three players from our usual front six to find themselves on the bench, with players like Andrey Arshavin, Yossi Benayoun and Abou Diaby all waiting in the wings to get a start.
While it is fantastic to be able to put out a consistent first 11, a major downside is that the replacements lose their match-sharpness, rhythm and momentum, and are often caught cold on their comeback. And as soon as they make a few mistakes, the crowd (especially at home) gets impatient, and demands the return of the regular starter.
Arsene Wenger will make changes tonight, and as a result, Arsenal may lose some of their recent cohesiveness, dynamism, shape and solidity.
Fulham will come into this game with a week of rest and training behind them
As mentioned earlier, Arsenal head into this fixture on the back of two hard-fought 2-1 wins in the past week–at Carrow Road against Norwich City, and at home against Borussia Dortmund. More so, the Gunners played both these games with the exact same starting 11.
In comparison, Fulham have had the week off, with no Europa League fixture to distract or exhaust them. As a result, their well-drilled and determined squad will have that extra freshness and zip about their game, and will be champing at the bit to get stuck in at the Emirates.
Arsenal must start brightly and score early to put the Cottagers on the back foot; otherwise, our opponents may be tough to overcome if they get the upper hand.
"Till death do us part"
I briefly touched upon Fulham’s defense, and particularly Mark Schwarzer and Brede Hangeland, in one of my earlier slides. But their defensive story doesn’t end there.
In John Arne Riise, Chris Baird and Aaron Hughes, Fulham possess three experienced, canny and combative defenders, who have combined forces to give their club one of the best defensive records in the league.
Fulham come into this game with a record of five clean sheets, one less than Manchester United, who lead the league with six. They have conceded only 15 goals in 12 games–only five teams have conceded less.
And while the Gunners have the firepower to break down the best defenses in Europe, they have occasionally been found wanting against some of the Premier League's lesser teams.
The Gunners’ strike force will have to be at their very best to break down the Cottagers. It isn’t going to be easy.
"What did I say"
Murphy's Law: “Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”
No, I am not the voice of doom, and as much as I’d be thrilled to see an Arsenal win, I believe that at some point, the law of averages will catch up with us.
Think of the last time Arsenal had bad luck, were the victims of a terrible refereeing decision or conceded a freak goal. When did we last face a goalkeeper who played a blinder? When was the last time we had a player wrongly booked or red-carded? When was the last time we conceded a wrongly-awarded penalty?
Yup, it’s been a while. And while my thinking has probably been conditioned by years of long injury lists, unwarranted sending-offs, dives by opposition players and man-of-the-match performances by opposition goalies, I can’t help but fear a frustrating evening at the Emirates.
Fingers crossed, and hoping that we take care of both Murphys tonight.