Arsenal get back on track against profligate and porous Fulham
Unai Emery’s side make light work of Claudio Ranieri’s Cottagers at the Emirates
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scores Arsenal’s fourth against Fulham. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty
Arsenal 4 Fulham 1
Having wobbled and tumbled over a challenging Christmas week, Arsenal got back on the bike. They did so a little gingerly, but ended an afternoon spent sparring with Fulham buoyed by the restorative power of points and goals.
Last week’s slips at Brighton and, more punishingly, Liverpool, came as a large dollop of reality for a cub whose path to a new post-Wenger way was always likely to be a bumpy one. A reaction was needed – both from Unai Emery and from his players.
The Premier League’s original Tinkerman, Claudio Ranieri, knows all about the benefits and perils of high-intensity squad juggling, and it will not have gone unnoticed how Emery has attacked this project with a penchant for impatiently shuffling his pack – before and during games. The search for his most balanced side is an ongoing one, not helped by the vulnerabilities in defence that are so hard to cure with relentless injuries in that department.
But for all the angst about Arsenal’s goals conceded column, goal creation and execution had also dipped of late. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette were granted a rare start side by side (something they experienced just once in 10 games before this fixture). It is one of Arsenal’s enduring curiosities that both Emery and his predecessor showed reluctance to play their two strongest forwards as n pair despite the squad lacking an abundance of established attackers. Both had opportunities. Both got on the scoresheet. For all Arsenal’s strategic issues that might make it feel risky to start two strikers, it does seem riskier not to.
Fulham came not just with improved organisation that has been apparent in recent weeks but also with some sense of adventure. They carved Arsenal’s defence wide open in the 15th minute. Ryan Sessegnon scurried down the right flank, cut inside and bent in a shot that arced past the post. The clarity of the chance unnerved Arsenal and gave Fulham encouragement. Aleksandar Mitrovic’s hulking presence was another menace as defenders bounced off him like weebles and Bernd Leno had to be alert to keep out a couple of his headers. Fulham created another fantastic chance midway through the first half when Andre Schürrle guided in an inviting cross for Sessegnon. The 18-year-old was frustrated with himself after he mistimed his shot from close range.
It was a costly opportunity spurned. Arsenal instantly pulled themselves together to score with their next break. Sead Kolasinac and Alex Iwobi combined all afternoon and when the ball was floated in Granit Xhaka was unmarked with enough time to chest the ball down and pass it into the net.
Arsenal began and ended the first half creating chances – Xhaka again, Aubameyang and Lacazette all glimpsed goal – and finally got their cushion early in the second half. Iwobi was involved creating the space for a spate of quickfire passing involving Aubameyang and Kolasinac and Lacazette was on hand to smash the ball in.
Lacazette was disappointed not to be awarded a penalty when Jean Michaël Seri caught him with an outstretched leg as he burst in the box. Nothing given by Graham Scott. Seri was instrumental in Fulham cutting the deficit moments later. He bundled over Lucas Torreira and advanced to play a key role in the move that ended with Sessegnon crossing for the substitute Aboubakar Kamara to tap in. All smiles from the Fulham bench this time.
The mood lurched. Suddenly Fulham attacked at will and Arsenal’s anxiety gnawed. The air of discontent took a notable turn as the substitution of Lacazette for Aaron Ramsey was greeted by some boos, the first time Arsenal supporters aired an audible challenge to Emery. It was not such a bad change after all, though, as the Welshman eased some nerves by scoring Arsenal’s third on the rebound after Aubameyang struck a post.
It did look like one of those days for Arsenal’s top scorer, who went close a handful of times, and his goal came eventually, albeit aided by a deflection. He went over to the bench to celebrate with Lacazette. The Arsenal hierarchy, and where certain players fit into it, remains an intriguing conundrum in the Emery era.