I guess in the context of recent results and the form we’ve been in yesterday was something of a disappointment. Dropping two points at home can always be criticised but post-Champions League games against well organised, tough opponents are never easy. Just look at Man United.
The first half, well, the less said the better really. You could see the hangover from Wednesday night, we struggled to find any rhythm or momentum and the game was played at testimonial pace at times. Still, there were moments. Arshavin had the ball in the net but was marginally offside when it came through to him. Aaron Ramsey really should have done better after a great Theo Walcott run set him just inside the box but he shot over, and late on Per Mertesacker’s back-header from a free kick drifted a foot or two past the post with the keeper beaten.
Anything good we did seemed to involve Theo Walcott and it continued in that vein in the second half. Lots of Arsenal possession nullified by a Fulham side set up to deny us space and to squeeze us into the middle of the pitch. The best chance of the half fell to Robin van Persie whose shot, after wriggling free in the box to find some room, beat Schwarzer but was cleared off the line by Chris Baird.
And just a couple of moments later Fulham scored. A diagonal ball into the box found the forward running Riise. My first impression was that it came back off his arm but quite what Vermaelen was trying to do with the clearance I don’t know. It ended up not as a clearance but as a trickling shot on goal which crept in just inside the post. A freakish own goal really but perhaps a defensive situation we should have dealt with better.
The almost immediate response from Arsene was to take off Mertesacker and Ramsey, putting on Diaby and Gervinho in their places. And straight away the Ivorian made inroads into the Fulham defence, putting them further on the backfoot. Arshavin was replaced by Chamakh, I guess to have a different option up front, someone who could attack a cross.
In the end he was there when Walcott’s cross came in from the right hand side but failed to make contact. Thankfully Thomas Vermaelen, obviously determined to make up for his earlier error, arrived at just the right time to head down into the ground and then into the Fulham net. There were some half-chances in the final ten minutes, and a vague penalty shout (seen them given but don’t think it was a penalty really), but it wasn’t to be and we had to settle for the draw.
Afterwards Arsene spoke about the Champions League game in midweek as an explanation for the lethargy of the Arsenal performance but refused to use it as an excuse:
We want to be in the Champions League so we cannot cry when we are tired. Our challenge is to win these kinds of games even when we are tired.
The positive again is that we have shown exceptional spirit, desire and refusal to lose the game. Overall if you look back at where we came from we have a long unbeaten run and of course we are disappointed because we dropped two points.
With hindsight you might say Arsene should have rotated a little bit more but then hindsight is good like that. Had he done that and we’d drawn the game, or lost, he’d be on a hiding to nothing for not playing his best players. I think he’ll have been disappointed with the contribution of Arshavin. After challenging him to show his worth the little Russian’s performance was pretty poor and was a clear indication of why he hasn’t started a league game for over two months. On days like yesterday when you need everybody giving 100% you can’t carry any passengers.
If he didn’t start Gervinho then perhaps it was because he was in this ‘red zone’ where he’s more likely to pick up an injury. You simply don’t leave one of your best performers on the bench to be charitable to another player – and to be honest I think Benayoun can count himself a bit unlucky not to be involved ahead of Arshavin.
Defensively Fulham were very good and when you’re lacking that 5-10% because of heavy legs then it becomes all the more difficult to break down teams like that. They offered little up the other end. Szczesny had to make one save from Dembele in the first half and other than that there was nothing, so we can count ourselves a bit unlucky to have conceded and conceded in such a fashion.
Nor can we ignore the physical effect of the Champions League game against Dortmund. If we’re quick to praise the team for the effort they put in on Wednesday night then we can’t ignore it on a Saturday. I think it’s probably telling that our stand-out performance of the day came from Johan Djourou who came into the game with fresh legs. But for his crucial intervention in the last few seconds of injury time – when he prevented Clint Dempsey going through one on one with Szczesny in the box – it might well have been worse.
As for Vermaelen, I’ve long said we’ve missed his character as much as his presence as a defender. The team deserve credit for getting back into the game having gone behind, but the fact it was the Belgian who refused to let his own goal decide the game speaks volumes about what he can bring to the side. That kind of determination and unwillingness to lose is great to see.
So, while dropping two points is always a disappointment I think the fact we’ve been unbeaten since Sp*rs – a run of 10 games now, wining 8 of them – remains a positive. The momentum might have been halted a little bit but there’s still plenty of games to go this season to make up the points.
With the Carling Cup on Tuesday the manager is sure to rest the vast majority of the ‘first team’, giving more chances to the fringe players but, more importantly, making sure we’ve got plenty of energy for the trip to Wigan next Saturday.