Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
To say Fulham went all-in during the summer would be something of an understatement. Promoted as the Championship’s top passers, the Cottagers faced a stark choice: stick to their guns, with the same players, and go straight back down; stick to their guns by signing a whole new side at great expense; or foist a more defensive style on a squad wholly unsuited to such. In the end Slavisa Jokanovic plumped for option two, spending upwards of £100m before the transfer window slammed shut. But, two months on, the Serbian is still no closer to moulding Fulham’s 11 newbies into a cohesive unit.
Then again, in spite of some misleadingly positive results, Unai Emery is having teething problems of his own. There was more than a smidgen of luck involved in all five of Arsenal’s consecutive Premier League victories, with last weekend’s win over Watford standing as a particularly egregious example. Emery’s 4-2-3-1 was neither creating many big-chances nor preventing them. And Thursday’s experiment with a back-three, away to Qarabag, also ended in failure after just 45 minutes.
Enter, therefore, the 4-2-2-2 — used to great effect by Emery’s fellow countryman Javi Gracia this season. Perhaps inspired by the six big chances Watford created against his side last time out, Emery took a leaf out of Gracia’s book. Alexandre Lacazatte was duly handed a partner, in the shape of Danny Welbeck, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi — Arsenal’s gamechanger against the Hornets — manned the number-10 berths.
Jokanovic, meanwhile, reached for a new system of his own, too. Lady Luck has not been as kind to Fulham’s under-fire manager, who has not exactly borne the pressure well. The 3-4-2-1 shape the Serbian tried here, for example, became the third different system Fulham have utilised in as many games. His 4-1-4-1 could not withstand Watford’s high-press, while last weekend’s dalliance with 4-2-3-1 gifted Gylfi Sigurdsson the run of Goodison Park.
Perhaps a third centre-back would help to stem the flow of attacks in behind Fulham’s always-advanced full-backs? Jokanovic had paid the price for sticking to his attacking guns prior to the visit of Arsenal, after all; no Premier League side boasted a higher expected-goals-against tally than the porous Cottagers.
No such luck, however, as Arsenal proceeded to continually invade the left-channel — generously opened by the positionally unsound Cyrus Christie. Christie, in for the injured Timothy Fosu-Mensah, regularly assumed aggressive positions completely at odds with the game-state. Both Iwobi and Welbeck took full advantage, crafting four first-half crosses from the byline between them. Only some capable back-post defending from Maxime Le Marchand, who looked far more comfortable in a back-three than Denis Odoi, spared Fulham’s blushes.
But the Frenchman could do nothing about Arsenal’s opener, which owed much to the Cottagers’ other glaring structural flaw. Both Zambo Anguissa and Jean-Michael Seri failed utterly to keep tabs on Sigurdsson last weekend. Expecting them to handle four Arsenal central midfielders therefore, plus whichever Gunners striker dropped off, was a tall order to say the least. Especially when neither André Schurrle nor Luciano Vietto (particularly the latter) was interested in doing much defending.
No surprise then when Mkhitaryan picked up a second-ball, under no pressure, in the inside-right pocket to Seri’s left. With Christie unsurprisingly caught way upfield, the Armenian duly worked the ball leftward, where Iwobi eventually received possession in space. Monreal overlapped off the belatedly recovering Christie, becoming the third Arsenal player to cross from the byline on the Irishman’s side. Lacazette applied the finish, scoring the only big chance his side created here.
As you were…
Perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by André Schurrle’s late equaliser, Jokanovic incredibly refused to enact a single tactical adjustment at half-time. Odoi, his right-sided centre-back, remained woefully exposed, and Iwobi got in behind twice in the opening three minutes of the second-half. The second instance produced a Hector Bellerin effort that Marcus Bettinelli did brilliantly to claw away. But England’s third-choice goalkeeper was caught flat-footed when Lacazette restored Arsenal’s lead from range moments later. Anguissa, dispossessed four times in the first-half alone, also erred by losing an aerial duel to Welbeck. Tim Ream, replaced soon after, may also question the looseness with which he marked the Gunners’ top marksman.
Ream was sacrificed soon after, as Jokanovic reverted to a back-four. And, although replacement Aboubakar Kamara should have headed home a Christie cross, that was very much a case of shutting the door after the horse had already bolted. Still, despite their defensive deficiences, Fulham were somewhat unlucky to be trailing at the hour-mark.
In a game where both sides tried to press high and dominate, Fulham more than held their own in the first-half, attempting 12 shots to Arsenal’s four. Interestingly, Jokanovic’s high-press proved infinitely more effective than Emery’s, forcing Arsenal’s defence into three calamitous errors in possession. Neither Vietto nor Schurrle could capitalise on stray passes from Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding respectively. But the German international eventually came up trumps for his side, when Vietto’s pressing forced Monreal into another errant pass.
And, although Emery’s side increased their advantage further with three brilliantly-taken goals, each originating from the Arsenal half, the Spaniard’s desire to play it out from the back is still very much a work-in-progress. Fulham, like Watford and Everton before them, were desperately unfortunate not to prevail upon that ongoing weakness.
Arsenal, unbelievably clinical in the second-half, were not so generous. The gaps in Fulham’s defensive structure only expanded after Kevin McDonald’s hour-mark introduction, and a concurrent reversion to 4-1-4-1. Both Mkhitaryan and substitute Aaron Ramsey came in off the flanks to combine either side of McDonald for Arsenal’s breathtaking third goal. And Ryan Sessegnon was caught upfield for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s firs; Kamara, filling in for the teenager, unsurprisingly failed to defend Bellerin’s cross.
Ramsey again found space between the lines to tee up Aubameyang’s second goal, as both Seri and Stefan Johansen left McDonald stranded in front of his hapless defence. That was Fulham’s 21st concession of the season, comfortably the worst in the division and four ahead of both Huddersfield and Cardiff. Jokanovic’s commitment to open, attacking football is admirable, but his lack of emphasis on structure isn’t exactly paying off in the final-third either. Only six sides have scored fewer goals than the Cottagers, who will seek to end their five-game winless run at Cardiff in a crunch post-international break fixture.
Arsenal, meanwhile, continue to bat above their average — and in some style, too. No side has outperformed their expected-goals tally more than the ultra-clinical Gunners, who have bagged 19 from an expected figure of 10.41. That, quite simply, is not sustainable, but the 4-2-2-2 system that Emery hit upon here may well be. Sure, Fulham’s back-three made it difficult for Arsenal’s front-two to press high in the first-half. And, yes, Emery’s defence is still prone to moments of madness when pressure is applied. But against sides with four defenders, and especially those who underprotect central midfield in a similar manner to Fulham, this could be a potent formula; one tailor-made for Mesut Ozil, in particular, to shine.
Six straight wins sees the Gunners sitting in third, eight places above the position their underlying numbers would suggest. Emery has been blessed with good fortune at the beginning of his Arsenal tenure. The question is: can the Spaniard take advantage of that by finally striking the right tactical balance and preventing a nasty reversion to the mean.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112