Arsenal 2-2 Fulham: Gunners drop two points in the title race as Joao Palhinha nets late equaliser for 10-man Cottagers after Mikel Arteta’s side had come from behind to lead
As sheet lightning lit up the north London sky and thunder roared at the Emirates Stadium, drama abounded on the pitch to match the conditions. By the end, the sun shone again. However, Arsenal’s mood was distinctly gloomy.
These are the early days of the title race, mere jostling for position as the marathon sets off. Nothing is decisive, there are plenty of feints and breakaways to be recorded before the contest reaches maturity. Yet if there was a flaw exposed in Arsenal’s exacting run-in last season, the stumble in those final 385 yards, it was a soft centre. And there were echoes of that here again.
If history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself but does rhyme, then Arsenal completed a couplet here, providing the second line to accompany the Southampton game in the title run-in from the end of last season.
Like then, there was a goal inside 60 seconds. Like then, there was fightback. Like then, there was desperate all-out-attack to rescue the three points in a lengthy period of injury time. So gung-ho was it that Adama Traore almost won the game for Fulham. And like then, it was all to no avail.
The consequences at this stage of the season aren’t as portentous but the vulnerabilities are just as easily identifiable this season as last.
Joao Palhinha scored a decisive equaliser four minutes from time to secure Fulham a point
It was bitterly frustrating for Declan Rice and Co after they had come back from 1-0 down to 2-1
Fabio Vieira, who finished with two assists from the bench, almost won it late on acrobatically
Vieira was wide of the mark and it was Palhinha and Fulham that were celebrating the drama
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Mikel Arteta wasn’t having any of this negative talk. ‘We are ten times better than last season,’ he said, comparing this game to last season against Fulham. ‘At least ten. We should have scored five, six or seven. The way the team plays in any other sports you win by a hundred points. But his is football and we conceded two very poor goals.’
Quite. It is football. But maybe not have known it.
Arsenal looked to have dug themselves out of a hole after a poor first half. One-nil down, Mikel Arteta’s substitutions dragged them back to 2-1. And when Calvin Bassey received his second yellow card for dragging back Eddie Nketiah on 83 minutes, the mood was celebratory. The tide had been turned.
Jorginho coming on for Martin Odergaard gave you a clue as to where this was heading. And yet it was Fulham, down to ten men, who provided the thunderclap to accompany the sheet lightening. Sub Harrison Reed swung in the corner. Not one Arsenal player challenged. Bukayo Saka, who had a miserable afternoon other than his penalty, flinched and allowed the excellent Joao Palhinha to strike the equaliser.
But the seeds of Arsenal’s misfortune had been sown in the opening seconds, as Arteta intimated. Start the game 1-0 down and it all becomes a lot harder. Against Southampton they conceded in 28 seconds and against Bournemouth last season in 9 seconds. There is something about Arsenal that invites these calamities. Something systematic.
The re-invention of full backs as midfielders now sees Thomas Partey at right back. The flaw in this cunning plan is in the gaping areas of space left in that vacated fullback area. And Fulham had that weakness nailed within 56 seconds.
They were helped by Saka’s terrible back pass, directly into the path of Andreas Pereira. And by Ramsdale panic over his positioning – high enough up the pitch to create a huge risk but not high enough to cut out danger. Ramsdale got his feet in a mess and presented the near side space so Pereira could simply roll the ball in.
‘It’s a part of football,’ said Arteta when invited to address the coincidence if three such goals in recent history. ‘Obviously if you make the mistake in the first minute the game becomes much more difficult but the reaction after that, we controlled the game.’
Eddie Nketiah (middle) thought he would be the hero when he sealed a comeback for 2-1
Earlier, Bukayo Saka (middle) had scored from the spot after a cynical foul on Vieira in the box
Nketiah, on at half-time for Leandro Trossard, then made his mark by firing past Bernd Leno
But such is the drive by Arteta to fill his side with midfielders, that he started with Kai Havertz and Leandro Trossard rather than a No.9. It’s fair to say Havertz has not hit the ground running since his move from Chelsea, groans accompanying one backward pass. .
Arsenal: Ramsdale, Partey (Zinchenko 56), White, Saliba, Kiwior, Odegaard (Jorginho 84), Rice (Gabriel Jesus 90+1), Havertz (Vieira 56), Saka, Trossard (Nketiah 46), Martinelli.
Subs not used: Gabriel, Smith Rowe, Raya, Nelson.
Goals: Saka (69pen), Nketiah (72)
Fulham: Leno, Tete, Diop, Bassey, Robinson, Lukic (Reed 70), Joao Palhinha, Andreas Pereira (Cairney 63), Wilson (Traore 71), Jimenez, Reid (Adarabioyo 89).
Subs not used: Rodak, Rodrigo Muniz, Mbabu, Vinicius, Harris.
Goals: Pereira (1), Palhinha (86)
Booked: Bassey, Jimenez, Lukic
Red card: Bassey
Referee: Paul Tierney (Lancashire)
You can understand Arteta’s logic. Fulham had a forest of players guarding the goal and there was never going to much space for a centre forward to run into. Better have the intricate play makers to weave their way through. But Arsenal aren’t up to Manchester City’s high standards.
They gave the ball away far too much to pass the ball into the net. And Marco Silva confirmed afterwards that Cordova-Reid’s crucial role, as both wide player and defensive midfielder, which allowed him and Pereira to target the spaces Partey left and also block off the Arsenal thrusts down the right and which threw Arsenal off kilter.
When the great opportunities did come, Saka fluffed the chance to head home Trossard’s cross on 33 minutes. Odegaard scored on 42 minutes but Havertz was offside.
Still, there is a great strength in being able to admit you got it wrong and the simple possession of a plan B. Off came Trossard at half time for Nketiah. Next Havertz was hooked for Vieria and Partey for an actual full back, albeit a flexible one, in Zinchenko. And suddenly Arsenal were much more balanced, evident as Vieira drove on and was felled by Kenny Tete in the box on 67 minutes. Here was the foothold Arsenal required.
Saka wasn’t on penalties on Monday against Crystal Palace, when Odegaard took the duties but he was back here. The last one he took was the decisive miss in the title run in against West Ham.
Fulham boss Marco Silva appealed for calm from his players in such a frantic atmosphere
It had been a dream start for Fulham, with Andreas Pereira firing them ahead inside a minute
He endured a series of nerve-jangling delays before the strike, with a VAR check initially and then ref Paul Tierney interrupting his run up to re-place the ball. Nevertheless, he calmly stroked the ball in for 1-1.
Then, three minutes later the turnaround appeared complete, Vieira bursting down the wing and driving in a cross that Nketiah swept home.
‘We made changes, the dynamic changed, we had better relationships and the subs made a huge difference. I loved the determination and confidence they brought, said Arteta.
Nketiah was flying. ‘He’s in a good moment, full of confidence, had fire in his eyes’ said Arteta, Indeed, Bassey had to resort to dragging him back as he burst through the half way line, receiving his second yellow card on 83 minutes.
The clamour of the crowd now echoed with the roar of the thunder, victory anticipated. Yet there was a sting in the tail. ‘You have to defend the goals with your life,’ lamented Arteta. Right now, Arsenal don’t do that.
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