Arsenal vs. Fulham: Gnabry shines in 1st half, Cazorla secures win in 2nd

   There’s no room to drop points at home with Manchester City firing on all cylinders. On Saturday, Cazorla rediscovered his form from last season by scoring twice in Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Fulham in the Premier League.

   On paper, it looked like an easy match. The Cottagers have the most porous defense in the league and sit just one point above the relegation zone. On the pitch, it was a different story. Weak teams leave a bit of space in the first couple of months because they try to win. But when they realize after Boxing Day that they’ll have to fight relegation, they look for a draw against the top teams and simply park the bus. Fulham defended well in the first half and it required some patience and tenacity from the Gunners to break the deadlock in the second half.

Gnabry’s high on confidence

   Cazorla was the man of the match but it was Gnabry who stole the show in the first half. Gnabry gave a lot of passing options with his mobility. The teenager is high on confidence and did not hide whenever a teammate picked him out. His close control, sharp turns and dribbling skills definitely give the Gunners more penetration.

   Gnabry created the first scoring chance with a burst from midfield in the fourth minute to connect with Ozil, who played a one-two with Wilshere before beating Stekelenburg. However, Ozil’s low effort lacked power and Hangeland was able to clear the ball off the line. Ozil may not be a dominant playmaker like Fabregas, who pulled the strings in midfield and created a flurry of chances in every game during his time at Arsenal, but he really needs to improve his finishing, especially with Walcott sidelined until the end of the season and Ramsey still recovering from a thigh injury.

   Of course, Gnabry is not a finished product yet. He still needs to work on his composure in front of goal. To put things in context, Wilshere and Ramsey are respectively four and five years older than Gnabry and only became more accurate in their shots this season. Set up by Giroud, Gnabry dragged a long-range strike wide in the 17th. He missed again the target from a counterattack in the 44th. The teenager showed he’s a fast learner in the 54th by dribbling past two defenders to unleash a powerful drive that Stekelenburg palmed away.

Arsenal defense’s poor positional play

   Although the Gunners dominated ball possession, Fulham could have scored in the first half. Sagna headed a cross from Berbatov into the path of Sidwell, whose half-volley was tipped over the bar by Szczesny in the 26th.

   The partnership between Koscielny and Mertesacker has received a lot of praise lately. But twice their positional play was dodgy. Riether found some space between Monreal and Cazorla in the 32nd and slipped a through ball to Dejagah, who ghosted past Koscielny. Dejagah was clean through on goal but Szczesny came off his line to deny the Fulham winger. Some poor team effort allowed that play to happen. First Cazorla failed to press Riether. Monreal moved up the pitch to stop Riether but failed to intercept the pass for Dejagah. Mertesacker opted for the offside trap while the smarter choice was to drop back. Finally, Koscielny failed to control Dejagah’s run.

   A counterattack in the 42nd exposed again some poor positional play. Berbatov had the ball on our right flank and for some strange reason Mertesacker decided to give Koscielny a hand instead of protecting the edge of the area. Flamini was a split second late to cover them and Kacaniklic ran into the space left by Mertesacker to take Berbatov’s pass. Fortunately, a heavy touch from Kacaniklic allowed Szczesny to collect the ball.

Giroud’s bad day

   Berbatov has suggested he might join Arsenal during the winter transfer window. It doesn’t make any sense after watching his performance on Saturday. The Bulgarian striker is slow, can’t hold the ball up like Giroud or Bendtner and does not press high up the pitch. In fact, Berbatov’s poor work rate could destroy the Gunners’ team spirit.

   Giroud had a bad day although he was involved in the opening goal. Gnabry fed Giroud in the 21st but he sent his curling shot over the bar. Then Cazorla found Giroud on the edge of the area in the 52nd. The France striker created some space with a couple of touches but hit a tame shot from 15 yards that Stekelenburg easily stopped. Giroud is typically a player who depends on good service. He has developed a good understanding with Wilshere and will feast on crosses from Podolski and Walcott but will struggle to optimize short passes and through balls from Ozil and Cazorla.

An ambidextrous Cazorla

   Cazorla showed in the past few games that he was back to his best level. However, it did not translate into goals or assists and the danger for the Spaniard was the potential impact on his confidence. Cazorla tried too hard in the first half, casually losing possession a couple of times. When he sent a free kick into the Fulham wall in the 38th, Sagna pounced on the loose ball to fire a low strike that Stekelenburg parried.

   There was more fluidity and accuracy in Cazorla’s game in the second half. Sagna connected with a free kick from the Spaniard in the 56th but saw his sliding effort cleared off the line. From the rebound, Koscielny and Gnabry had goal attempts blocked by the Cottagers. A minute later, Cazorla found Giroud inside the area. The Frenchman slipped the ball to Wilshere, whose low cross was converted by Cazorla with his right foot.

   In case you had any doubt about Cazorla’s ability to shoot with both feet, the Spaniard doubled the lead with his left foot. Ozil released Monreal down the left wing in the 62nd. The Spanish leftback struggled with his delivery on Saturday. Another poor cross was cleared by the Fulham defense into the path of Cazorla, who took one perfect touch to bring the ball down before firing a low drive into the bottom corner.

The need to rest Ozil

   Podolski came off the bench in the 71st to replace Gnabry. He nearly added a third goal with a powerful long-range strike in the 74th but Stekelenburg diverted it onto the post. In the closing minutes, fatigue combined with a lack of focus gave Fulham opportunities to score a consolation goal. Kasami capitalized on a lack of pressure from the Gunners to send a ball over the top. Szczesny beat Bent to the ball, but the ball bounced off the Fulham substitute. With the goal at his mercy, but under pressure from Koscielny, Bent fired into the side-netting. Again, the execution of the offside trap was poor. In the fifth minute of stoppage time, Szczesny spilled a free kick from Kasami. But the Polish goalkeeper reacted quickly enough to gather the ball before Dempsey could tap in.

   Wenger fielded the same team that beat Aston Villa 2-1 in great part because his squad is a bit short now. Gibbs, Vermaelen, Ramsey, Arteta, Bendtner and Walcott are injured, which means that we had no back-up at leftback, centerback and centerforward on Saturday. With just three days of rest between the FA Cup match against Coventry on Friday and the Premier League match against Southampton, the manager will need a bit of rotation to avoid further injuries. Ozil especially looked tired against Fulham. He lost possession three times in the first half because of a poor first touch, which is unusual since technically he’s our most gifted player. Obviously, there’s a lot of pressure to play him because of his price tag. But let’s not forget that he used to enjoy a Christmas break both in the German and Spanish leagues. The Gunners should be strong enough to beat Coventry without Ozil.

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Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

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