23 August 2013

Match Preview: Fulham vs. Arsenal, Craven Cottage, English Premier League, August 24, 2013

Feel any better? I know I do. The difference between the emotions following Saturday’s match and Wednesday’s is unbelievable. It’s not as great as the feeling that we’ll feel when Arsenal wins its next trophy, but it did feel pretty damn good. It was relieving.
This man will always terrify us.
(Photo courtesy Nick Sarebi)

There’s something about getting a result that puts the mind at ease. Perhaps, it’s the whole “you’re only as good as your last game” thing. If we go by that, Arsenal is quite good. I know that there are still a lot of off the pitch complaints and things that need to be resolved within the squad right now including that dreaded “t-word.” Sometimes, it’s nice to stop worrying and to just watch football. Football cures all worries.

After the win in Istanbul, Arsenal is back in England for a short trip to West London and Craven Cottage. While Craven Cottage is one of the smaller grounds in the Premier League and Fulham are a relatively modest club, the Cottagers have consistently given Arsenal trouble over the last couple of seasons. Despite Wednesday’s stellar performance, there is nothing to suggest that this match should be anything but challenging.

On the pitch, you might not recognize a lot of the faces. Or better said, many of the faces that were once familiar to Fulham are gone. Brede Hangeland remains the rock in the back and club captain, but gone are Mark Schwarzer, Clint Dempsey, and Moussa Dembele. Schwarzer got lost on his bicycle and ended up at Stamford Bridge, Dempsey, of course, is back in the MLS, playing for the Seattle Sounders, and Dembele? I hear he’s on a bench somewhere for a neighboring contingent.

With those players gone, it would be easy to assume that the cupboard is bare. However, Fulham completed one of the most astute purchases of last summer, landing ex-Spur, Dimitar Berbatov, from Manchester United for £5 million. The cigarette smoking Bulgarian dazzled in his first year with Fulham, netting 15 goals in 35 games. Berbatov will spearhead the Fulham attack and surely the Cottagers will do their best to pass him the ball. Berbatov is just one of a few at Fulham with Tottenham connections. In fact, Fulham is pretty much a haven for London club ex-pats.

We could see Darren Bent partner with Berbatov up front. The former Spurs, Sunderland, and Aston Villa striker has just joined Fulham on loan. With Berbatov and Bent, Fulham possesses two guys that can put the ball in the net; their struggle will come from figuring out how to get the ball to those two in threatening positions. Additionally, Fulham just completed the signing of Scott Parker, though it is uncertain whether he will step into the side immediately.

The Cottagers still have old friend, Phillipe Senderos. They have ex-Queens Park Ranger Adel Taarabt. They also have former Chelsea player, Damien Duff. The club is led by former Ajax manager, Martin Jol, who you may also remember from his days with Spurs. Overall, Fulham try to play a possessive style of football, though they tend to struggle against sides that press them and can be easily forced into mistakes. The height of the defense, particularly Hangeland and Aaron Hughes, can pose some problems for Arsenal on set plays, as we have seen in the past.

Fulham is coming off a 1-0 victory at Sunderland on the opening weekend. Despite clearly being dominated by the Black Cats, Fulham secured the game’s only goal on, you guessed it, a Pajtim Kasami header off of a corner. Fulham wasn’t playing Barcelona, the Cottagers were facing an ultra-disciplined Sunderland. While possession and fouls were even, Sunderland outshot Fulham (20-5), had more shots on target (3-1), and had more corners (6-1). Sunderland probably would have put up a crooked scoreline were it not for Martin Stekelenburg. Stekelenburg was the clear Man of the Match, but he hurt his shoulder making a late game-saving stop. Left back Kieran Richardson is also out, having hurt his hamstring.

Arsenal surely will be coming off a high from its midweek triumph, though there are plenty of challenges that face the Gunners between the thin squad, the injuries, and the Koscielny suspension. Even with the knocks, the players turned in a solid performance. Gibbs scored the first goal, despite having a hole in his head. Ramsey carried a knock and was our best player, netting a goal in the same place he netted his first Arsenal goal. Sagna filled in where he was needed despite the fact that he nearly broke his neck against Villa. Theo Walcott had an assist and drew the penalty despite being Theo Walcott. The side was ailing, but it was overcome by the team’s determination.

This is a game that Arsenal should dominate in the midfield. This is a Ramsey/Wilshere game. They are going to have to control possession and disrupt Fulham’s attack. The West London side is susceptible to make an errant pass here and there. If those two can stop Fulham’s counterattacks prior to the ball arriving at Berbatov’s feet, Arsenal can and should win this game.

This is also a game that Theo Walcott really needs to make his mark. One of my main knocks with Theo is that he doesn’t command the ball when he should. This is a game where he is facing a backup left back. He should be the danger. Theo needs to scream for the ball and make threatening runs behind that back four. I can see him scoring a goal, making an assist, or drawing a penalty. It’s all about him being assertive.

Defensively, it’s all about Berbatov. If Arsenal can choke him off by winning the midfield battle, it should be a breeze. Berbatov is a player that can score, make plays, or draw fouls creating set play opportunities, which, if you weren’t paying attention before, are something Arsenal has struggled on against Fulham. Szczesny has to claim ownership of his box, but that is something we could say every week.

Despite the thin squad, I think Arsenal brightens up an early morning with a 3-1 victory.

Predicted lineups (Right to Left):

Fulham: Stockdale; Riether, Hangeland, Hughes, Briggs; Sidwell, Boateng, Duff, Taraabt; Kasami, Berbatov

Arsenal: Szczesny; Jenkinson, Sagna, Mertesacker, Gibbs; Ramsey, Wilshere, Rosicky; Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla

1 comment:

  1. It's great how you didn't boast at all about calling the precise scoreline on Twitter.