Let’s be honest with one another, we sort of saw this result coming, didn’t we? It’s completely befitting that our automatic return to the Premier League plated up a cold opening day defeat at the merciless ladle of Mikel Arteta’s resurgent Arsenal so, if you have shed a few premature tears, dry ’em or your Saturday night curry’ll be ruined.
Scott Parker will be examined this season and I won’t be pulled into a weekend of utter disgust because Europe’s hottest attacker ran us ragged within a reborn collective that will contend for silverware, like they did last term. The Gunners brandished a free-flowing style that credited their ingrained philosophy, whereas our system has to reintegrate to the most cutthroat environment on the face of the earth, and it has to settle in pretty sharpish.
Challenge accepted. We will fall but we will rise as one. We’ve 37 more of these gruelling 90 minutes ahead and we are not a finished article, we won’t be for weeks, and I’m optimistic in the wake of this defeat because now, knowing we’ve tumbled way short of the mark against a top-flight heavyweight, we have legitimate reasons to graft even harder before our trip to Elland Road. Forget this result, our Covid-regulated welcome back party actually starts next week.
Possession Doesn’t Pay
It only took Arsenal 8 minutes to land the first blow but, until Alexandre Lacazette prodded the Gunners’ opener, Fulham actually started proceedings relatively well. Pressing high, interchanging sensibly, the Whites tweaked the tempo sufficiently and rushed the visitors into sloppy mistakes at the back, but retaining the ball efficiently means absolutely nothing if you’re not prepared to experiment on the break. Predictable, tentative, Fulham crabbed from side to side, innocuously, and were unable to unlock Arsenal’s unscathed back four.
Recognisably, Arsenal sussed our approach within the opening 15 minutes and counteracted accordingly. We couldn’t break the North Londoners down, they anticipated every move broadcast from our foreseeable game plan, however we simply weren’t brave enough to alter our approach and we didn’t create nearly enough clear cut chances, if any at all, against a defence that could’ve ruptured if we made our early impetus count. 509 passes, administered with a great deal of uncertainty and in the top flight, we have to produce a formula that warrants reward.
The Premier League is laden with fine margins, although the gulf between superiority and mediocrity is staggering. The Gunners stole the initiative on the counter, widened the deficit ruthlessly, and reset themselves as the Whites staggered out of neutral. We were always going to be up against it, the task at hand was monumental, but I think we can all unanimously agree that our passing sequences, our absent invention, it really isn’t up to the required standard and it never will be at this level. I trust Parker’s blueprints, on the surface his system does have substance, an identity, but in truth our conversion rate, with the productive, proficient personnel we have, is severely substandard and that’s talking from a Championship perspective. In the Premier League, with this blunt disposition of ours, we’re tempting turmoil.
Defence Exposed, Again
In the first half, after Tim Ream’s wild swipe in the build-up to the game’s opener, Fulham managed to keep Arsenal’s expeditionary attack at bay and Arteta’s men certainly didn’t have it all their own way, despite what the final score may suggest. Arsenal hit perfectly weighted switches, freeing Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang but somehow, before the interval, the Whites clung on and were still relevant. It didn’t take long for familiar inadequacies to creep back into the frame, though, as we were soon exposed in the 49th minute. What? The Whites’ unchanged, fragile rearguard folded? Pull the other one.
Michael Hector, arguably our best aerial presence, could only recoil as Arsenal’s debutante Gabriel dos Santos Magalhães butted his free header through Marek Rodak’s legs from close range. From a defender of his stature, he should be winning those battles hands down, but the Jamaican international was already walking a thin tight rope, having picked up an early caution and he was quite clearly rattled. Irrational, startled, Hector was uncharacteristically the weakest link as Ream was actually the better, more composed performer of the two. That, after his initial blunder, is a statement louder than bombs.
Denis Odoi versus Aubamayang, the mismatch we all dreaded, soon arrived and the Gabon talisman did exactly what he does best in the 57th minute. Odoi jockeyed in peril as the prolific hitman shifted the ball into a prime position from the left hand side but the Belgian, as predicted, was powerless to prevent the attacker’s sculpted finish. I love Odoi, he’s Fulham personified and so on, but we can’t rely on him to shore up the flanks, not in the company we keep. We have Kenny Tete, use him, and it’s blatant, nothing could be more obvious, we need a centre-half of genuine top-flight quality and I’d even hazard to say that we need two of them. Defence still needs addressing, Tony, so close the bird app and get the stats boys on the damn ting.
Mitro’ Or Bust
Aleksandar Mitrovic may not be 100% fit and firing on all cylinders, although I can’t help but feel we don’t have a proper, proven alternative to deputise when he’s on the sidelines. Aboubakar Kamara was denied twice by Bernd Leno early on but we still had no domineering focal point up top, that grade of weapon is in short supply. AK47 runs like a man on fire, however he was shrugged off the ball far too easily for an industrial fridge of his size and that really puts what Mitro’ does so effortlessly into perspective.
We were motionless on the parameter of the 18-yard-box, the dire lack of movement ensured that Gabriel and Rob Holding had a comfortable afternoon by the river and if you think Bobby Decordova-Reid is the answer, you’re on crud. We need that old school, take your daughter out and give her back by 12 kind of striker and Mitro’ is that guy. He’s timeless, yet so unique in the modern era of the game and he’s a serial bagsman. Saturday afternoon was an occasion tailored specifically for the Serb. Gabriel needed bullying, Holding cries at slightest slither of man-to-man confrontation and we may think Abou’s intimidating, but Mitro’s Halloween all year round.
Mitro’ showed for the ball, spun off his marker and attracted fouls in areas where we should have done better. Typical of his nature, Mitro’ bustled into central positions and, suddenly, we started to construct across the final third with him in his ordinary habitat. Our efforts came to no avail, of course, however the 26-year-old is invaluable to the cause and that, as if it needed reiterating, is why we’re back in the big time. Since joining the Whites, way back in January 2018, only Aubamayang, Mohamed Salah and Jamie Vardy have scored more league goals in England than Mitro’, who has 49 domestic goals to his name. We are blessed, and even a 50% Mitro’ will guarantee the conception of opportunities, regardless of who we face on the day.
Flightless Wings Falter
Our right side, consisting of Odoi and Kebano, combined progressively in the first half, troubling the best left-back in the Premier League, but that enthusiasm, on both flanks, did tail off somewhat as the minutes whittled onward. Kieran Tierney struggled to contain Odoi’s overlapping escapades and Kebano scoured for openings to scurry through but, as there was next to no options to locate in the box, the Whites’ originality out wide dwindled as the Gunners systematically rebuffed our doomed advancements.
There’s no escaping it, we’re easily quelled from the touchlines. There’s no intent on the break, and that, in itself, negates any semblance of a counter attack before it’s even been left the drawing board. Take Ivan Cavaleiro, for example. Built like an elite athlete, but fades out of proceedings when he’s up against a fullback of average ability. Hector Bellerin, bun the fan boys, is erratic. Quick, but penetrable. Cav’ was hauled down to the turf once by the hipster Spaniard but other than that, he baulked. The geezer just invested in Forest Green Rovers because he has a fetish for plants and Cav’ was non-existent. Get in the bin.
Alongside muted inspiration, we’re extremely mono-dimensional and I point the finger at our wingers. How often do we spread play (because we can’t physically muster anything else) and how regularly do we do bugger all with it? We need a new left winger, Anthony Knockaert may be able to muscle in at this level, that remains to be seen, although I don’t have much confidence in Cav’ and as much as I adore Kebano’s work-rate and dazzling manipulations, he isn’t cut out for regular Premier League football. Again, Tony, your work’s only just begun, and I won’t rest until we’ve splashed £20m on a bloke I’ve never heard of.
Anguissa’s Lasting Effect
One man made a noticeable difference to our attitude and application both on and off the ball and it’s the man that ripped it up for Villarreal CF last term. Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa came on for Kebano in the 63rd minute and instantly installed measure and calmness into our harried midfield sector. A competitor of genuine power, prowess, Anguissa is clearly a class above your ordinary, everyday midfielder and before the general’s arrival to the fray, Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka masqueraded as a 2002 double pivot of Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso.
Dropping into congested areas, the Cameroon enforcer picked his passes astutely and patrolled the middle third attentively, exuding confidence and composure with virtually every touch he dispensed. The 24-year-old wanted to construct, he was poised to disrupt Arsenal’s threatening patterns through the spine and that authority and willingness is precisely what Fulham’s engine room desperately requires. Harrison Reed cannot survive alone and Anguissa will compliment his efforts perfectly.
We still have no idea what’s going to happen with Anguissa but whilst he’s on our books, he’s got to be the first name on the team sheet, alongside Mitro’, amongst others. We’ve seen enough in 30 minutes to make our minds up, and I’d personally omit Joshua Onomah from the starting line up. Tom Cairney could also be up for the chop, but the skipper does have broader experience on this stage, so he’s safe in my estimations, for now. We also haven’t seen what Mario Lemina has to offer our contingent, so from now on, to those who featured, there is no room for errors or half-arsed afternoons. Not in Zambo’s house.