Fulham came to the Emirates and left with a point this afternoon and, despite Arsene Wenger’s snide pre-match remarks, there wasn’t a bus in sight. Indeed, Roy Hodgson’s side showed why they have improved so dramatically since last season’s debacle with a performance of energy, endeavour and sublime passing that might have been rewarded with more than a point.
Indeed, Arsenal certainly couldn’t have complained if they had been behind at the interval. Andy Johnson turned his man brilliantly but dragged his shot wide from Fulham’s first attack as Arsenal started like a marathon runner when a burst out of the starting blocks was more like what was required. Had our former Everton striker not passed up a couple of really good opportunities then Fulham could have been two goals up by the 20-minute mark.
It wasn’t just Johnson who had the chances either. Fulham’s wide players were tucking in and getting forward to great effect. Simon Davies lifted a shot over the bar from the right angle of the penalty area after being released by a lovely ball through by Johnson. Clint Dempsey was only denied by a brilliant block from the diving Kolo Toure inside the six-yard box.
The Gunners had been rather listless up until that point with the excellent Danny Murphy and his much-maligned colleague in central midfield, Dickson Etuhu, looking composed in possession and, often times, dictating the game to their more fancied opponents. Yet, ironically, it was Arsenal who had the best chance of the first half. Robin van Persie probably thought he had scored when he directed a powerful header goalwards but Mark Schwarzer pulled off a brilliant save from point-blank range.
Wenger had opted for a flexible front three with van Persie as the focal point of Arsenal’s attack and Andrei Arshavin and Carlos Vela, who started his first Premier League after being preferred to Nicklas Bendtner, playing off the Dutchman but the latter two forwards failed to make a real impact. Vela’s best moment was a deft return pass to van Persie but the Dutchman shot into the side netting and the Mexican was withdrawn for Bendtner around the hour mark.
There were a few flashes of brilliance to remind us why Arsenal invested in Arshavin, but Fulham coped with the Russian playmaker pretty well. Arshavin dribbled past three players in a mazy second-half run but wasted his shot and two more shots from good positions flew over the crossbar and his frustrating afternoon was summed up when his cross bounced off his own man, van Persie, who was no more than three yards away.
Still, Fulham were put under more pressure in the second half. It was van Persie who missed the chance and he probably should have done better with a free header after Fulham inexplicably left him alone at a corner. Bendtner couldn’t quite profit from a rare Brede Hangeland mistake to score with his first touch as Schwarzer did well to come off his line and narrow the angle.
Then, Bacary Sagna’s deep cross picked out van Persie but the Dutch striker’s header clipped the outside of the far post. It was as close as Arsenal came all afternoon. Schwarzer then made two fine saves, firstly smothering a downward header from Abou Diaby downward header from a corner and then he did well to deny Arshavin.
This pulsating game was far from one-sided and Fulham carried a threat in the closing minutes. Johnson was drifting wide and posing problems for the Arsenal defence. He created space for the midfielders as evidenced when Simon Davies burst onto a clever flick from Johnson but the Welsh midfielder chose the wrong option in attempting to square the ball for Zamora instead of bearing down on goal himself. Johnson’s low cross narrowly missed Zamora as it fizzed across the goalmouth and the former West Ham striker made have felt he could have done better with his weaker left foot from 20 yards having outmuscled Gallas.
The point was the least the Whites deserved for an excellent display. This afternoon was a demonstration of why we sit in eighth place in the table and it was also the kind of game that would have seen us buckle towards the end of the game in previous seasons. We all know that are away record is nothing to write home about but we’ve adjusted our tactics to make ourselves a difficult proposition on the road. We’re difficult to break down now and if we can marry that robust defence with the kind of adventurous football that saw us make Arsenal look ordinary at times today then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t claim a few scalps on the road before the end of May.
ARSENAL (4-3-3): Almunia; Sagna (Eboue 70), Clichy, Toure, Gallas; Diaby, Denilson, Nasri; van Persie, Vela (Bendtner 63), Arshavin. Subs (not used): Fabianski, Djourou, Song, Gibbs, Ramsey.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird (Stoor 45), Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Davies, Dempsey (Gera 88); A. Johnson, Zamora. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Kallio, Dacourt, Nevland, Kamara.
REFEREE: Peter Walton (Northamptonshire).