Monreal and Wilshere free up match-winner Cazorla
Arsenal’s attack was operating at a pedestrian pace in the first half, but in the second they made a slight tactical adjustment in midfield and this paid dividends. To throw Scott Parker and Steven Sidwell off their scent, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla interchanged positions after the interval. This pulled the visiting defenders out of position and freed up space for the Spanish maestro to make a difference. Left-back Nacho Monreal also pushed forward into more advanced positions, creating 2 vs 1 situations against the isolated Sascha Riether. Monreal was conservative in the opening 45 minutes, making just 10 successful passes in the attacking third. After the break he made 15 – with just one failing to find the feet of a team-mate.
This owed much to Wilshere’s presence on the left in the second half. During the first half the England international attempted more passes out wide to the right, looking for his favoured outlet Bacary Sagna, but with the guests doing a good job of blocking that path to goal he switched his focus to the left. Cazorla shifted inside and struck twice in five minutes – the first coming courtesy of incisive build-up play down the left channel, with Wilshere making the final telling pass. Both of the Spaniard’s goals came from central positions. These intelligent manoeuvres enabled Arsenal to play with more fluidity and adventure, resulting in Cazorla hitting two decisive strikes.
Kacaniklic’s loss of discipline proves costly
Not many teams come to the Emirates and manage to roadblock Sagna’s surges down the right wing, but in Saturday’s first half, Fulham created an impenetrable blockade. Sentries Kieran Richardson and Kacaniklic dropped back into position, forcing livewire Serge Gnabry inside. When Sagna overlapped there was nowhere to go. Shepherding the Gunners inside can be costly, but in the first half, when Fulham’s discipline, focus and energy levels were up, it steered Arsenal into congested areas of the pitch. Gnabry and Sagna only exchanged 13 passes in the 69 minutes they were on the pitch together – with the German playing the ball to the Frenchman just 5 times. Gnabry managed just 2 crosses all game and Sagna 4. Against Norwich, when Arsenal won 4-1, the French right-back whipped 7 balls into the box. None yielded a goal, but if you keep putting balls in the box one of four things can happen – you score, you tire the opposition out, you win a corner or you pick up the clearance on the edge of the box.
To keep pass-masters Arsenal at bay you have to maintain your focus and organisation for the entire match, not just a half. In the opening 45 minutes Kacaniklic kept his discipline and helped maintain the Cottagers’ shape. After the interval he abandoned his post and went searching for the ball. He completed 7 of 8 attempted passes in the first half, all of which were down the left wing or played inside from the channel. In the second half 5 of his 11 attempted passes came from positions on the right. Only 2 of the Swede’s 7 dribbles were successful, and too often he conceded possession when Fulham needed him to keep hold of it. When one player breaks rank it unsettles the equilibrium of the system and this opens up gaps all over the pitch. Space is a gift you can’t afford to give Arsenal.
Fulham’s sloppy passing invited pressure
Rene Meulensteen men knew they were going to be chasing the ball for 90 minutes. Doing this from the first whistle to the final peep, saps the energy out of players’ legs. And with tiredness come mistakes. When your defence is being asked to deliver a flawless performance they need the midfield and attack to offer some respite by picking up loose balls and keeping possession. When Fulham did get the ball they gave it away cheaply in the attacking third. With men committed forward to the counter-attack they often found themselves busting a gut to get back because their passing accuracy was just 59%. Dimitar Berbatov’s arms spent more time up in the air expressing frustration than they did whirring around as part of a running action.
Hangeland and Burn add defensive resilience
Ok, yes we know Fulham lost 2-0, but after getting thumped 4-1 by Sunderland at Craven Cottage this was a huge improvement. Brede Hangeland and debutant Dan Burn were at the heart of this defiance. The Norwegian was making his first Premier League appearance since Fulham’s 4-1 win at Crystal in October. During his time on the sidelines with a sciatic nerve problem in his leg, 15 games in all competitions, Fulham conceded 41 goals – an average of almost three per game – during this period. His calming influence and physical presence were evident in the first half, as he and Burn kept Olivier Giroud quiet. The French striker received just 15 passes in the first half. When the game opened up in the second half and Fulham were stretched out he was picked out by his team-mates 24 times.
The visitors’ resilience restricted the Gunners to 9 shots on goal in the opening 45 minutes – with only 2 hitting the target. After half-time they had 13 more – 4 troubled Maarten Stekelenburg, and 2 found the net. There was nothing either Hangeland or Burn could do about the goals. Combined, the pair made 13 clearances and both were in position to make goalline clearances. Hangeland denied Mesut Özil and Burn stopped Sagna scoring his second goal of the season.
It was an especially impressive performance from Burn, appearing in his first Premier League game after the termination of his loan at Birmingham. Meulensteen’s decision to bring the English defender back to west London looks a shrewd move. The Dutch manager will be pleased to have him and Hangeland in a back four that has shipped a Premier League-high 48 goals – 10 more than any other side.
Parker and Sidwell lead by example
When the referee blew the final whistle you couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for Fulham’s holding midfielders. They have a combined age of 64, but the veteran duo run around like a pair of teenagers making their Premier League debuts.
Parker was the Cottagers’ top passer, completing 61 exchanges - only the Arsenal quartet of Wilshere, Ozil, Mathieu Flamini and Cazorla bettered this. Fulham’s skipper made 2 blocks, 4 interceptions and a game-high 6 tackles. Sidwell topped the charts for ball recoveries (11) and interceptions (5). He was one of the game’s leading tacklers, with 3 successful challenges, and matched Parker for blocks. The former Gunner also had his team’s best effort on goal with a thunderous shot that was well saved by Wojciech Szczesny. Parker and Sidwell’s efforts deserved greater reward, but unfortunately their team-mates were unable to match their application and Arsenal’s quality proved decisive.