Will 2019 be a year of Arsenal progress? That is what everyone at the Emirates is wondering and this routine 4-1 win over Fulham showed glimmers of promise as well as questions Unai Emery still has to answer.
The individual attacking quality of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette remains this team’s biggest strength. Both men started here, each impressed with his movement and incisive skill, and each of them scored. It was Aubameyang’s 14th of the season in the Premier League, and in truth he could have had a hat-trick today. For as long as he stays fit and firing, Arsenal will always be a force.
But there will still be questions about other aspects of Arsenal’s game, especially the defence. No this was not as bad as getting shredded at Anfield on Saturday, but then you do not even need a quick glance at the table to see that Liverpool are a significantly better team than Fulham. Even here Arsenal gave up chances, and looked open on the break. Starting with a back three, moving to a back four, it still feels as if Emery does not know his best team or balance. Answering that will be crucial how well Arsenal do this year.
What was so infuriating for Fulham today is the fact that they could have made more of an impression on this game. They came here to counter-attack and in the first half, before they eventually conceded, they had two moments that could have been decisive for their whole season. First Tom Cairney played in Ryan Sessegnon, racing away down the right, before he bent his shot just the wrong side of the post. Then, from another break, Andre Schurrle’s cross from the left found Sessegnon but he miskicked at the far post.
Score either of those and Fulham would have held an invaluable lead. The crowd might start to turn, Arsenal would get more anxious and there might even be more chances to score on the break. Victory here could have been transformational for Fulham’s season. The only teams they have beaten in the league so far this season are Burnley, Southampton and Huddersfield. To win here would have catalysed their confidence in the race to avoid relegation.
But it did not happen like that and Fulham can only look at themselves for this loss. Because this game was daunting but it was also winnable. And it ended the way it did as much because of Fulham’s errors as because of Arsenal’s excellence.
When Arsenal took the lead it did not come as the climax of waves of pressure. It certainly did not feel inevitable. In fact, they were just the beneficiaries of some bizarrely lax Fulham defending. Even though this is a team battling to stay in the Premier League, managed by Claudio Ranieri, here playing with a back five, they still left Arsenal far too much room to walk the ball into the net. Alex Iwobi had the ball on the left and clipped in a simple cross, Granit Xhaka jogged forward, past Tim Ream, and put the ball into the net. Fulham might accept being beaten by Arsenal’s superior quality, but they cannot accept being beaten like this.
After Arsenal had scored their sluggish play started to improve, and they should have had a second goal later on in the first half. Xhaka shot at Sergio Rico after Sead Kolasinac’s pull-back, Aubameyang headed wide from Iwobi’s cross and then Alexandre Lacazette forced another save from Rico after muscling his way through.
But the pattern of the game had clearly changed, and the lead had injected Arsenal with confidence. At half-time Emery turned up the pressure, taking off Shkodran Mustafi for Lucas Torreira, switching to a 4-3-3, pinning Fulham back. And so while the first Arsenal goal came out of the blue, the second did feel inevitable when it came. Again it started with Iwobi, he found Aubameyang who cut past two defenders, Kolasinac overlapped and pulled the ball back, and Lacazette took a touch, took his time, and buried his finish.
Now Fulham really had to gamble and Claudio Ranieri threw on Jean Michael Seri and Aboubakar Kamara, hoping to disrupt Arsenal with some physicality. And it worked. Seri’s first decisive contribution was a clever cross from the right but Aleksandar Mitrovic’s free header was straight at Bernd Leno. But it did not matter, because two minutes later Fulham did pull one back. Again Seri was involved, starting a move that then saw Cairney find Sessegnon out on the left. He crossed low to the far post and there was Kamara, only just on the pitch, to tuck the ball in.
But it was an Arsenal substitute who scored the next goal, putting them 3-1 up and ending the game as a contest. Aaron Ramsey’s introduction for Lacazette had been booed by some fans but he was the man to finish into the top corner after Aubameyang’s close range effort hit the post. Like the second goal, the chance came from Kolasinac’s cross from high up the pitch.
That was the end of Fulham’s brief flicker of resistance and soon enough Arsenal had their fourth goal. Sokratis freed Aubameyang on the right and his shot took a big deflection off Tim Ream and looped up and into the net. It felt like a fair reward for Arsenal’s quality, if maybe not for their dominance.
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