Coming off a chastening defeat in which all of their shortcomings were laid bare, Arsenal look to regroup and start the new year on a positive note Tuesday when they host relegation-threatened Fulham at the Emirates in a London derby.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The goodwill of all the positives the Gunners (11-5-4) accumulated under first-year manager Unai Emery – the 22-match unbeaten streak, the gaffer’s demands of accountability extending throughout the roster, the easy passage through to the Europa League knockout round en route to a top-five status with designs on a Champions League berth through a top-four finish – has been squandered with three losses in the last five matches in all competitions.
Each defeat has shown the gulf in class Arsenal must traverse to reclaim their status as Premier League title contenders, but Saturday’s 5-1 hiding at Anfield by Liverpool revealed all the flaws Emery must fix. Ainsley Maitland-Niles staked the Gunners to a 1-0 lead on 11 minutes when he knocked home a cross by Alex Iwobi, but the wheels came off shortly thereafter.
Arsenal’s threadbare defence was shredded by Roberto Firmino, who leveled the match in the 14th minute and put Liverpool ahead two minutes later as he slalomed through a pair of weak challenges. Then it was Stephan Lichtsteiner keeping Mohamed Salah onsides as he set up Sadio Mane for a third on 32 minutes. Penalties by Salah and Firmino on either side of halftime capped the bruising evening for the Gunners, one Emery did not hide from post-match.
“I think we started well, but after our goal, they pushed, and when they push here, they play with great determination and with players who can make difference all over the pitch,” Emery said. “They scored three quick goals and it was a difficult moment for us. We spoke in the dressing room – it’s another experience for us. A bad experience but an experience to learn from. In the second half we needed to stand up, to keep our position individually and collectively on the game.”
Mesut Ozil did not accompany the team to Anfield due to a knee injury, starting a fresh round of speculation whether there is any room for him on the squad, let alone the starting XI, going forward. Equally curious was Emery’s decision not to play top two scorers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexander Lacazette together, with Aubameyang completely starved of service up front – the Gabon international totaled just six touches and completed four passes, three of them coming on restarts after Liverpool goals.
“We have to work. We’ve been doing well until now,” Lichtsteiner told Arsenal’s official website. “We just need to keep working, looking forward at every game and try not to have more injuries, because it’s been a bad moment for us with injuries. It’s a challenge and one we need to accept.”
Laurent Koscielny will likely be restored into the starting XI to partner with Sokratis in central defence after Shkodran Mustafi had a torrid time and was subbed off at halftime. Arsenal are still dealing with a spate of injuries on the back line that have sidelined Nacho Monnreal and wide back Hector Bellerin, leaving open the possibility of Emery switching to a three-man back for this contest.
Fulham’s issues defensively come more from a lack of quality than injury issues, but the Cottagers (3-5-12) have begun to find their footing in that area with their first two clean sheets of the season in the last three matches.
Unlike their scoreless draw at Newcastle United on Dec. 22, Fulham made the most of their stingy defense and left it late to top Huddersfield Town 1-0 in a six-point relegation belter. Aleksandar Mitrovic slotted home a pass from Ryan Sessegnon in second-half stoppage time, saving the blushes of teammate Aboubakar Kamara, who vociferously demanded to Mitrovic he take the penalty awarded for a handball in the 82nd minute only to be stoned by Jonas Lossl.
Manager Claudio Ranieri was livid with Kamara post-match, telling Sky Sports, “”The man who should shoot the penalty is Mitrovic, and Kamara did not respect me, the club, the team-mates, the crowd, anybody.
“He take the ball and want to shoot the ball, it is unbelievable. I want to kill him.”
It was Mitrovic’s team-high eighth goal as he ended a six-match goalless drought. What Ranieri will do with Kamara is anyone’s guess, though Andre Schurrle could move ahead of him on the pecking order with the quick turnaround after the winger was a spectator from the bench for Saturday’s win.
Ranieri will also have to make at least two changes to his starting XI. Central midfielder and Arsenal loanee Calum Chambers cannot face his parent club, which makes Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa the most likely candidate to fill that spot. Anguissa has not played since being sent off for two yellow cards in Fulham’s 4-1 loss to Manchester United on Dec. 8.
The second change is more concerning since it involves injured centre back Alfie Mawson and comes at a delicate point for Fulham, who appeared to have made the necessary adjustments to a three-man back in which Mawson was flanked by Tim Ream and Dennis Odoi. Maxime Le Marchand replaced Mawson for the second half against Huddersfield and appears the best option to continue deputising in that role.
Arsenal played arguably their best league match of the season in the reverse fixture, storming to a 5-1 victory at Craven Cottage on Oct. 7. Lacazette snapped a 1-1 tie four minutes after the restart and completed his brace. Aubameyang set up Aaron Ramsey on 67 minutes and then added a brace of his own in the final quarter-hour.
The Gunners have won four on the trot over Fulham and are 9-4-0 against them at home in the Premier League era. The Cottagers have never left Arsenal grounds victorious in 26 all-time trips to north London (0-5-21) spanning 104 years since the first match Sept. 12, 1914.
Per Bet365, Arsenal are solid 1/3 favourites to get off the schneid and get back to their winning ways, with Fulham established as 13/2 underdogs to get back-to-back league victories for the first time this term. The odds of a draw, also helpful to the Cottagers, are 9/2.
Despite Fulham’s improved defence of late, oddsmakers are not taking too much stock in another such performance as they are offering 4/9 odds on the sides clearing 2.5 goals compared to 7/4 for under that threshold. There are also 7/10 odds on both teams scoring one goal compared to 21/20 odds on at least one clean sheet being posted.
There is plenty of confidence by oddsmakers in Aubameyang regaining his scoring stride, with 11/5 odds on him scoring the first goal of the match. Lacazette (10/3) and Arsenal reserve forward Eddie Nketiah (9/2) round out the top three, with Aaron Ramsey and Bukayo Saka another step back at 7/1. Iwobi is a 17/2 option before Mitrovic unsurprisingly heads the choices for the Cottagers at 9/1. Kamara is one of three Fulham options at 14/1 with Schurrle and Luciano Vietto.
Aubameyang is a staggering 4/9 pick to score over the course of 90 minutes, and Lacazette is also a better than even money offering at 8/11. Nketiah is just off that standard at 21/20, while Ramsey and Saka are both 7/4 options. Mitrovic is a 12/5 pick to pace Fulham, while Iwobi is an 11/5 pick and Maitland-Niles offers a 15/4 return for confidence in scoring in a second straight contest.
To sum up Arsenal’s performance in a word: Woof.
Simply put, there was nothing Emery could take from that performance save the nice finish from Maitland-Niles that gave the Gunners their short-lived lead. The ease in which Liverpool tore through Arsenal’s midfield — something that one always had a sense could happen if Torreira was off his game given the inconsistent nature of his holding partner Granit Xhaka — has to be a concern for Emery as much as the constant shuffling at the back that also appears to have finally caught up to him.
That is partially enforced because of all the injuries and figuring out how to replace Bellerin and Monreal — only Sead Kolasinac has proven to be a reliable option at left back among the understudies at the moment. Once this holiday fixture list ends and once the FA Cup is done next weekend, Emery has to begin finding the back three or four to go forward with as Arsenal vie for a top-four finish while running a parallel course to get into Champions League via the Europa League.
The fragility of the improvements Fulham have made defensively will be sorely stress-tested in this match without Mawson, whose absence could loom large in their bid to escape the drop. Le Marchand’s 45 minutes Saturday was his first match action since Dec. 5, and the summer signing will be thrown right into the fire against Aubameyang, Iwobi and Lacazette.
Ranieri’s other enforced change in central midfield with Chambers ineligible to play his parent club will also cause problems. How Fulham are going to break up plays in the middle with Jean Michael Seri and Anguissa will be pivotal in any bid Fulham make to nick a point from this contest.
Ranieri claimed he found something with Tom Cairney playing in the hole underneath Mitrovic and Luciano Vietto, but the bigger issue is whether “The Tinkerman” has the bottle to put young Sessegnon in a more forward role in one of those two spots or whether he keeps him wide on the flank in the midfield four. Sessegnon can play either position, and he was in the former position on the play that led to Mitrovic’s dramatic late winner.
Some of this match may be limiting the damage for Fulham as the bottom of the table has tightened considerably with clubs starting to separate themselves from last-place Huddersfield Town — 14th through 19th are separated by five points, and Fulham are four points clear of the Terriers.
But this is also a match where Arsenal must provide a response to their hammering by Liverpool, and though it may be a scruffy one as they regain their footing, they should be able to provide one.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 3, Fulham 1.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 21 PREVIEWS:
Chelsea (13-4-3) vs. Southampton (3-6-11)
Wolverhampton (8-5-7) vs. Crystal Palace (5-4-11)
Newcastle United (4-6-10) vs. Manchester United (9-5-5+Sun)
Manchester City (15-2-3) vs. Liverpool (17-3-0)