Don’t be too dismayed by the scoreline. This might have looked like another routine defeat at Arsenal for a team and a manager who have never won there, but there were a lot more signs of promise for a side still sitting nineteenth in the table. Fulham fashioned more chances in the opening 35 minutes than they have done on their last four or five visits to the Emirates – and, briefly after Aboubakar Kamara reduced the arrears to 2-1, threatened a comeback in the second half.
Ultimately, this was a lesson in ruthlessness in front of goal. Ryan Sessegnon will rue missing two glorious chances to give Fulham the lead, whereas Granit Xhaka needed no second invitation to put the Gunners in front after 25 minutes. A tired defence looked leggy in the second half and made a couple of elementary mistakes as Fulham pushed forward in search of an equaliser. 4-1 felt incredibly harsh, but the top flight can be a brutal competition at times as Fulham are finding out.
Claudio Ranieri’s men were far more forward-thinking than anybody could have predicted and had a lot more joy in getting at an Arsenal defence that still looks shaky enough to undermine their Champions’ League ambitions. Tom Cairney, restored to the playmaking role where he looks most effective, was excellent with the ball in the first half. He played a delightful ball sending Sessegnon clear but the teenager dragged his shot disappointingly wide of the far post. He missed his kick entirely at the far post as an Andre Schurrle cross flashed across the face of goal – and Fulham were immediately reminded of the magnitude of those two chances.
The home crowd were beginning to get restless, but they were relieved by an opening goal made by a combination of Arsenal’s two best players, the energetic Sead Kolasinac and Alex Iwobi. Ranieri will have been perturbed by Cairney’s failure to track Xhaka’s run – the hulking midfielder burst into oceans of space that wasn’t occupied by Tim Ream or Maxime Le Marchand either and had far too much time to bring the ball down and stroke a finish past the helpless Sergio Rico.
The goal sparked the Gunners into life. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a couple of chances, one saved by Rico and one steered wide from a good position, whilst the lively Mattéo Guendouzi was also denied by Fulham’s Spanish goalkeeper. Fulham still created openings of their own with Aleksandar Mitrovic, who got a fair bit of joy against Laurent Koscielny and Sokratis, failing to get a decisive connection on Joe Bryan’s deep cross, but went in a goal down.
It got worse ten minutes after the break. Iwobi found more space down the left and a set of speedy passes between Aubameyang and Kolasinac opened Fulham up. The left wing-back burst between blue shirts and committed Rico before squaring the ball for Alexandre Lacazette, who hammered home the finish. At that point, you feared the floodgates might open but Ranieri introduced Kamara and Jean-Michael Seri and the visitors got a foothold in a game that had appeared beyond them.
One of Seri’s first contributions was an excellent cross onto the head of Mitrovic, who probably should have done better than direct his effort straight at Bernd Leno. Fulham weren’t perturbed. Seri added some bite to their midfield, stripping Lucas Torreira of the ball with a strong tackle that incensed the Arsenal players, and the Ivorian combined with Cairney to create the space for Sessegnon to surge down the left. His low cross cut out Leno and Kamara, the villain on Saturday, tapped home the simplest of finishes from close range.
Emery’s decision to replace Lacazette with Aaron Ramsey was greeted with disdain by the home crowd, but it settled what had become a topsy-turvy game. The Welshman and Torreira took control of a more open contest and, as he did at Craven Cottage earlier in the season, Ramsey scored within minutes of coming on. This wasn’t as glorious a goal – but his finish was unerring after Aubameyang had struck the base of the near post after another flowing passing move between Kolasinac and Guendouzi.
A fourth, which arrived seven minutes from the end, seemed harsh on Fulham and certainly on Rico, who had made a string of fine saves in the second half. The goalkeeper had little chance when Aubameyang’s shot hit Ream and looped over him. Ranieri might not have been pleased with the way Arsenal were allowed to toy with the Fulham defence on the edge of the box, but his players had certainly given everything and, with a bit of luck, could have got a result had they taken those early chances.
ARSENAL (3-4-1-2): Leno; Mustafi (Torreira 45), Sokratis, Koscielny; Maitland-Niles Kolasinac, Xhaka, Guendouzi; Iwobi (Saka 83); Lacazette (Ramsey 75), Aubameyang. Subs (not used): Cech, Lichsteiner, Elneny, Nketiah.
GOALS: Xhaka (25), Lacazette (55), Ramsey (75), Aubameyang (83).
FULHAM (3-4-3): Rico; Odoi, Le Marchand, Ream; Christie (Fosu-Mensah 57), Bryan, Cisse (Seri 61), Cairney; R. Sessegnon, Schurrle (Kamara 61), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Johansen, Vietto, Ayite.
GOAL: Kamara (69).
REFEREE: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire).