Arsenal Fulham Tactical Analysis
What turned out to be one of the most exciting games of the season for the nuetral spectator also turned into an interesting tactical face off somewhere in between the goal infested carnage. As each positive move by either side could be equally explained through a negative move by their opponents, the game was interesting in highlighting the defensive frailties of both sides.
Both sides lined up almost as expected. Vermaelan maintained his position at left back over Andre Santos, the Brazilian having come in for some much deserved criticism over his last few appearances. For Fulham, Bryan Ruiz played a position which was meant to hassle Arteta was simultaenously buzz in between the lines of Arsenal’s defence and midfield, whilst Richardson and Berbatov were preferred to Petric and Kacaniklic respectively.
It is interesting to note how one sided Arsenal’s play was in this game. It was a staple of Arsenal’s play last season when the Walcott/Van Persie axis was in full flight, sometimes with as much as 50% of all attacking passes going right rather than centrally or left last term. This returned today with Walcott earning a return to the starting line up as can be shown by Arteta’s pass map below. The map is useful in telling us many themes from the game. Firstly, the Sagna/Walcott relationship is one of the strongest in the Arsenal line up, with Arteta passing to Sagna 22 times compared to Vermaelan just twice (stat courtesy of Arseblog). Also, Arsenal’s play is funnelled down the right hand side, with all three goals coming from the right hand side. To further this, it signifies Theo Walcott’s importance to Arsenal. We know he can drift in anonimity in games and is often frustrating, but I am of the opinion he has truly developed well over the last few years. His movement allowed him to win the corner for Giroud’s first (a corner which he took), he occupied two defenders with a lateral run to allow Arteta to steam through for the second and provided a pinpoint cross for the Giroud’s equaliser. His crossing and movement have returned (he provided 26 of Arsenal’s 39 crosses in this game), he was Arsenal’s top provider of assists and when Giroud gets a substantial supply he has now proven he can deliver the final product; from a statistical standpoint his contract situation should be of the upmost importance to Wenger leading up to January.
Beyond Arsenal’s prowess down the right, the map also shows Arsenal’s weakness down the left. Vermaelan has had a torrid time this season, but even when on form last season the Belgian struggled at left back and did again today as all three of Fulham’s goals also came down the right. To go with this, Podolski has looked fragile defensively and lost when going forward without Gibbs behind him. We don’t know if Wenger’s decision to put his captain at left back was a lack of faith in Santos or a lack of faith in his skipper at centre back, but both reasons probably crossed the Frenchman’s mind. When Fulham’s play this season has largely come down the left (see map below) but all three of their goals and their attacking threat comes from the right hand side, it clearly signifies a weakness for the Gunners that needs to be addressed.
Fulham’s attacking ability
This post so far has focused on Arsenals shortcomings without truly giving Fulham the credit they deserve. Martin Jol is known for quickly making substitutions when things aren’t going to plan, often with great success, and even when he is forced into a 25th minute substitution his decision again pays off with Kacaniklic netting soon after coming on for an injured Kieran Richardson. Whilst Giroud had arguably his best performance in an Arsenal shirt, Berbatov matched him blow for blow and what was interesting was his adaptation depending on different phases of the game. There were periods when Fulham were dominating and he was happy to sit on the back line and play in typical Berbatov fashion. However, we have seen something new in the Bulgarian at Fulham as is shown by the maps below – in the periods when Arsenal were dominant he was able to drop deeper and be able to receive longer passes, providing good link up play to complement his well known finishing ability. The goals have always been present throughout his career, and though much is made of his relaxed style of play – perhaps we have seen a different side to the striker in this game. The maps below are able to show the two sides of his game; against Reading (a game Fulham dominated) he was able to play along the back line and much further up the pitch, whilst against Wigan where Fulham were travelling and often struggled for control, he was able to feed well off longer balls, willing to drop deep to assert his influence.
It still remains that Fulham are incredibly fragile at the back. An Arsenal side who have found goals hard to come by this term found plenty of space in the wide areas of the pitch and with Kieran Gibbs would have made a much bigger imprint on the Fulham back four. The West Londoners have now dropped the most points from winning positions in the Premier League this year, with Hangaland been the prime example of a defender who has previously been reliable becoming sloppy and positionally unaware.
As many have stated,a draw seems fair from this game. It was less a case of the best side wins, more a case of the least bad side wins. Ultimately, both sides have their worries, with Arsenal looking for too predictable when Arteta is being constantly harassed – his deep lying dominance is key to the slower build up play that Arsenal have tried to revert to this season. Though not on this game alone, I believe Giroud has shown the quality of movement, work rate and physical presence necessary for him to succeed in North London, and that once him and the rest of the side become more acquainted he will be in a position to convert more opportunities. For Fulham, it has been much of the same, with many worrying about their attacking ability before deadline day, but the worry more and more becoming a defensive one as the season progresses. I still believe both sides have the ability to achieve this season despite a poor showing at the Emirates on this occasion.
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