Defeat is generally a painful experience. Defeat in circumstances like yesterday’s even more so. It was late, very late, and pretty much self-inflicted.
It came after what was a pretty good opening 45 minutes from us. We were energetic, good going forward and while Fulham had their moments I thought we contained them pretty well defensively. We opened the scoring through a Laurent Koscielny header after Fulham failed to get a corner properly cleared, his header left Stockdale with no chance.
The goal came not long after we’d been denied a clear penalty when Gervinho was quite obviously tripped by Philippe Senderos. Lee Probert waved play on and it was just the latest penalty decision not to have gone our way. After a sequence of increasingly basketball-esque handballs to see a foul in the box ignored like that was very frustrating.
And while I’m not blaming the ref for what happened yesterday his reluctance to give free kicks, and perhaps another penalty when van Persie was barged off the ball in the area, was definitely a hindrance. The astonishing sight of Riise shoving Walcott off the pitch with two hands full in his back and the ref waving play on, despite having seen it, tells its own story. If we want to talk about goals being hard to come by for us at the moment – and I think we all know the reasons why – having to battle committed opponents and the man in the middle really doesn’t make our life any easier.
The second half, however, was a different story altogether. Fulham started brightly and it was a bit like the Villa game in that regard. We just couldn’t get going at all, we looked tired, sluggish and spent, as if the first half had taken more out of us than it should. They made chances, a couple of headers in particular went just wide and Szczesny made an outstanding save from Ruiz to keep us ahead.
The manager brought on Rosicky and Benayoun to try and change things around. To be fair to him it worked at Villa, Rosicky’s introduction there allowed us to keep the ball better, but this time we struggled to get back into it.
In the end the red card, and a strange substitution did for us. I’ve got no complaints about Djourou’s first yellow but I thought the second was really harsh. There wasn’t enough contact to bring Zamora down, it’s one of those situations where a referee, who must surely know something about the game, can see the forward is trying to fool him.
I remember a similar situation at Blackburn a few years ago, Senderos touched their forward (can’t remember who now) and he fell over. Simply touching someone is not enough justification for them to go down as if they’ve been tripped or genuinely had their shirt pulled. This idea that contact of any kind is sufficient for a 14 stone athlete to crash to the ground as if poleaxed is a real bug-bear of mine, and again it makes the penalty decision in the first half even more frustrating.
We were under the cosh with 11 men, even more so with 10, and I really do have to question the decision to bring Squillaci on. He’s an easy target for those who wish to point fingers, and I’m not defending him, but in a game of this intensity to bring on a guy whose last league appearance was in May and who has been out injured most of the season seems strange to me. Song could have moved to centre-half, Koscielny to right back, and while I appreciate those who would say it’s too disruptive to move players at that stage of the game I think it would have been more sensible than the change.
Ultimately though, it was individual mistakes that led to the goals. Szczesny had come for a corner and not got there earlier on, Senderos’s subsequent header crept a couple of inches wide, and when SZCZ came again and flapped the big Swiss headed back across goal for Sidwell to equalise. It was a mistake he freely admitted to and one that would have drawn much more criticism had another keeper made it.
For the second goal Squillaci’s poor header was compounded by the fact that we didn’t have a specialist left back. I thought Francis Coquelin was excellent all day, I really like him as a footballer, he looks to have a fantastic attitude and work-rate, but never in a million years should Zamora have been left unmarked at the back post. And that’s not to criticise Coquelin, he’s a central-midfielder being asked do an unfamiliar job, but that’s where the left back should have been.
If he had, it wouldn’t have been a goal and we’d have come away from Craven Cottage with a point that I think, on balance, we deserved. People talk about how our lack of full backs affects our attacking play but at this level you can see how one moment like that affects us defensively too. It’s not Coquelin’s fault he doesn’t have the positional awareness of a left back and this is an issue that needs resolving, even on a temporary basis.
Afterwards, a clearly agitated Arsene Wenger was unhappy with the referee, which I understand, but laid the blame at the feet of his own players:
We had the chances to kill the game off before that and to win. I think it’s very unlucky for us to lose the game with 10 men. When you see the game today that we finished with 10 men, it’s very difficult to take. That makes a massive difference when you have played 48 hours before. It’s too difficult.
Much of the post-match reaction was quick to blame the defence – who certainly were culpable when it comes right down to it – but if we learned anything yesterday it’s that our profligacy in the final third is costing us just as much. Both Walcott and Gervinho got themselves into decent positions but the decision making and final ball just wasn’t of sufficient quality.
Robin was pretty much kicked out of the game yesterday, and I’ve got no real issue with that beyond the referee not giving free kicks as I mentioned earlier. If our defence was facing the most in-form striker in the Premier League and played him the way the Fulham centre-halves played van Persie yesterday we’d be delighted. However, the lack of quality from the bench to try and change it was obvious.
I know Thierry’s coming back, but is that enough? I don’t buy the one-man team allegations at all, it’s lazy thinking and ignores so much of what we do (or what any team with a star player does), but at the moment we’re too reliant on van Persie’s goals and that has to be addressed. If Thierry is there to provide some kind of relief for Robin, who is going to put the pressure on Gervinho and Walcott?
Henry’s return is a fillip which is certainly necessary but you just get the feeling that for this team to really kick on and battle for that top four place we could do with someone else. Someone who can come in and spark the team, provide something a little different up front, play alongside Robin if need be. I’m no scout, nor manager, so I won’t get into the specifics of who that might be (those wishing for Podolski seem set to be disappointed), but I know what we want rather than who.
The bottom line is that Wenger doesn’t have any faith whatsoever in Chamakh to start or Park to even be part of the squad. If he doesn’t, how can the fans? He must have played Robin van Persie all the way into the red zone in the last week and that tells you everything you need to know.
All the same, and as disappointing as yesterday was, it’d wrong not to acknowledge how well the team have done in recent months. For me the anger and the accusations are too quick to resurface after what has been, for the most part, a great show of character and spirit by this Arsenal team. To drag ourselves from right down the bottom of the league to the top four (until yesterday) shouldn’t be overlooked.
That’s not to ignore the issues, nor the fact that we have the spending power to improve ourselves this month, but to look at the team in a balanced, fair way. Yesterday was a negative, no doubt about it, but let’s not forget the many positives we’ve seen recently too.