Winning matches in the Premier League is tough, regardless of the circumstances that surround them, but every now and then you run into a match that seems to come with an ominous feeling. Some refer to this as a trap game.
Arsenal facing an incredibly poor Everton team, at Goodison Park, for “defensive-guru”, shithousing Sean Dyche’s debut… trap game.
But with Manchester City grabbing all three points from Crystal Palace yesterday, Arsenal have to find a way to keep their own run winning in a fixture that feels, uh, trap-ish.
What makes Fulham away feel a little like a trap?
- Away from home
- A short turnaround time from Europa League
- Arsenal likely to field an ad hoc attacking front for at least one more game
- Recent struggles with conceding simple goals
- An opponent with the quality to create a handful of good chances for an incredible effective and efficient striker
But traps can be circumnavigated and adversity overcame. As the Gunners hunt for a title, it’s these tight games that become title tests. As script of this season reveals itself, the writing on the page suggests the margins will be very tight between us and City, getting the job done to claim three points would be another feather in the Gunners’ cap.
Earlier this season Arsenal played Fulham at home and it took a late Gabriel goal after a scramble in the box to put Arsenal ahead for good. Arsenal fielded a team without Zincehnko or Thomas Partey and still managed to have most the control over the match which could bode well for the Gunners who expect to have both available.
However, recent matches have seen Arsenal’s defensive rigidity falter. “We are conceding too many simple goals and we’ve talked about the importance of boxes,” said Arteta after Arsenal’s first leg versus Sporting Lisbon.
“We had some positives because we showed a lot of resilience to get back in the game, but we need to defend our box much better and we have to be in the return leg to beat them.”
Efficiency in the box and defensive quality have been thrust into the Arsenal limelight, and for good reason. Simple goal concessions have been a topic of conversation in multiple games.
Versus Aston Villa, Arsenal concede two goals far too easily. Versus Everton, Tarkowski scores from a set piece early and it felt too easy for him to shake his defender. Versus Manchester City, Arsenal faced a punishing opponent, but many left feeling the team gifted them goals. Certainly the Tomiyasu concession was a gift. Versus Brentford, Arsenal concede in the opening ten seconds. And, again, Arteta is talking about easy concessions after Sporting.
The result has been 11 concessions in their last 8 games, a 1.375 goals against per game rate. It’s a significant uptick for a team that had conceded only 20 goals in 29 matches before this run, a .69 goals per game rate.
Part of this uptick in goals against has been a rise in set piece concessions. Arsenal conceded just two set piece goals before the World Cup (21 matches). They have conceded four since (14 matches).
Mitrovic will present a challenge all game for Arsenal to deal with. He’s been excellent at finishing half chances when given space and he’s a major threat on set pieces. He was a handful at The Emirates, winning 10 duels, creating a chance, working 4 shots, and scoring from a Gabriel mistake.
We shall overcome
The best teams, title-winning teams, overcome many challenges on the road to winning a season. Arsenal will have their fair share, including the ones listed before this and their own internal selection woes.
Interestingly, Charles Watts reported that Gabriel Jesus and Leandro Trossard will be in contention for selection, an announcement that obviously rippled through Gooner Nation. Even more interesting is the fact that is starkly contrasts Arteta’s prematch interview in which he stated the complete opposite.
“Eddie [Nketiah] is out as well, so we have Gabby [Jesus] out, Eddie out and Leo [Trossard] out,” Mikel added. ”We have to adapt at this period of the season.”
Watts, of course, does not offer up a suggestion that contention equals starting, or even significant minutes, so it remains to be seen what kind of influence those two striking options will have. In the meantime, Arsenal feel likely to field an ad hoc front three, much like they did for Sporting Lisbon.
As Arteta stated, the team have options, but it seems likely we will see some combination of Saka, Martinelli, and Reiss Nelson/Emile Smith Rowe/Fabio Vieira. Burden will fall heavily on their shoulders to up the energy seen in Lisbon and break down Fulham’s defense.
Whether issues at the back are revealing themselves because the team is trying to hurl more numbers into the attack to make up for missing potency or because teams are figuring out how to exploit aspects of Arsenal’s set up is up for debate. But Arsenal could do themselves a lot of favors by now conceding and early, easy goal, and instead finding the net themselves.
A team that made a name for itself by starting fast and scoring early, has failed to do so in recent months.
Matches like this become tests for teams that want to earn the right to lift the cup at the end of the season. How Arsenal rise to the occasion and overcome this challenge and move past a trap, could help propel them through to the international break.