By the end, it was a massacre. Arsenal accelerated to their ninth straight league win and there seemed to be an ocean between the Gunners at Fulham by the time that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rolled in a fifth at the Putney End seconds into stoppage time. The sight of Ryan Sessegnon, disconsolately on his knees after the final whistle in the centre circle, showed just how much this defeat hurt.
It was yet another reminder of how defensive vulnerabilities can be brutally exposed in the top flight. Fulham had began feistily, with plenty of spirit and tempo, penning Unai Emery’s side deep in their own half during an opening twenty minutes that saw Slavisa Jokanovic’s side dominate possession and create a couple of clear chances. They even had the momentum going in at half-time following Andre Schurrle’s sumptuous finish to a flowing move and were arguably in the game until Jokanovic opted to replace Tim Ream with Aboubakar Kamara. Had the French forward directed a header on goal with his first touch instead of it drifting harmlessly wide, who knows what the outcome might have been?
Instead, Arsenal’s formidable football, explosive pace in the forward areas and the sort of supreme confidence that comes with winning nine league games in a row took hold. Alexandre Lacazette had underlined his devastating ability in front of goal with two wondrous finishes before a sweeping move that began in the Arsenal right back position after Schurrle’s untimely slip ended a promising Fulham attack, led to an impudent flick from Aaron Ramsey completing a contender for goal of the season. The game might have been effectively out of Fulham’s reach from that moment on, but Jokanovic would not have been enamoured with the way his charges wilted after that. The Whites appeared to have run horribly out of gas in the final twenty minutes, with Aubameyang slotting home clinically from close range before adding that late fifth. Fulham have a reputation for being welcoming hosts, but this was unforgivable generosity.
Jokanovic’s solution to a horribly shaky defence was to deploy three centre backs and give Sessegnon and Christie the license to roam forward from wing-back. The teenage Sessegnon did it effectively, arguably bettering Hector Bellerin in the first 45 minutes, but Christie’s limitations at this level were horribly exposed during a chastening afternoon. With Timothy Fosu-Mensah’s return from a serious shoulder injury probably more than a month away, right back appears to become another problem position. Most of the problems came down the Arsenal left in the first half and, with Denis Odoi frequently dragged out of position to cover, it was inevitable that the Gunners would eventually fashion a goalscoring chance. Maxime Le Marchand had already produced two last-ditch interventions before Lacazette took the first opening that came his way clinically, spinning inside the box and firing a low shot beyond Marcus Bettinelli, to make light of Fuham’s encouraging start, which saw Bernt Leno produce an excellent save from Luciano Vietto’s deflected shot and Aleksandar Mitrovic have a strike blocked behind.
As it turned out, Fulham’s equaliser just before the break only delayed a deflating second half collapse, but at the time it felt significant. Vietto gleefully seized on a poor Arsenal pass, galloped into space just outside the box and measured a lovely ball through for Schurrle. There was a still a lot for the German to do, but he brilliantly lifted a clever finish over Leto and the home side were level. It was the least they deserved for the spirit and resolve demonstrated in shaking off going behind once again, but Jokanovic will be alarmed at how devastatingly his side fell from that high-octane start for the second week running. The Whites had no answer to Everton stepping up a gear at Goodison Park last Saturday – and you never really felt they were likely to mount a comeback once Lacazette lashed home from distance after Danny Welbeck had flicked on a hopeful long ball from the impressive Lucas Torreira.
Ramsey’s first touch was an artful back flick from close range that left Marcus Bettinelli with no chance and capped a mesmerising length of the field move that hinted at the sort of football Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles put together in their sleep. You can feel the belief drain away from Fulham’s shell-shocked players – and Jokanovic now has a real job on his hands. The Serbian head coach, no closer to knowing his best eleven and with injuries sidelining key performers, has to lift his team ahead of their return to domestic action following the international break, which includes three possibly pivotal fixtures against Cardiff City, Bournemouth and Huddersfield Town. Aside from fashioning a functioning back line, the Fulham boss needs to add more bite to the midfield, especially ahead of that trip to south Wales. The confidence of last May already looks a thing of the past.
FULHAM (3-4-3): Bettinelli; Odoi, Ream (Kamara 54), Le Marchand; Christie, R, Sessegnon, Zambo Anguissa (McDonald 62), Seri; Vietto (Johansen 83), Schürrle, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rico, Mawson, S. Sessegnon.
BOOKED: Vietto, Schürrle.
GOAL: Schürrle (44).
ARSENAL (4-4-2): Leno; Bellerín, Monreal, Mustafi, Holding; Mkhitaryan, Torreira, Xhaka, Iwobi (Ramsey 67); Welbeck (Aubameyang 62), Lacazette (Guendouzi 80). Subs (not used): Martínez, Sokratis, Lichtsteiner, Kolasinac.
GOALS: Lacazette (29, 49); Ramsey (67); Aubameyang (79, 90+1).
REFEREE: Paul Tierney (Lancashire).