Another 2 goal lead surrendered and the knives are out. There’s a dark cloud that has descended over Ashburton Grove but I don’t think it’s down to the one game yesterday. It was more of a cumulative disappointment/anger that has built up over the course of say, the last 2 – 3 weeks. From the poor performances at Carrow Road and Old Trafford to letting go of leads in the last two matches, the soup is starting to spill from the boiling pot (not the worst I’ve ever come up with).
From being in total control of the game to conceding a very poor goal to give away and then completely fall out of character (or fall into character, some would say). Brittle is the word for the team right now. The first sign of problem or the first crack was exposed (no pun intended) and we crumbled and the belief goes out of the window. Some teams/players would immediately wipe the goal out and continue to play with the same conviction as before the goal was conceded. That doesn’t seem to be the path that our team take.
Which is a stark contrast to the positive and bright start that we made. Just 11 minutes on the clock when we took the lead. Fulham allowed Olivier Giroud to get a free run at the corner and paid for it. The Frenchman got his second goal in the Premier League, thumping in another headed goal. It was never a secret that his aerial ability is his best asset and it is good to see us start utilising it. It seems that Theo Walcott has replaced Santi Cazorla as the nominated corner kick taker and the delivery shows why.
We increased the lead just 12 minutes later when Lukas Podolski scored. Cazorla’s pass to Walcott was intercepted but it fell into the path of Mikel Arteta who picked his pass to perfection and provided the platform for the German to get his 3rd goal in the Premier League. His first goal in 7 games for us. With a two goal lead just halfway through the first half, one would think that we now have a stronghold on the match and confidence will spread throughout the team. Yet, we were so far away from doing that. Instead, applauds have to go to Fulham, who just kept plugging away and never let their spirit drop despite going two behind.
Their fightback started with a gift. A gift that we wrapped and presented it a month and a half before Christmas. We were in a generous mood. Dimitar Berbatov left unmarked in the middle of our penalty box, halfway between the goal line and the penalty box. He wasn’t going to miss the header from there and we cannot do anything but question the defending. I’m not blaming zonal marking, the system. The positioning of the players though, is a big question. No one seemed to want to get their head on the ball and we paid for it. That was the push that Fulham needed to get themselves back into the game.
It was no surprise when Fulham equalised. Any hopes of us holding the 2-1 lead going into half time evaporated when Alex Kacaniklic scored 5 minutes before the halt time whistle. Again, it came from a header and again, we were culpable. The marking was non existent for that goal. 4 Arsenal players in the box with 3 Fulham players. None of the men in red near anyone in white and all of the men in red were ball watching. If the army has codes by which they have to live by, surely such cardinal sin of ball watching should be punishable to a certain extent (I’m trying with the analogies). Vito Mannone will also have to take some blame, could have reacted much faster to the header.
The second half started evenly and we were in the contest as much as we can. Then, it changed. For one reason or another, Arsene Wenger made a change that turned the game on it’s head. Francis Coquelin, who started the game, was doing a fine job in the middle of the park. Providing the support that Arteta needs and putting in his fair share of tackles. At 2-2 and still with 34 minutes left on the clock and with Fulham very much still in the game, it was a baffling decision. One could say, similar to the one Wenger made in that United game last season (Arshavin for Oxlade-Chamberlain).
Let’s put things into perspective. I like Aaron Ramsey and want him to succeed with us. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Coquelin was right in the thick of things in that match for us and did his job as per required. Ramsey tried but will have to take a chunk of the responsibility. Him coming on means that Arteta will have to just sit because Ramsey doesn’t provide that cover and support that Coquelin does. The former Welsh captain lost possession rather too easily and never got into the game. The change allowed Fulham more time and space in the middle and Bryan Ruiz exploited that. The Costa Rican found gaps either side of Arteta and roamed to good effect.
Worse was to come when Arteta dragged Berbatov back and conceded the penalty. The Bulgarian, a thorn in our side the entire game, tucked in the ensuing penalty kick and from 2-0 up, we were staring at defeat. Though, we only stared at it for two minutes. Walcott again the cross provider for Giroud to head in the equaliser. The crowd that was deflated just two minutes before, has now regained it’s voice. Surely we would kick on from here and win the game. No, is the answer. Fulham defended well and we created little after that. Giroud had another chance to complete a hattrick of headers but failed to find the target.
We finally got a penalty in the last minute of the game and could have won it, had Arteta scored. But he didn’t and we didn’t win. Yes, the Spaniard is to be blamed for missing the spot kick but that wasn’t why we didn’t win the game. It’s the fact that we went 2-0 up to 3-2 down. Wenger puts the blame on tiredness and seriously, quite unbelievable. Other top teams in the league suffers the same problem, internationals and European cup competitions. Yet, it looks like we are the only ones affected by it. Sorry Arsene, that answer is unacceptable.
Something is terribly wrong with the team and they will have a massive week ahead to assess things. Next week’s game is shaping out to be more than a derby.
Will the team rise to it? Hard to say yes, after this latest performance.