Fulham 0 Arsenal 1 (Van Persie 52)
Strange how a scrappy undeserved win always brings about more plaudits than a delightful thumping, isn’t it?
For as long as we’ve had the reputation for destroying opposition only to fall meekly to physical sides (an opinion that is so outdated it is ridiculous), we’ve heard the line that we can’t win ugly. Whenever we slice a team to pieces, as we did so impressively on the opening day against Everton, the pundits claim it won’t last, because we can’t grind out a result when we’re struggling. When we finally do, the poor performance is ignored, and the praise comes flooding in. Football is a strange game.
If a manager is rated on his decision making, then Wenger played a blinder on Saturday. With Mannone looking fraught against Liege, and not a whole lot better against Wigan, there were plenty of calls for him to be replaced by Szczesny, who made a series of excellent saves against West Brom in the Carling Cup, and had more of a air of assurance about him. Indeed, Wenger spoke about the nod ‘normally’ going to Mannone, perhaps insinuating that the Pole was about to be rewarded.
In the end, he chose to stick with the young Italian, and that decision, put simply, earned us three points. It would be unfair to suggest that Szczesny would have had a bad game, but the likelihood of him putting in the sort of performance we saw from Mannone is remote. He was outstanding.
The rest of the team struggled – Clichy and Arshavin have yet to form any kind of partnership down the left hand side, and Diaby was at his infuriating worst, failing to track back and ambling around the field seemingly without a care in the world. What rankles more than anything is that he is easily quick enough to be an effective box to box player – witness any of his surging runs forward and his athleticism is clear for all to see. But he just doesn’t seem to put in the hard yards.
Cesc also struggled, but still managed the one moment of magic that mattered, releasing Van Persie with a delightful chipped pass, the Dutchman controlling and burying the chance in an instant. Cesc’s enthusiastic celebrations, meanwhile, will hopefully end the ridiculous over-analysis of his happiness at the club by those who delight shots at Arsenal with every breath.
It was a top class goal, completely at odds with the rest of the match. Except, of course, for Mannone, who pulled off some exceptional saves, notably a double save in the first half, his lightning reactions surely pleasing Gerry Peyton, his keeping coach. Mannone stopped everything that Fulham threw at him, visibly growing in confidence with every save he made.
Predictably, the reaction has been excessive. Last week he was hopeless, Wenger desperately needing to sign new talent in goal, this week some are calling for him to replace Almunia on a full time basis. It is a classic lack of middle ground, which in reality is where Mannone lies. He is a very promising young keeper, who will make mistakes at the highest level like any other his age, but who has the ability to grow into a fine player. He will need time, and is not ready to be our number one yet. That is no criticism, I’m just trying to inject a little realism here.
And it works the other way – we were poor on Saturday, but that is the first time this season we haven’t looked dangerous going forward. Much like Chelsea’s erratic defensive display against Wigan, it should only be a blip.
Speaking of other results though, I do find is amusing that we were being dismissed as title contenders after the two Manchester defeats. A win in our game in hand and we’re level with Liverpool, and only three points behind United and Chelsea. All that after the most difficult start to the season in terms of fixtures – tough away trips to United, City and Everton, and only two home games to cash in on.
Write us off at your peril.