One of the hallmarks of potential champions is the ability to win games despite playing poorly. However, Arsenal's title credentials were not entirely enhanced by this narrow victory over Fulham that put them on top of the Premier League, after the postponement of Manchester United's game at Blackpool.
The Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, was clearly not convinced. He said: "We are far from winning the championship yet. The only thing I can say: we have the desire and the spirit to fight for it."
The opinion of the Fulham manager Mark Hughes was much the same, after two wonderful solo goals from Samir Nasri decided the game.
"Champions? Not today in fairness but that is credit to us. We made them look quite ordinary," Hughes said, after seeing his team match Arsenal in all statistical breakdowns except the one that matters, the scoreline.
Possession was evenly shared between the teams; Arsenal had 15 chances in front of goal to Fulham's 13, while Fulham actually won the corner count seven to three. Hughes claimed his team had caused Arsenal so many problems that he described it as a "template" for others to follow, starting with Manchester United who welcome Wenger's side to Old Trafford in a week's time.
"We've given a template for a team who have to play them," the Fulham manager said. "I'm certain they'll look at how we approached the game and will take information from it. It will be more difficult for them [Arsenal at Old Trafford], I'd suggest."
The Mark Hughes of old, the bruising combative centre-forward who played 467 games for United, would fancy his chances against the current Arsenal defence. He said: "Maybe 20 years ago. You have to ask questions of centre-halves sometimes. They are not possibly as strong as they have been in recent years and at times you can expose them because they are an attacking team. If you put them under pressure sometimes they are not used to it and they have to do things they haven't done much work on."
Arsenal certainly looked shaky at the back, notably when Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci went for the same high ball in the run-up to Diomansy Kamara's goal for Fulham that ended with Koscielny leaving the pitch with concussion.
With Thomas Vermaelen still out with an Achilles injury and not expected back until January, Wenger has little option but to soldier on with the men at his disposal.
Wenger admitted his desire to encourage his team to play with flair can leave Arsenal vulnerable but he resolutely refuses to change tack.
"I am comfortable with that, sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park," Wenger said. "We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. If we lose the ball in the build-up, we are in trouble. My philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble."
Against Fulham, Arsenal were bailed out of trouble by the dancing feet of Nasri, who this season has shrugged off years of hesitancy to become one of the most exhilarating players in the Premier League. He scored two goals of the very highest order; he made mugs of Fulham's centre-halves Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes, selling them a pair of dummies and then sweeping the ball high into the net; then he took a ball from Robin van Persie in his stride, took it around John Pantsil and then swivelled 360 degrees to finish with his right foot just as he seemed to have taken the ball too wide.
Nasri has scored 11 goals this season, and puts his improved form down to his growing maturity. "When I'm in front of a goalkeeper I am more relaxed now," he said. "Before I felt too much pressure to score, I wanted it too much maybe. Now I don't worry as much. I'm more at ease in the game and I'm not just looking for goals, I'm looking to work for the team. I think I'm more mature in my football game. I think more with my head."Reuse content