Arsenal return to the scene of the crime
Today Arsenal return to the stadium where it all started to go wrong last season. It was only the second game of the league campaign when Fulham beat Arsenal 1-0, but the performance was even more telling than the scoreline. Arsenal were lethargic, uninspired, and seemingly disinterested in the proceedings at the Cottage that day. It was a performance that foreshadowed Arsenal’s 2008-2009 Premier League season. Tepid, emotionless games like the one against Fulham would prove to be the team’s undoing. Now, early in the new season, with Arsenal seemingly rejuvinated and ready to mount a legitimate title challenge, the team heads back to Craven Cottage with a chance to banish bitter memories of last season’s disappointment.
Last week Arsenal got back to winning ways by dominating a woeful Wigan team at the Emirates. But this could prove a trickier fixture. Fulham defend doggedly, and despite their relatively poor start to the season, Craven Cottage has not been a happy hunting-ground for Arsenal in recent seasons. Regardless, it’s a game we’ll be favored to win, and it’s another chance for this Arsenal team to prove that it has the maturity to bring a winning attitude to every contest.
In many ways, we’re entering one of the most important stretches of our season. We have seven very winnable league games ahead of us before Chelsea visit the Emirates in November. (And yes, I am including our first meeting with Sp*rs among those games.) If we can take maximum points from these games, we will certainly be sitting right at the top of the table. It’s a fact not overlooked by Robin Van Persie.
“If you look last year, the way Manchester United became champions was against
the smaller teams. They won against all the teams from 19 to 10. That is why they became champions. So it is very important to win these games. I had a look at the fixtures coming up and on paper they look all right but we lost to Fulham last year so it is very, very tough.”
If we can get wins, instead of losses against teams like Fulham, Stoke and Hull it will go a long way to absolving the sins of last season.
December and January see us face our toughest competition ending with a brutal four games in 13 days. During that time we face Villa, United, Chelsea and Liverpool. But should we survive that stretch, we don’t face another top side the rest of the season with the notable exception of our April fixture at home versus Citeh. Our ability to win the league this season will depend on two solid winning streaks. The second streak will have to start in February. The first must start now.
Ordinarily I’d be very concerned about today’s game, but there’s several reasons for optimism. First, Fulham have scored a whopping four goals this season. One against Pompey, two against Everton, and one against Wolves. Coincidentally, they lost to Wolverhampton 2-1 in their last league fixture. Considering that we will be starting a relatively inexperienced ‘keeper, and still have some questions about our defending, Fulham’s lack of attacking prowess will be helpful.
Second, the team news is oddly encouraging. I’ve become so accustomed to complaining about our absentees, that I find myself uncertain how to react to a relatively upbeat injury report. While there’s still no news regarding Samir Nasri, Andrey Arshavin returns for the Fulham game, and Theo Walcott is available. The former is an instant upgrade to the front line and will add that special creativity and class that makes us a threat to score at any moment. The latter might still be short the necessary training time to feature against Fulham. With respect to Theo’s availability on Saturday, Arsene was his usually cryptic self.
“I don’t know [if he could figure this weekend] He is still a bit short because it’s the week he’s back to full, normal training. But the good news is that he’s available again.”
From that statement, it’s doubtful that Theo will start against Fulham, but he could certainly have a place on the bench. I have said for a long time that I think Theo Walcott is a critical piece of this Arsenal puzzle. He’s really the only natural fit for the right forward position in the 4-3-3. He also adds pace to an Arsenal side that finds itself uncharacteristically lacking in that department. But even if he doesn’t start, his presence on the bench would be massive. So far this season, injuries have left Arsenal with a mostly underwhelming bench. It’s so important to have a player or two on the bench that can really change the dynamic of a game. We haven’t had that. With respect to Ramsey and Eboue and Wilshere, they aren’t players Arsene can put in the game after an hour and expect them to revitalize the team. Theo can do that. If we’re struggling to create chances today, and Theo’s on the bench, he can bring a different dynamic to the game and challenge Fulham’s defense immediately.
Another reason for optimism today is that Arsenal have been in fine goal-scoring form. It’s not unthinkable that Fulham could score today, but it’s fair to suggest that if Arsenal are able to continue their torrid scoring pace it will be nearly impossible for the cottagers to keep up. And for the first time this season, Arsene has a genuine surplus of attacking players to choose from today. Consider that we’ve played a few games already this season with only Diaby, Bendtner and Eduardo available in attack. Today Arsene has Van Persie apparently healthy, Theo possibly available, as well as Arshavin, Vela, and Rosicky in addition to the previously named trio. It’s provides some exciting options for the manager.
So who will start at Craven Cottage? For the first time this season, it’s a very difficult question to answer. The safe money would be on a front three of Arshavin, Van Persie and Bendtner and a midfield including Cesc, Song and Diaby. Denilson is still injured and Wenger’s probably not ready to risk Rosicky starting a big league game. But wouldn’t it be exciting to see a Cesc, Song and Rosicky midfield? Against all odds, I’m hoping that’s exactly what Wenger selects. Either way, it’ll be a strong bench that could include Vela, Eduardo, Theo, Eboue, and Rosicky or Diaby. That’s a vast improvement over recent options.
In defense, I wouldn’t be surprised if either Gallas or Vemaelen earned a day off. They’ve both been so impressive but they’ve played every meaningful match this season. Senderos and Silvestre both looked decent in midweek and Arsene will be aware of Fulham’s tame goal-scoring threat. If he’s been looking to rest his central defenders, this might be the game where he does it. Having said that, my feeling is that he’ll stick with his first choice pairing because they’ll be protecting a young and inexperienced goal keeper. Wenger was vague about his selection for this game, insinuating that Szczesny could start in place of Mannone. But regardless of which keeper the boss chooses, they’ll feel more comfortable with a Gallas and Vermaelen standing directly in front of them.
There’s no doubt that Sagna will take his place at right back, but I’ll be curious to see if Wenger gives Clichy the day off. He’s been inconsistent this season and that’s being polite. A little competition for his place might do him some good and Gibbs is a capable replacement. Odds are that Clichy will keep his spot, but he’s going to have to eliminate the sloppy mistakes from his game soon. Arsenal’s defense would be massively improved if Clichy can somehow find the form that made him one of the best left-backs in the premier league just a few seasons ago.
Arsene Wenger has been talking about what it takes to win the league and I think he’s aware that a draw can be just as damaging as a loss. Last season Liverpool’s title ambitions were derailed by too many draws. Similarly, the impact of Arsenal’s long unbeaten run was blunted by a run of four bad draws in February. For that reason, Arsenal seem to take more chances in attack this season. We leave ourselves open to the counter attack and against Citeh we were punished. But Barcelona, who play the same style, are similarly vulnerable to the counter attack and their approach has been an overwhelming success. By taking more risks we might be more vulnerable, but we’re less likely to be treated to those soul-crushing nil-nil draws. We are the top scoring team in the league this season and that’s a big improvement from a year ago. Last season I worried about our ability to travel to grounds like Craven Cottage and get the goal we needed to win the game. This season I have no such concerns.
But maybe more important than strategy and healthy players at the moment is the camaraderie in the team. Last season Arsenal suffered from genuine divisiveness in the dressing room. It was something that even manifested itself on the pitch from time to time. This season seems to be a different story entirely and the players are playing for each other again. RVP spoke about the dynamic at the club leading up to today’s game.
“I do feel our team spirit is at a higher level than most other clubs. Other clubs have lots of egos. We have egos here but the whole squad has good egos and good characters. That is not the case at many other clubs. We now have more experience too. There is me, Clichy, Fabregas and Song – we cannot hide behind
saying we are inexperienced anymore. It is now about how much we really want
It’s good to hear Van Persie talk so highly of the team spirit but it’s equally encouraging to hear him acknowledge that the time for making excuses is over. This team has the talent to win trophies and the issue of experience is not an acceptable alibi for failure any longer. If the dressing room is more united and harmonious, that will only help the team accomplish its goals.
So today is about taking three points any way we can get them, and maybe exorcising some demons from last season. I don’t care if how we get three points today, but I have a feeling that the return of some key players will inspire a stylish performance. Whereas we all might have been nervous about this fixture in the past, most Arsenal fans seem genuinely optimistic about today’s game. Hopefully our positivity is warranted.
Enjoy the game wherever you might be watching. It almost certainly will be an improvement from what we saw last season in the corresponding fixture. Here’s hoping that we get a look at Theo, but either way, let’s go out a get three points.
Come On You Gunners!