The inimitable English autumn sunlight that bathed Craven Cottage in a warm glow on Sunday may have greeted the players of both Arsenal and Fulham as they strode onto the pitch, but it was on the Gunners it shined the brightest as Unai Emery’s men stormed to a 5-1 victory and reacquainted themselves with a place in the top 4 of the Premier League table. The match followed the now-familiar pattern of a tightly contested first half giving way to a dominant second, and Arsenal appeared to finally find top gear as they rolled over a hapless Fulham side. A brief letdown towards the end of the first half saw the Gunners concede the chance to grab their third consecutive clean sheet, but for supporters everywhere, there was plenty to be excited about after the victory, Arsenal’s ninth straight in all competitions.
No Ozil, No Problem
As has become a bit of a tradition amongst Arsenal supporters of late, there were many questions asked of the starting XI that Unai Emery named to kick off the afternoon at Craven Cottage. Aaron Ramsey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang began the day on the bench, but Mesut Ozil was nowhere to be found after reports emerged that he had suffered back spasms in the lead up to the match. The usual jokes about his tendency to fall ill just before matches followed shortly thereafter, but it was his teammates’ performance which quickly became the focus of attention following a brilliant match for the attack.
While the German has come in for his fair share of criticism for his inconsistent work rate in Emery’s defend from the front system, his place has been seemingly secure whenever fit. However, his teammates’ stellar performance on Sunday showed Emery that his players are capable of creating plenty of chances against lesser opposition without their talismanic number 10. Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan came into the team and performed admirably against Fulham, combining conscientious defensive work with pace and creativity going forward. Their positional fluidity allowed the Gunners to shift as needed between a 4-4-2 and their favoured 4-2-3-1, sometimes even pressing aggressively with 3 attackers at times.
The victory will no doubt have some supporters questioning whether Ozil is worth his considerable wages when Emery is able to extract those kinds of performances from others, but it is worth remembering just how much Fulham have struggled at the back this season. Against such a disorganised defence, Emery might have gotten away with naming a similar XI to the one that started in Azerbaijan on Thursday, but against the top level teams in the Premier League, the time will come when Ozil’s elite attributed are once again needed.
Arsene Would Be Proud…
For Aaron Ramsey, all he could do was shrug. The Welshman has had a whirlwind couple weeks, with a never-ending stream of stories and rumours surrounding his contract standoff with the club and a wife so near giving birth to twins, he missed Thursday’s match in Azerbaijan and was withheld from the starting XI by Unai Emery against Fulham. However, after not receiving an urgent phone call, Ramsey took to the pitch in the second half and ensured that fans remembered why he has become such a beloved figure at the club.
Mere seconds after coming on, Ramsey received a back pass from Alexandre Lacazette before quickly chipping it back to the striker and taking off up the pitch. Lacazette volleyed the return up over 2 retreating Fulham players to Hector Bellerin, who cheekily backheeled his own volley into the path of the onrushing Ramsey. The Welshman took two touches with his head, the second of which was nodded into the path of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who cleaved open the Fulham defence with a probing through ball to Aubameyang. The former Dortmund man raced towards the touchline before cutting the ball back to Ramsey, who had continued his run all the way into the box. Ramsey capped the move with a cheeky backheel finish. It was a move that recalled some of the great Wengerball goals of the past, and one that still befuddled the mind after repeated viewings.
Taking Their Chances
At the start of the current campaign, as Arsenal navigated a difficult start to the league season with back to back matches against Manchester City and Chelsea, Unai Emery developed a clear initial preference for his starting XI, having rotated little beyond necessity through the first few matches of the season. However, as the schedule became cluttered with fixtures and injuries forced players to miss time, Emery turned to players who might not have initially been a major part of his plans.
In the case of Bernd Leno and Lucas Torreira, it was perhaps inevitable that they would find their way into the starting XI as regular contributors, but Rob Holding has demanded attention with his play at the back, and some are even calling on Emery to make his place in the starting XI permanent. All 3 players have performed in a way that suggests they have little interest in relinquishing their places in the side, and all stood out in the victory at Craven Cottage. Leno wasn’t given much to do on the afternoon, but his confidence playing with the ball at his feet is immediately apparent. In front of him, Holding has impressed with his tenacity and strength in defence, but also his quick feet and aggressive eye for a pass that has helped the Gunners play out from the back at tempo.
The effect that Lucas Torreira has had on the team as a whole, however, cannot be overstated. His energy, his grit and his pure instinctual aptitude for the position has been eye-opening for fans who had been crying out for a player of his ilk for more than a decade. Far more than just a possession recycler, Torreira is capable of turning upfield and playing a pass vertically through the lines. He never stops working, even when his team are 4 goals to the good, and his all-action style has been the key to unlocking Granit Xhaka’s best qualities as a deep-lying playmaker. Torreira has been so good, so early in his Arsenal career, it is sometimes hard to remember that he is still only 22, and has yet to fully settle into the Premier League.
We Get It…They Are Really Good
At this point, what else is there to say? Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are an incredible strike partnership, and they once again proved that against Fulham on Sunday. Lacazette was named into the starting XI by Unai Emery, while Aubameyang was left on the bench after suffering a midweek illness that kept him out of full training. Lacazette once again proved how valuable he is to his team, netting the first 2 Arsenal goals of the afternoon while showing off his excellent link-up play and tenacious desire to track back and mug opposition midfielders. He was joined by Aubameyang in the second half where the Gabon striker scored himself, involved in Ramsey’s wonder goal, and scored again in just under a half hour of action.
Lacazette is now sitting on 5 goals and 3 assists in just 10 competitive matches this season, a truly top return for a striker who also performs so much work off the ball. He has been so good as the focal point of the Arsenal attack, it has forced his friend and fellow striker Aubameyang out wide. Despite this not being Aubameyang’s best position, his output has suffered few ill effects, as he now leads the club in goal involvements this calendar year with 16 goals and 5 assists in 18 matches, a truly astonishing return. The duo have been so good, even the pundits who normally reserve their finest cynicism for the Gunners have been forced to take notice. Unai Emery experimenting with a 4-4-2 shape only offers encouragement that the best way forward for this team involves playing both of their top strikers in the same team. The defence will remain a concern for the time being, but Unai Emery can be reasonably confident that he has an attack good enough to compete for Champions League football.
Positive Results Conceal Work To Be Done
No matter how one seeks to qualify it, 9 wins in a row is an impressive achievement for any club, let alone one that has seen so much upheaval over the last 12 months. For supporters more used to being pitted against each other than breathing the clean air near the top of the table of late, it is hard not to be excited by the team’s current form. However, the results have caused some to lose sight of the issues still being corrected under the surface. The Gunners are currently in the top 4 of the Premier League, but they have gotten there having conceded 10 times in just 8 matches, while none of the three teams above them have shipped more than 5, and Spurs (with whom Arsenal are level on points with 18) have conceded just 7 times. Having allowed just 1 goal in the last 3 matches, the Gunners are showing signs of improvement, but they have still allowed far too many chances on their own goal.
Emery’s preferred high press has also drawn inconsistent results, with periods of suffocating pressure giving way to a stretched formation that can leave the midfielders badly drawn out. However, these are all issue that can be corrected with time and coaching, and the players have shown a certain resilience in getting the results they have. The players continue struggling to assert their dominance in the first half of matches, often needing halftime adjustments and clever substitutions to win the match in the second half. In theory, this will only improve as the players become more comfortable within Emery’s system, while the head coach is gaining vital experience himself in the rigours of the Premier League. Still, Emery could scarcely hope for a more positive start to life in North London, and one can almost feel the collective confidence of the team grow each week.