The cold light of day is nearly always the best time think about a game of football, but even early this Sunday morning frustration is the key emotion for me.
Once more at home we started badly. After Bournemouth and Southampton last season, we again conceded inside the first minute. A poor Bukayo Saka pass played Andreas Pereira into the space Thomas Partey had just vacated, and while I think we’re a bit unfortunate in that the finish was a complete fluke (I don’t think that’s the shot he was trying to take), we paid the price for an early defensive lapse.
You will have seen the stat by now that we’re the first team in a calendar year to concede three goals inside the first 60 seconds, and while a manager can’t really legislate for mistakes like Saka or Ramsdale against Southampton, the fact it’s happened again perhaps says something about the team’s concentration levels at home. It’s a bad stat, and we need to get on top of it asap.
To be fair, it wasn’t just Saka whose passing was off. William Saliba, Partey, Martin Odegaard, and Leandro Trossard – who started up front – we’re all guilty of carelessness on the ball. It certainly contributed to a first half which felt poor, in part because Fulham had more chances, Jimenez hooking not far over from out of nothing. Still, we had opportunities. A low Saka cross saw Kai Havertz caught on his heels, and when Mikel Arteta spoke afterwards about how the ball didn’t come for the German, I understood but there were also moments where he could have done more. Saka missed a tricky header from very close range, Odegaard’s ‘goal’ was ruled out due to a Havertz offside in the build-up, and we went in behind at the break.
I wasn’t at all surprised to see Trossard come off, he had a poor game up front and he was replaced by Eddie Nketiah. There were other early changes too. There was a moment where Havertz received the ball in space but instead of taking it and turning it towards goal, he tried a lay-off to Rice which was intercepted. The crowd were unhappy, and while some might disagree, that felt to me like the kind of thing a player very low on confidence would do. Technically he is capable of better, but the safety-first option is a sign he’s struggling in that regard. When Partey misplaced yet another pass, Arteta reacted by hooking him and Havertz, sending on Fabio Vieira and Oleksandr Zinchenko.
The consequence of that was a more ‘settled’ back four, with Ben White back on the right, and Kiwior and Saliba in the middle. I’ve said before I’m not a fan of Partey at right back. I don’t believe it’s really a tactical innovation as much as a consequence of the manager choosing not to start Gabriel for whatever reason. Even yesterday, if Zinchenko wasn’t fit enough to start, we could have played Kiwior at left back if the Brazilian had been given the nod. And while I thought he was very poor yesterday, my issue with Partey at right back isn’t so much about him, but what we lose. White’s dynamic overlapping was evident in the second half, it gave us so much more threat, and the team losing his connection with Saka feels like we hamstring ourselves a bit. I hope it’s the last we see of Partey at right back.
If there was a really bright spot on a thundery, wet day, it was Fabio Vieira. He’s a player who has struggled to make an impact on a consistent basis, but he was excellent yesterday. His sharp movement won us the penalty that Saka tucked away well, and he provided the assist for Nkeitah’s goal which put us 2-1 up in the 73rd minute. Sometimes a player needs a bit of time, and if this is the performance he can kick on from, great. From there we should have gone on to win the game, especially when Fulham were reduced to 10 men when Calvin Bassey picked up a second yellow card in the 83rd minute.
I praised Arteta’s subs against Palace, I thought they worked well, but I’m not sure taking Odegaard off for Jorginho at home against 10 men is what I would have done. It felt a bit too cautious, and when the manager talks about needing to control games better, playing those final 15 minutes or so (with 9 minutes of added time) in the Fulham half is what a player like Odegaard helps you do. The captain didn’t look that pleased to be coming off.
Then, on a day when carelessness was never too far from the surface, we caused ourselves another problem when Zinchenko lost the ball way too easily, and Fulham ended up with a corner we did not need to concede. The defending was terrible, we had three men on one as the ball came in and not one of them got near it, allowing Joao Palhinha (an excellent player btw) to finish smartly to make it 2-2. In the box, I think Saka and Rice switched off a bit, and the ten men were level. People use words like ‘unforgivable’ when something like this happens, and I get it, but it’s casual. It’s a bit dense. You just keep the ball away from your own final third, and with the technicality we had on the pitch, there’s no reason why we couldn’t have done that.
After that, we piled on the pressure up the other end. A series of poor crosses and poor corners didn’t come to much. Vieira forced Leno into a save, and then at the other end there was a genuine heart in mouth moment as Traore broke into the box, Saliba had visions of his mega-tackle against Palace but missed, and had the Fulham man gone down it would have been a stonewall penalty. Ramsdale had to make a smart save, but this – from being a game we should have won – was one we could have lost in that moment. I suppose that is an illustration of how random football can be (see West Ham’s mad win over Brighton last night as another), but it didn’t do much for my blood pressure.
Afterwards, Arteta said:
It’s incredible that we haven’t won the three points, but I think we have to look at ourselves and that’s a positive because today I think we gave two very cheap goals away and in the boxes we should have done much more with everything that we generated.
We went 2-1 up and then you have to defend the box with your life and you cannot concede that goal after that we’ve done because we should have scored five, six, seven, I don’t know.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard him bemoan the fact we haven’t scored more goals, and while that’s always something you want, two at home should be enough if you can defend properly and not make stupid mistakes. That’s where I think the focus should be, because if you get into a mindset where you think you need three or four to win a game, something’s not right. We have defensive issues at home, we concede too many goals, and I believe playing a more balanced back four would help in that regard. Whatever is going on, we need to sort it out ahead of the visit of Man Utd next week.
In isolation, 7 points from 9 to start the season isn’t a disaster or anything like it, but at the back of your mind the two points dropped a big frustration because it feels like we’re capable of doing that against anyone. We’ve seen these kind of performances a bit too often, and it’s something Arteta and his coaching staff need to think about in a serious way after another day when the points that went astray were down to us, and – with all due respect to Fulham – not really the quality of the opposition.
Have a great Sunday folks, back with more tomorrow, and an Arsecast Extra.