Arsenal bounce back from Liverpool shame with emphatic victory over struggling Fulham
LONDON -- Arsenal began 2019 with three precious points as they swept aside Fulham 4-1 at the Emirates. Here are three quick thoughts from their New Year's Day win.
1. Arsenal bounce back with big win
This felt like an important victory for Arsenal. Their 5-1 defeat to Liverpool last time out was, by a distance, their worst defeat of Unai Emery's reign thus far. As a side with a reputation for lacking mental toughness under his predecessor, Arsene Wenger, the big question here was how Emery's Arsenal would bounce back. Luckily for the home fans, they responded positively in terms of the result.
Tuesday's 4-1 victory was secured with goals from Granit Xhaka, Alexandre Lacazette, substitute Aaron Ramsey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. It was a much-needed win considering their recent loss to Southampton, the disappointing Boxing Day draw at Brighton and that embarrassment at Anfield. With Manchester United transformed under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Arsenal are now defending fifth place rather than going for fourth.
But just like the nature of their previous win, 3-1 here against Burnley, Arsenal were unconvincing for long periods against a relegation struggler, and there remains a sense that Emery is still trying to find his best system. There remains a question mark about the future of Mesut Ozil, who again missed out through injury. There were huge boos when Emery again substituted Lacazette, a fan favourite, while Ramsey's instant impact prompts more questions about why he's being able to leave.
All in all, it was a match to summarise Arsenal under Emery so far, particularly at home: a questionable performance but ultimately a positive result.
2. Iwobi leads Arsenal's charge
Arsenal's brightest player in the first half was Alex Iwobi, starting on the left of Arsenal's front three. Iwobi sometimes frustrates Arsenal supporters with his inconsistent end product, but he's particularly adept at taking up clever positions in this system, dragging the opposition narrow and encouraging the wing-back, in this case Sead Kolasinac, forward on the overlap.
Besides, Iwobi's final ball has been impressive recently. He assisted Ainsley Maitland-Niles' opener in the 5-1 defeat at Anfield with a measured left-footed cross in behind the Reds' back-line, and he also created Arsenal's opener on New Year's Day. Receiving the ball wide on the left, he looked up and spotted Xhaka's late run into the box before delivering a clever chip, which the Swiss international controlled with his midriff before lifting the ball past Sergio Rico.
Arsenal's next two major chances also came from the left flank, again involving Iwobi. First his back-heel released Kolasinac, who got to the byline and played a cut-back pass for Xhaka, again making a well-timed run into the box, but Tim Ream produced a typical last-ditch block to deny him. Then shortly before half-time, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang raced from the right flank across to the near post to meet another Iwobi cross, but misdirected his downward header.
The home side changed formation at half-time with one of Emery's customary changes. With Lucas Torreira on for Shkodran Mustafi, they moved from 3-4-3 to 4-3-3, but their attacks had a familiar pattern. Ten minutes into the second half, they again pounced down that left flank. Iwobi received the ball with his back to goal and waited for Kolasinac's run, although he also had the option of passing to Aubameyang. He chose to feed the latter who in turn found Kolasinac, and his intelligent pull-back allowed Lacazette to control the ball, steady himself and smash home Arsenal's second.
There was a brief wobble in the second half, but Aubameyang fed substitute Ramsey, who smashed into the top corner barely a minute after being introduced, and then after Arsenal quickly recovered the ball on the edge of the box, Aubameyang's shot looped into the net off Ream. 4-1 was a little flattering, but Arsenal merited the win.
Ultimately, Iwobi's bright play adds an extra dimension to Arsenal's forward momentum, as he's made a first-team place his own.
3. A missed opportunity for Fulham
Few would have expected Fulham to come to the Emirates and record a victory, especially considering that neither they nor Claudio Ranieri have ever managed a win over the Gunners. After their impressive start to on Tuesday, however, they'll come to rue their missed opportunities to end their winless streak.
While Fulham always looked nervous at the back, with Ream struggling to keep pace with the speedy Aubameyang, and Calum Chambers, ineligible against his parent club, missed in the holding role. But going forward, they caused problems. Aleksandar Mitrovic caused Sokratis Papastathopoulos issues in the air and with his hold-up play, while captain Tom Cairney, who has struggled to adjust to Premier League football after a fine promotion campaign in 2017-18, was regularly involved from his deep midfield role.
It was Cairney's curled, left-footed pass in behind that created Fulham's best opportunity. The overlapping of Kolasinac created some promising moments going forward but also caused Arsenal defensive issues, and his advanced positioning allowed Ryan Sessegnon freedom down the right to latch onto Cairney's pass. Sessegnon's speed took him clear of the defence from an inside-right position and he attempted to bend the ball past Bernd Leno but didn't get enough whip on his finish and sent the ball disappointingly wide of the far post.
Sessegnon might also have made more of a promising counter-attack shortly afterward, which stemmed from more typical Fulham play: Mitrovic's back-to-goal work and Cairney's measured pass. Fulham also pressed on occasion to cause Arsenal problems when trying to play out. Leno's distribution is inconsistent, Laurent Koscielny hit a pass straight to Andre Schurrle and Xhaka seems to make at least one inexplicable pass per game.
Fulham launched a brief comeback with 20 minutes remaining. The introduction of Aboubakar Kamara in place of Schurrle saw him going down the right and Sessegnon switching to the left. This combination produced Fulham's goal: Sessegnon was found down the left and side-footed a perfect low ball across the 6-yard box, allowing Kamara to convert into an empty net. After finishing Fulham's previous game by missing a penalty he'd insisted on taking despite Mitrovic being the designated taker, it was a desperately needed reprieve for the wide forward.
Ultimately, though, Fulham didn't threaten further. This was a "bonus" game for Ranieri's side, but he'll feel they should have performed better before the break.