Fulham 2 (Sidwell 85, Zamora 90) Arsenal 1 (Koscielny 21)
It is always difficult to write a match report after a game like this. I was tempted to pen my thoughts in the immediate aftermath, but decided to let the game settle a little and write in the morning. In truth, my thoughts haven’t really changed. Given that both sides played superbly for one half, and pretty abysmally for the other, and given that both sides missed some golden chances in their good half, a draw would probably have been a fair result, even though it would have been a source of frustration for us, as the equaliser came so late. A loss, on the other hand, is hard to take.
It had started so well. We were carving Fulham up from the first minute, and had Gervinho or Walcott had their finishing boots on (or their ‘final ball’ boots, at least), we could have been out of sight after half an hour. As it was, we led through Koscielny’s header, after he was left alone to turn home Ramsey’s deflected cross from eight yards. Moments later, Stockdale pulled off a pair of remarkable saves to keep the lead at one, and despite slicing through the opposition at will, we couldn’t add to our tally. It is a familiar script, and given the nerves that it creates amongst the fans, the players must feel it too.
Fulham had their moments, particularly through the dangerous Ruiz, but were a changed team in the second half, showing a greater sense of urgency and more discipline at the back. As they improved, we regressed, energy seeming to drain away from the majority of the players, and Fulham began to peg us back. Senderos and Dempsey both missed glorious chances to level the match, and at the other end our previously incisive passing was going further and further astray.
With ten minutes to go, we went down a man. Djourou, already booked (and unlike Wenger, I thought his first yellow was warranted), put his hand on Zamora’s shoulder, who went down in all his Heskey glory. The dive was bought, and Lee Probert, who had previously kept his whistle down and his cards in his pocket, often to ridiculous extremes, produced another card. After that, an equaliser was almost inevitable, and when Szczesny flapped, Senderos headed the ball across goal to Sidwell, who buried the chance. That two former Arsenal men combined for the goal just added a bit of salt to the wound.
At that point, I was frustrated, but aware enough to accept that Fulham had done enough to warrant a point. Not three, though, but that’s what they got in the dying seconds when Squillaci’s defensive header fell to the unmarked Zamora, who finished emphatically. I’ve seen many blaming Squillaci for the goal, but he did his job in the build up more than many – I’d question why Zamora had so much space, ten yards out, when the ball dropped.
It was a cruel blow, and doubly frustrating given that we should have been out of sight in the first half. We wasted so many glorious positions that we really only have ourselves to blame. Having said that, we were once again the victim of some atrocious refereeing at times, and I don’t even mean the penalty shouts, of which there were two – Gervinho tripped early on and Van Persie unceremoniously shoved over in the second half. On first viewing, I thought neither were spot kicks, and required replays to indicate that my initial assessment had been wrong, so I don’t level too much at the referee for those, as they don’t get that benefit. Nevertheless, we have now been denied five penalties in three games, which is bringing back concerning memories of the six months following Eduardo and Celtic.
But more than that, Probert’s display was just home-friendly in the extreme. After a reasonable first half (aside from the Gervinho penalty), he allowed Fulham to get away with a wrestling display in the second. I rewatched the second half again after the match had finished, to see just how many times Van Persie was dumped to the floor having gained possession, and I counted seven. Seven occasions our captain was hauled down, and not once did he get a free kick. It was bizarre to watch, and you could see him getting more and more frustrated. Elsewhere, Riise sent Walcott flying into the advertising boards with a clear two handed shove, and then calmly carried on as if nothing had happened. Probert wasn’t quite Atwell of last week, but it is getting annoying to be talking about referees every single game. Wenger was visibly angered after the game, and understandably so – to see Djourou get a second yellow for an offence far lighter than what he had allowed Fulham to get away with throughout was mind boggling.
That said, we can only control our performance, and we had enough opportunities to put the game to bed long before that. I actually feel a little for Gervinho, who I think comes in for a lot of unfair stick – his final ball and finishing was pretty woeful yesterday, but that was only exacerbated by the number of times he got into great positions. It always frustrates me that players who have exemplary off the ball running skills (as he does) are lambasted more than players who never make those runs in the first place. You always hear ‘give X those opportunities and he would score‘, which is disingenuous as X doesn’t make his excellent runs. Of course I am frustrated by his end product, but I’d rather he got into those positions and fluffed them than was anonymous. It means he is halfway there.
Elsewhere, there were other positives. At the back, Koscielny put in another masterclass, but I’d like to give a hand to Coquelin, who filled in at left back and was targeted by Fulham as our weak link (understandably). Despite being up against the bright Ruiz, he did very well, his only blemish being his positional error for Zamora’s winner. A costly blemish, sure, but one you cannot blame a right footed midfielder for.
Despite the late goals, I was more concerned about the attack yesterday, but not the individuals themselves. Van Persie and Arteta in particular look exhausted, so the issue is not so much their quality as the paucity of their replacements. Were our injuries to clear up, Coquelin and Wilshere could bolster our central midfield options, but despite the imminent loan re-signing of Henry, Van Persie needs support.
But more than that, some of those players need a rest. With seven days before a Leeds tie that will see further rotation, they will get it.
Not the best start to 2012. But we move on.