By the end victory was as comfortable as a favourite armchair, but for nearly an hour yesterday Arsenal's manager and fans were shifting uneasily in their seats as Fulham threatened to frustrate the league leaders. Arsenal were flat, lethargic even, and too often lacking in precision as well as purpose.
A notable exception was Santi Cazorla, who time and again hunched his shoulders, bent his knees, and ran at the packed defence seeking to trick his way through the thicket. And it was the little Spaniard who made the difference with a brace of goals in five minutes either side of the hour mark. Arsenal thus maintained their slim advantage over rampaging Manchester City at the Premier League summit while Fulham remain looking nervously over their shoulder.
“Overall we were in control for the 90 minutes,” said Arsène Wenger, “but we were a bit one-paced in the first half. When we went up a gear [after half-time] it made a difference.”
The Arsenal manager added: “You have to be patient in these kind of games. In them you need players who can make things happen and Cazorla did that.”
His Fulham counterpart, Rene Meulensteen, said: “I was very pleased at half-time. I thought we looked very comfortable and if we had produced a bit more quality in the final third we could have nicked something. But we knew they would step it up and if you switch off and don’t track runners, as we did for the first goal, they can hurt you.”
Arsenal began brightly enough, tearing open after four minutes a Fulham defence that had the 22-year-old Dan Burn making his top-flight debut. Mesut Özil played a sharp one-two with Jack Wilshere before sending a shot squirming under Marten Steklenberg only for Brede Hangeland to clear.
Özil, however, faded, as has often been the case this season. He looks to be one of those players who, like Robert Pires 13 years ago, will take a season to adapt to the Premier League, but his class is evident and, like Pires, he will make a real impact in the long-term.
For the rest of the half it was the old pre-Giroud Arsenal. Plenty of possession, lots of sideways passing, and a series of intricate moves foundering on a wall of defenders. Olivier Giroud was playing, but the twin-totem presence of Hangeland and Burn meant his height was neutralised and Plan B of no avail. So soon the Emirates had reverted too, in turn silent, then wailing in frustration.
Serge Gnabry took responsibility but the teenager’s shooting was wayward. Giroud also shot over when given rare space. Indeed, it was Fulham who came closest to scoring, Steve Sidwell bringing a fine stop from Wojciech Szczesny with a 25th-minute volley. The Arsenal ’keeper had to save at the feet of Ashkan Dejagah and was grateful for Alex Kacaniklic’s poor touch after Berbatov released him down the middle.
Wenger is not on for half-time tea-cup throwing but whatever he said had the desired effect as Arsenal emerged after the break with more positive intent. Giroud and Gnabry brought saves from Steklenberg shot then, on 56 minutes, Cazorla’s free-kick prompted a scramble during which Bacary Sagna had a shot cleared off the line, Laurent Koscielny somehow missed an open goal, and Sidwell blocked Gnabry’s shot.
Then Cazorla seized the game. Cutting in from the left he fed Giroud and kept running as the ball was switched to Wilshere then squared for the Spaniard to score. Fulham were still reeling when Nacho Monreal’s cross was headed out to the edge of his own box by Hangeland and Cazorla drove in through Sidwell’s legs. Lukasz Podolski almost added a third after 73 minutes but Steklenberg turned his shot against the post.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Wilshere, Flamini; Gnabry (Podolski, 71), Ozil (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 86), Cazorla; Giroud.
Fulham (4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg; Riether, Hangeland, Burn, Richardson; Sidwell, Parker, Dejagah (Bent, 68), Dempsey, Kacaniklic (Kasami, 86); Berbatov.
Referee: Lee Probert
Man of the match: Cazorla (Arsenal)
Match rating: 7/10