New Year’s Day, and the rarity of a 3pm kick off. This game was not on TV, although there was no other Premier League match being played at the same time. The other non-TV fixtures from this round are being played this evening at 7.45pm. I’m delighted Arsenal’s was not, I think most of the attendees would prefer a New Year’s Day afternoon game than a Wednesday night the day after, although I am uncertain why Arsenal were picked out. Policing? Chelsea and West Ham both have home games tonight. Maybe something to do with Arsenal playing on Saturday and the other two London sides playing on Sunday. Anyway, it was a fairly decent attendance. Empty seats, for sure, there always are, but not as many as you might have expected.
A minute’s silence for Peter Hill-Wood ended after 50 seconds because a couple of morons in the crowd decided shouting something out was more respectful. They’d have been beaten to a pulp if they tried that in 2001 when David Rocastle’s sad passing was marked, but suspect there were just a few looks and tuts. They were on the other side of the ground from the east stand where I watched the game from. I did also note that the four seats normally occupied by now chairman and Hill-Wood’s successor Sir Chips Keswick in the front row of the director’s box were empty. Not so much a tribute to the deceased as the chairman probably being on holiday in the Caribbean and not cutting short his trip when news of PHW’s death came through. It’s all in the timing. It would have been nice if one of the Kroenke family made the journey, but hey, Hill-Wood hardly offered Stan a warm welcome when he first bought shares in the club. Ironically, he was happy enough to sell the American what remained of his personal shareholding not too many years later.
As for the match itself, where to begin. With the fact that, but for poor finishing, Fulham should have scored three in the first half. Arsenal, in terms of defensive solidity, looked little different from the hiding at Anfield. Fortunately, the Cottagers were not blessed with a frontline of Salah, Mane and Firmino. Even better, of all people Granit Xhaka opened the scoring after a nice cut back from Kolasinac. The team, uncharacteristically, entered the dressing room at half time in the lead.
The back three became a back four with the removal of Mustafi before the second half kicked off, Torreira entering in his place. At this stage I will mention how delighted my friend and Gooner contributor Ian Henry was to discover that among the four officials, two of them had the surnames East and West. I’ll give you massive odds on them ever officiating in a game with a Mr North and a Mr South. Longer than Leicester winning the league in 2016. Arsenal threatened to make things more comfortable when Lacazette doubled their lead with a nicely placed finish.
However, the change in formation certainly didn’t mean Fulham were nullified in attack, and they pulled one back. Things became nervy for a while, with the game very open, but Arsenal managed to do just enough to prevent their opponents from gaining momentum, and the introduction of Ramsey for Lacazette paid off, with the Welshman scoring the third goal for his side after Aubameyang’s shot hit the post. The latter scored himself not too long after to put a welcome, if somewhat artificial gloss on the Gunners’ afternoon.
Three points is very welcome, however they were gained, but playing like this is not going to return the club to the Champions League anytime soon. Unai Emery has work to do. Dare I suggest that Steve Bould is not being heavily involved in the discussions about how the team is going to become a more solid unit? Emery has brought his own coaching team, and I have no doubt the discussions around how the team play are held in Spanish. Bould is unlikely to be included in these, and it seems he is drawing a hefty wage for putting out cones these days, not that he did a great deal more under Arsene Wenger. Emery’s tactics though, are unlikely to change, so it becomes a matter of the quality of personnel. Less individual errors, such as Xhaka carelessly playing the ball to an opponent just outside his own box, will help. Arsenal don’t have much spare cash, we are told, and I’m inclined to believe it. So the three options are bargain basement shopping, presumably on prospects that may develop into genuine quality (think of the Guendouzi price range), loan deals (Gary Cahill) or promoting from within (the under 21 defenders Emery has given game time to). You can forget Virgil van Dijk, and in fairness, even paying big money for centre backs does not guarantee you they will work out in the Premier League – just ask Man United.
One thing though is certain. Arsenal won’t be winning the Premier League under Emery until defensive solidity is established, and it’s genuinely difficult to be optimistic about it currently. Don’t get me wrong, a 4-1 win is a great result, but those that witnessed it know the truth, it was in no way a reflection of the difference between the two sides.
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