Fulham – Arsenal: Deflated Arsenal End December With A Damaging Defeat (2-1)
Two sides from the English capital faced off on New Year’s Eve. Having registered just one win in their last five matches, Arsenal really needed all three points to not only rescue some semblance of momentum but also top the standings at the turn of the year. Instead, they suffered yet another defeat having put up arguably their worst performance of the year.
Tactical analysis and match report by Neel Shelat.
We decided to make this article free to read. If you want to support our work, consider taking a subscription.
2023 has been a successful year at Craven Cottage. Fulham resoundingly succeded in breaking their cycle of relegations and promotions with a solid 10th-placed finish at the end of the 2022/23 Premier League season. Still, some analysts raised concerns about the underlying overperformance behind that, whilst the departure of Aleksandar Mitrović to Al Hilal was another setback in the summer. Nevertheless, Marco Silva’s side look well on course to stay up, starting the day six points clear of the drop zone.
On the flip side, 2023 was a year of great performances for Arsenal but it yielded somewhat disappointing results. Looking at the bigger picture, it must be viewed as a success as Mikel Arteta led his team to their first title charge in his tenure, finishing just five points away from Manchester City at the end of last season. With the Club World Cup champions undergoing a shaky run of results leading up to the festive period, Arsenal might have wanted to capitalize by creating a gap at the top, but they too stuttered and stumbled on occasion and failed to do so.
Fulham lined up in their trusty 4-2-3-1 formation. Bernd Leno, Timothy Castagne, Tosin Adarabioyo, Calvin Bassey and Antonee Robinson made up the defensive unit, whilst Tom Cairney partnered João Palhinha behind Alex Iwobi in midfield. Up front, Bobby Decordova-Reid and Willian flanked Raúl Jiménez.
Arsenal made three changes to the side that lost to West Ham on the weekend. Jakub Kiwior started on the left of the back four alongside Benjamin White, William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhães, all of whom were in front of goalkeeper David Raya. Kai Havertz came into a midfield which included Martin Ødegaard and Declan Rice at its base, whilst Eddie Nketiah led the line with Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli providing width.
Arsenal fail to consolidate a flying start
In the last couple of matches, Arsenal were having a tough time in front of goal. Ahead of kickoff at Craven Cottage, they had gone three hours and forty shots without hitting the back of the net.
So, Bukayo Saka’s goal in the fifth minute would have brought with it some very welcome relief. The manner in which it was created – at the end of a counterattack where Saka turned in the rebound to a Martinelli shot into an empty net – did not matter. But, what became important then was how they built on such a perfect start, and that is where they had a tough time.
For one, they failed to get a stranglehold on possession. In fact, at the half-hour mark, Fulham had a very minor edge in that respect. However, the hosts did not threaten too much with settled possession as Arsenal’s 4-4-2 medium and low block was pretty firm, and their rest defense seemed stronger in theory with Kiwior in place of Zinchenko. White was also far more cautious with his overlapping runs, so Arteta’s side generally had a strong unit of five to defend counterattacks.
For their part, Fulham kept probing, especially down their left wing using Willian’s on-ball qualities in conjugation with Robinson’s pacy overlapping runs. Eventually, they found success down that flank.
29th minute: Arsenal get caught on the counterattack after Bassey causes a turnover by tackling Saka. On a rare occasion, both White and Rice have been pulled out of posisiion, enabling Fulham to attack in a four-on-three transition once Palhinha releases the pass to Willian in the buildup to the equalizer.
Half-time changes fail to get Arsenal going
In truth, whilst Arsenal were far from their best in the first half an hour, their performance upto that point was far from disastrous. One set of collective mistakes led to them conceding the equalizer, but they had only allowed one shot on target before that. The really concerning part of their performance came thereafter, as they seemed utterly deflated at a time when dynamic play was required to retake the lead.
Their passmap does a good job of highlighting the issues they faced in the first half. Kiwior did a decent job at left back and did offer greater strength in duels, but he quite clearly lacked a lot of the dynamism that Zinchenko tends to provide in that role so it would be tough to argue that his inclusion was a net positive. More importantly, though, the biggest issue they faced was their complete lack of central incision due to Nketiah always staying high. Generally, Jesus tends to be a key player in this respect by dropping off and linking play, but his replacement did none of that and registered a paltry five passes in the first period.
Weirdly, Arteta only addressed the first of these issues at half-time by replacing Kiwior with Takehiro Tomiyasu and reverting to their recently favored system in possession that leads to more of a 3-1-2-4 shape than a 3-2-5 structure. That was not nearly enough to spark Arsenal to life, though, so when they conceded a second from a set-piece to trail just before the hour mark, they were being out-shot as well.
An outright back three fails to solve the problem
The onus was once again on Arteta to make the changes that would get his team going in search of at least an equalizer to salvage something from the match, but his decisions in the next substitution window were equally questionable. Martinelli was brought off for Leandro Trossard, whilst Jesus was finally sent on as White made way, leading to a switch to a 3-1-4-2 formation outright.
However, the question of central incision was not answered as Nketiah remained the most central attacker with Jesus and Havertz restricted on either side of him, and all three of them tended to stay pretty high. On the wings, the removal of the dribbling danger of Martinelli reduced the visitors’ threat on that side if anything. A few minutes later, the removal of Havertz (Arsenal’s only significant aerial threat in the box) against an increasingly lower block did not help either.
So, at the end of the day, Arsenal registered a measly four shots whilst trailing in the last half an hour. They ended the match not only out-scored but also out-shot and – most damningly – out-xG’d.
In his post-match interview, a visibly frustrated Arteta called this Arsenal’s worst performance of the season. That assessment is most definitely irrefutable, but as we have seen, he should introspect his own decisions as well as the players’ performances. Those on the pitch were undeniably well off the pace, but their manager did not make the right calls to give them the injection they needed. Arsenal’s recent run of poor form has not seen too many bad performances, but this was a new low point in all respects.
Whilst most of the attention will be on the visitors, we must also acknowledge a very polished performance from Fulham. They defended very well in their typically compact block but also posed a good consistent attacking threat, especially in the channels and wings in transition to make the most of the opportunity presented by their opponents’ off-day.
Use the arrows to scroll through all available match plots. Click to enlarge.
Check the match plots page for plots of other matches.