Arsenal, on their first away trip in the Premier League this season, comfortably beat a Fulham side bereft of midfield strength by three goals to one with Arsene Wenger’s side creating even more chances than the score-line suggests. Aaron Ramsey continued his impressive start to the season with yet another standout, Man of the Match performance which has left many of his doubters questioning their stance on the Welsh midfielder.
Ramsey partnered Tomas Rosicky in the midfield two of Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 formation at the start of today’s match with Jack Wilshere given a rest after playing two full matches in the space of a week and it was a decision that would prove to be the difference between the two sides over the course of the ninety minutes.
Fulham went with a very straightforward 4-4-2 system with Pajtim Kasami being the stationed partner to Dimitar Berbatov in Fulham’s front two however Kasami would drop off just behind the Bulgarian and roam the space across the width of the pitch in what then became a 4-4-1-1 formation. This however provided very little protection for the slight in build midfield duo of Steve Sidwell and Scott Parker which showed.
Fulham despite being the home side showed very little desire to press Arsenal when the Gunners had possession in their own half and to a degree even in the first ten to fifteen yards of Fulham’s half. Sidwell and Parker were content to just sit in their positions and invite the midfield two of Rosicky and Ramsey onto them.
Arsenal being very methodical in their approach utilised Santi Cazorla’s ability perfectly in this situation and just passed the ball between the three of Rosicky, Ramsey and Cazorla. The ball would be moved between the trio with Rosicky covering Cazorla on the left hand side when the Spaniard dropped deep into Arsenal’s half to receive a pass and vice versa. Throughout the first half this worked splendidly albeit with a little assistance from Fulham’s unwillingness to press when not in possession.
Ramsey with plenty of time to think on the ball could receive a pass from Rosicky and then break into the space in between Sidwell and Parker with the Fulham midfield still unwilling to close down, Ramsey then had time to pick a pass to either Lukas Podolski in the middle of the pitch or Theo Walcott on the right hand side, however Walcott was having significantly less success than in midweek now he was up against a competent, experienced Full-Back in John Arne Riise.
Now you would expect with Parker and Sidwell sitting so deep it would benefit Fulham’s defensive line with the addition of two bodies to help defend against Arsenal attacks, however it was very much a case of the game passing the two midfielders by. By the time they addressed the danger created by an Aaron Ramsey forward run, the ball had already been moved on into a different area and Parker or Sidwell were taken completely out of the game.
This was the problem for Fulham however Arsenal were struggling to make best use of this advantage with chances not being converted and Lukas Podolski looking slightly like a rabbit in headlights at the initial prospect of playing in a more central role from the start with the German international being used to being deployed on the left side of the attacking midfield trio throughout his career with the Gunners. Still despite Arsenal’s profligacy in front of David Stockdale’s goal they were in comfortable control of the game and when the first goal inevitably came it was through a man in encouraging form. Olivier Giroud netted his third goal in three straight competitive matches with a fine, deft chip over Stockdale after picking up on a deflected Aaron Ramsey effort inside the penalty area.
For me Fulham should have approached the match differently from the start. You know you aren’t going to dominate a match against Arsenal simply due to the fact they have too good a team in terms of keeping the ball and moving it around the pitch at a good tempo. Unfortunately as once said by Arsene Wenger, “To stop Arsenal, you have to kick Arsenal” and there is an effective way of stopping Arsenal and that is putting them under pressure.
Fulham should have gone with a three in the middle of midfield who were prepared to press when not in possession and really get amongst the Arsenal midfield when Ramsey and Rosicky had the ball. Sidwell, Parker and new signing Derek Boateng put in a midfield three would have been able to really press Arsenal and force a mistake, yes it would leave the potential for a defence splitting pass to Walcott in behind but it would have stopped Ramsey dictating the tempo of the game and perhaps given Fulham more of a chance.
Even after the opening breakthrough there was still something missing in Arsenal’s attacks, Lukas Podolski was really struggling in the middle and just began to drift onto his favoured left hand side which crowded the space occupied by Cazorla, who was then forced to drop deeper and it left Arsenal imbalanced in the final third. Olivier Giroud found himself more and more isolated with no regular service from the central areas and as such it was also very difficult for Theo Walcott to get into the game. It wasn’t until straight after the second goal, which incidentally was scored by Podolski in a central position, that the problem was addressed by a very subtle system change.
Arsenal have been known to play in a very fluid 4-2-3-1 formation over the past two seasons and with the fluidity of this formation and the individuals utilised within the system, comes an ability to ever so slightly tinker with positioning on the fly and this is exactly what Arsene Wenger did just after the second goal. Arsenal went from 4-2-3-1 to a very comfortable 4-3-3 with Lukas Podolski being repositioned on his favoured left flank and Santi Cazorla forming a three man midfield sitting just ahead of Rosicky and Ramsey in order to contribute to Arsenal’s attacks through the centre.
This ‘tweak’ as it were, for me, changed the game. Arsenal were still able to dominate the midfield battle through Rosicky and Ramsey however they now had more stability in the final third with Cazorla drifting from the middle of midfield to a central attacking midfield role whenever the situated desired it. It is this sort of fluidness which has made Arsenal sides so successful in the Wenger era and Fulham had no answer to the change with David Stockdale having to pull off a number of high quality saves to keep the score at 2-0.
Many will say Cazorla was the best player on the park this afternoon with the Spaniard doing a fantastically impressive job dropping into the middle of midfield and orchestrating Arsenal’s attacks, as well as getting forward into areas where he could supply Walcott, Giroud and Podolski with a pass in behind. Make no mistake he was instrumental in Arsenal’s success but it was Ramsey’s performance which gave him the time and space to do this. The Welsh midfielder was comfortable on the ball and efficient in his distribution, never have I seen an Aaron Ramsey performance where he gave the ball away so infrequently and that is no slight on the player but merely an observation of a regular spectator of Ramsey both for Arsenal and Wales.
The Aaron Ramsey we have seen thus far this season is a very different Aaron Ramsey to previous years. This is a fit Ramsey who appears to have put his injury problems behind him and in the absence of Arteta it is an Aaron Ramsey who is able to be the main man in midfield as it were. He can really stamp his authority on matches through forward runs and clever passes, which he did against Fenerbahce to great avail midweek with his surging runs causing sizeable problems for Emre and Raul Meireles in the middle of the pitch as they were forced deeper and deeper.
The third goal came through yet more impressive Arsenal football with Cazorla finding himself in a far forward position inside Fulham’s penalty area before cutting it back to Podolski who fired home past Stockdale from the left hand side of the penalty box. It was a game plan that worked perfectly however you can’t help feel yet again, like in Turkey on Wednesday night, that Arsenal were helped somewhat by a poor display in a key area from their opponents. Tuesday’s second leg being the formality it should be is a chance for Wenger to rest key players with it not being a huge surprise should Serge Gnabry play a part.
The real test will come next weekend at the Emirates with Tottenham Hotspur the visitors in the first North London derby of the season, and with Paulinho and Etienne Capoue in tow you would think Aaron Ramsey will have to continue his stellar form if Arsenal are to have a successful third Premier League fixture.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4
Make no mistake, Arsenal were very very good last night and fully deserved their 3-0 win away in Istanbul with a particularly impressive performance being put in by Aaron Ramsey who dictated the match from the middle of midfield, however all of Fenerbahce’s problems, in both halves, were of their own making with respective full backs Bekir İrtegün and Michal Kadlec having noticeably poor evenings.
Bekir was stationed on the right hand side whilst Kadlec was entrusted with the task of shackling the quick Theo Walcott on the left with it being clear right from the off that Arsenal were looking to get at Fenerbahce via Walcott down the right hand channel. Walcott ably supported by Bacary Sagna were very effective down the right flank and gave Kadlec a really tough opening spell with Arsenal’s central midfield pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere focusing the majority of their passing through to Walcott.
Over on the opposite flank, Bekir was having great difficulty staying in position with the Turkish fullback being far too often drawn into the middle of the defence which caused an element of confusion for Bruno Alves in the middle. As a result of this, a huge gap was left in the right back position which had to be filled on numerous occasions by Dirk Kuyt who as we all know isn’t the most competent defender, being a centre forward by nature. Bekir made Kuyt’s night all the more difficult with his poor passing, when the Fenerbahce fullback did make inroads into the Arsenal half it looked as if he was passing it with his eyes shut, every single pass was going wayward and not reaching its target. Dirk Kuyt was left having to do the work of two men down Fenerbahce’s right hand side and unfortunately for Ersun Yanal’s side the Dutchman was having enough trouble doing the work of one to start with.
At left back Michal Kadlec in the first half was getting away with his poor positioning due to the fact Walcott was drifting inside on too many occasions which gave Bruno Alves the opportunity to track his movements and stop him breaking into the penalty area. Alves did this well and Arsenal, near the end of the first half, were becoming slightly frustrated at their own inability to break through the Fenerbahce defence down the right hand side. Sagna would be overlapping Walcott and receive the ball whilst Walcott would want the one-two return ball yet found himself running into the brick wall that was Bruno Alves. It was Bruno Alves’ ‘mopping up’ if you like, for Kadlec’s mistakes that kept Fenerbahce level heading into the break.
At half time with the clear lack of positional awareness and confidence, I was of the belief that Arsene Wenger should switch Walcott to the left side of midfield in order for him to run at Bekir and make life even more difficult for Kuyt. However Ersun Yanal had also spotted the glaringly obvious weakness in the Fenerbahce first half performance and replaced Bekir with the experienced Gokhan Gonul who had just completed his recovery from a shoulder injury suffered way back in May. Gonul entered the pitch and instantly there was a greater sense of not only positional awareness but also authority in the right full back position and in truth there was very little joy to be had for Arsenal down the left hand flank for the rest of the match.
At left back however Michal Kadlec carried his dreadful first half form into the second period only in the second half he was given no help by Bruno Alves. Walcott had been smart enough to recognize he was getting little to no joy in trying to run through the experience Portuguese centre half and the former Southampton man began to hug the touchline and directly run at Kadlec with the former Sparta Prague full back having absolutely no answer to Walcott’s pace.
With Alves now out of the equation, Theo Walcott had far more success in the second half. Kadlec appeared scared of Walcott every time he was in possession down the right hand side and this just gave Walcott the confidence to keep running at him. The problem was that Kadlec had at no point either before the match or over the course of the ninety minutes taken into account the speed of Walcott and as such he didn’t adjust his positioning to suit marking a player quicker than himself.
It is common sense if you are up against a winger who is so much quicker than yourself you don’t want to be too tight to him, because if he turns you or the ball goes over your head then you are basically out of the game, you have to just take a couple of steps back and give yourself a chance to get into a position by where you can win the ball or force the opponent out of play. Kadlec completely ignore this common sense and was touch tight to Walcott all evening long and it proved to be his downfall when it came to the third Arsenal goal.
Cazorla’s crossfield pass was a thing of beauty, it was inch perfect for Walcott however he was given a huge boost courtesy of Kadlec’s starting position. The Czech full back was so tight to Walcott that they were almost starting their run in a level position, there was only going to be one winner of this footrace and Walcott broke away and got directly in front of Kadlec. This is the point where as a defender the alarm bells start going off in your head as you realise “I’m in trouble here” and Kadlec was in serious trouble. The instant Walcott controlled the ball there was only going to be one outcome with Kadlec unsurprisingly bringing Walcott down from behind with referee Gianluca Rocchi having no choice but to award a penalty which Olivier Giroud duly dispatched to effectively secure Arsenal’s progress into the Champions League Group Stage for a sixteenth successive year.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4