It isn’t the first let-down we have had following a big mid-week result, and it certainly won’t be the last. Having won our Champions League group and qualified for the knockout stages a few days ago, this match – at home against one of the lower-half sides – was an opportunity to rotate a few of our players, while hopefully still getting three points to continue our league momentum.
As soon as the final whistle went on Wednesday night, speculation abounded that we should change some of the side for this match; we all speculated about just how many changes Arsene would make.
As it was, Arsene kept the rotation to a minimum. JD started at right back for Kos, and other than Arsh in for Gerv, we lined up the same as recently: Ches, JD, Mert, TV, Santos, Arteta, Song, Ramsey, Arsh, Robin, and Theo.
Fab, Kos, Diaby, Frim, Gerv, Benny and Chamakh comprised our bench…
We had the late afternoon kickoff today, and started the day in our now customary seventh place. In the mid-afternoon kickoff, Spuds and Chelsea both won and Man United and Newcastle drew in a match that had absolutely everything.
This meant that a big win could potentially move us to fourth, ahead of Chelsea and Newcastle (on goal difference). With Liverpool hosting leaders Man City today, we certainly expected to move at least into sixth.
Fulham got the match underway, and almost immediately it was apparent that something was not quite right. To use an oft-quoted Arsene-ism, we “lacked a bit of sharpness”…
That is not to say we didn’t create anything – in the fourth minute, Arsh put the ball in the net after collecting Robin’s fine through ball, but was correctly flagged offside…Then a few minutes later, Schwarzer just got a hand up to claw Ramsey’s goal-bound chip away after more good set-up work from Robin…Ramsey then fired high from a good position.
Despite these chances, we didn’t seem to have that much spark. We were patient, almost seeming to think “don’t worry, the goal will come”, and we also seemed to take heavy touches, and misplace plenty of passes.
Fulham didn’t threaten much early, and didn’t get a shot off until around 20 minutes in, when Zamora fired over Szczesny’s cross-bar. Theo then forced Schwarzer to block at his near post. We forced a series of corners, but were unable to do anything with them.
Shortly before the half hour, Santos earned the first booking, handling the ball as attempted to stop Ruiz. Zamora kept yapping at referee Dean, who booked him, then gestured for him to “zip it” and get back to the task at hand. A couple of minutes later, we had a bit of a scare when TV blocked the ball with his knee, went down and then got up gingerly, favoring the knee. Fortunately, it was nothing and he was fine within a minute or so…
The pattern continued until the last few minutes of the half. Perhaps the most excitement was a cameo of Jack (Wilshere), showing off his white iPhone 4G/S from his seat in the stands. Just before the 45 minute mark, Fulham brought the ball into our area, and our defenders converged around Dempsey, who picked out Dembele, umarked near the right corner of goal. The latter took a touch and drew a fine, diving save from Szczesny. That was the best chance of the match until the first (only minute of stoppage time), where Etuhu was booked for fouling Arteta, and Mert headed the free kick narrowly wide.
The whistle went just a couple of seconds later and the half ended as it started: 0-0.
We did not make any changes at the interval and got the second half underway. Fulham started quicker and forced a couple of corners, which we cleared comfortably. We slowly built pressure, and right at the hour mark, should have gone ahead. Arteta picked our captain out, who brought the ball into the box and shot across Schwarzer, the ball headed for the far (left) corner, but Baird got back to clear the ball off the line. A few minutes later, Robin burst into the box, and went down. There were several minutes before a replay, but when I saw it, I thought Dean made the right call (no pen).
We have conceded goals from an ascendant position before, and it happened again on 64 minutes. Murphy put the ball into our box, former Liverpool defender Riise chested it down, and TV slid in to clear, but instead steered the ball past Szczesny, and into our net.
Within two minutes, Zamora thought he doubled Fulham’s lead with a smart finish; instead, he was (correctly) flagged offside during the build-up.
Arsene had seen enough, and responded by bringing Ramsey and Mert off, for Diaby and Gerv. While Song officially replaced Mert at the center of defence, although his role was fluid enough for us to resemble a 3-3-4 or 4-2-4, depending upon what he needed to do at the moment.
Going behind gave us a (belated) sense of urgency, and Diaby and Gerv both proved more direct and more willing to run at the Fulham defence. We forced a corner and JD produced a powerful, point-blank header, which Schwarzer brilliantly saved. We pressed for another and Fulham made the fatal mistake of letting us come at them. Chamakh replaced Arsh with 15 minutes to go, and seven minutes later, we drew level.
Theo made the goal, whipping in a great cross (one of several good crosses he put in today), from the right flank. Chamakh jumped for it and didn’t reach it, but TV was on hand to head the ball into the bottom left hand corner. Cue huge sighs of relief all around…
We pressed for the winner, with Gerv and Theo shooting directly at Schwarzer when each had time and space to do better. Three minutes from time, there was a shout for handball inside the Fulham box. Replays showed hit either Dempsey’s arm or chest – either way it looked inadvertent and not a pen.
As the match moved into stoppage time, Fulham pressed for a late winner. They forced two quick corners, and as sub Kasami tried to play keep ball in our corner, Chamakh deftly robbed him, swapped passes with Robin and Gerv. The move broke down, but we were still able to force a corner, from which Robin fired wide. In the fourth minute of stoppage time, Fulham broke and Dempsey brought the ball into our area. We cleared before he could line a shot up for find another white shirt, and that was that.
At the end of the day, a point isn’t too bad in the grand scheme of things. We were never going to win every game, and this performance – if not result – was probably due. After the match, Arsene conceded the players had a “hangover” from the midweek win over Dortmund, and I think that was certainly evident.
The hangover was not the entire story, Fulham deserve full credit for making this one difficult and getting a deserved point here. They coped well with most of what we threw at them early on, created a couple of chances and grabbed the lead in slightly fortuitous circumstances. Even when we equalized, they were resilient enough to hold on for a point.
So we’ll have to make do with the point. Should Man City beat Liverpool tomorrow, we’ll remain in sixth. If the home side claims at least a point, we’ll probably find ourselves back in seventh. We have Man City in the Carling Cup on Tuesday, another chance to rotate…
On the subject of rotation, after the win over Dortmund, I expressed the hope that Arsene would rotate only as necessary, and minimize the changes in order to ensure we get a result today. This match served as a reminder to me that I have the luxury of making those comments from here; Arsene and our coaching staff have to make these decisions based on how the players look in action and training. If yesterdays collective performance is anything to go by, we have several players who can use a breather – or will need a rest break before they start to look jaded.
We have the Carling Cup tie, which as much as I would like to win, I think we now have to prioritize rotation. Then we have the dead rubber CL tie at Piraeus the following week, another opportunity to switch things up. I still think we should try and ensure we can field a good mix of first teamers and squad/youth players but judging from today’s performance, I now think giving our key players a break is most important.
With two matches, perhaps we can do it.
We’ll see how Arsene approaches Tuesday’s tie. We won’t know whether yesterdays result is good or bad in the grand scheme, until later in the season. For now, I will characterize it as not the best result, certainly not the worst, but overall a fair one. We’ve been on a good run over the past several weeks, so this result is not the end of the world.
We just have to be careful to put this behind us and get back to winning quickly. If not Tuesday in the Cup, then certainly on the weekend up at Wigan.
Written by Oliver