Match by match, Unai Emery is winning the Gooners over.
Arsenal look to make it six wins on the spin in league play and nine on the trot overall in a London derby at Craven Cottage on Sunday versus Fulham.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
After two underwhelming seasons at Paris-St. Germain – in the context of the French club’s outsize ambitions – Arsenal supporters were not exactly bowled over when Emery was picked as the man to succeed Arsene Wenger. At the same time, a good portion of the fan base were willing to have anyone replace Wenger as Arsenal (5-0-2) had slipped from Premier League title contenders to a second tier outside the top four.
Emery’s welcome to the Premier League could not have been any more difficult, starting the season with losses to reigning champions Manchester City and London rivals Chelsea. But the Gunners have been perfect since, adjusting to Emery’s 4-2-3-1 formation and relying on a high-powered offence to help overcome the teething pains of an unsteady back four.
That defence, though, has tightened of late with three clean sheets in their last four matches across all competitions following a 3-0 victory at Azerbaijan side Qarabag FK on Thursday. Defender Sokratis marked his return after a two-match absence due to injury with a goal in the sixth minute before teenagers Emile Smith-Rowe and Matteo Guendouzi added second-half tallies.
The scoreline, though, was flattering to a degree as Emery tinkered with a largely second-choice squad. He played three at the back in the first half before introducing Lucas Torreira at the restart and dropping Stephan Lichtsteiner back into a proper four. Mesut Ozil and Alexander Lacazette made late cameos, with Lacazette assisting on Guendouzi’s goal, and Emery thought his team still has room to improve.
“Each match for us is not easy,” said Emery, whose side traveled 4,000 kilometres back to London almost immediately after the victory. “Their mobility, their quality in above all the first half, I think we suffered in the match. But I want to suffer. I want to not find easy matches, like today. Then, in our moments, to show you and show them our possibilities, our quality and our organised moments. I think in the 90 minutes today, the team worked very well.”
Arsenal left behind three players in London – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Aaron Ramsey and Henrikh Mkhitaryan – due to various reasons, and it seems likely at least Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan will return to the starting XI. Ramsey is waiting for his wife to deliver twins and could be a match-time decision.
At the same time, Emery has enough flexibility that he can move Ozil into the central playmaker’s role for Ramsey and slide Mkhitaryan from the bench to the right wing. Emery could also start Alex Iwobi, who continues to make his case to be in the first XI after assisting on Smith-Rowe’s goal and continuing his strong play over the past month.
“For us, each match is very important to show us and for them to take responsibility, take confidence and take rhythm,” Emery said without tipping his potential lineup. “I am very happy with how they are responding on the pitch. Alex Iwobi is another player who is the same. When we arrive on the match at Sunday against Fulham, it’s also very important that we decide the best first eleven and the players on the bench for continuing together in this way, away at a very good and difficult team like Fulham.”
The Cottagers (1-2-4) are learning the hard way that money does not always buy victories as the £100 million they spent on a fresh influx of players after earning promotion has yet to produce a cohesive side in the top flight. Some of that is due to the injuries along the back line, with the latest casualties Timothy Fosu-Mensah after the Manchester United loanee separated his shoulder eight minutes into Fulham’s 3-0 defeat to Everton last weekend and Joe Bryan.
Fulham have taken just two points from their last four league matches around a pair of Carabao Cup victories, and Whites boss Slavisa Jokanovic is viewing three points at home as imperative to kick on this season and avoid getting sucked into a relegation scrap.
“This is our home, we must start to mark our territory and push hard to hurt the opposition team,” he said at his Thursday news conference, aware the game is a sellout. “In this competition, you must make yourself strong at home. I’ve been here two-and-a-half years and we always find support from our stands. We always find a positive ambience in Craven Cottage.
“I am sure our fans are going to give everything to push us in a positive and right direction, fighting for the victories. But the solution is in our hands. We definitely need to encourage them.”
Between lack of quality and injuries, Jokanovic has been pressed into using nine defenders in league play, with regular centre back Tim Ream the latest to enter the fray in making his season debut after being sidelined due to injury. Fosu-Mensah’s absence likely creates an opening for Cyrus Christie at right back after he entered the game against Everton as Fulham try to record their first clean sheet in league play. Versatile Ryan Sessegnon is expected to drop down to left back after playing recent matches wide in the midfield.
In attack, Aleksander Mitrovic looks to add to his team-high five-goal haul. Three of them have come at Craven Cottage, and the Serbia international has 17 goals in 27 league appearances for the Whites since his move from Newcastle United last January.
Arsenal did the double over Fulham the last time the Cottagers were in the Premier League in the 2013-14 season. The Whites have just three wins in 26 matches (3-5-18) versus the Gunners in the Premier League era, but all three have come at Craven Cottage, and the most recent one came in 2012.
Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are strong favourites to run off their ninth consecutive victory, entering the match with 4/6 odds to return back to north London with three points. Oddsmakers think highly enough of the Gunners to offer better odds on a draw (16/5) than a Whites victory (18/5).
Arsenal are 23/20 favourites to win with more than 2.5 goals scored in the match, with a 1-0 or 2-0 victory getting 24/5 odds. The odds of the teams splitting the points after playing 90 minutes 0-0 or 1-1 are 11/2, while Fulham have 5/1 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals. Oddsmakers are offering 8/1 on a high-scoring draw, while a low-scoring Cottagers victory is the longshot of the bunch at 12/1.
Gunners forwards Lacazette and Aubameyang are joint-favourites to score the first goal of the match at 7/2, with Danny Welbeck a surprising third at 5/1, just ahead of Mitrovic (6/1). Mkhitaryan is also getting action at 6/1, with Ramsey 13/2 despite his uncertain status. Andre Schurrle is Fulham’s second-best choice at 15/2, nudging out Ozil at 8/1.
Aubameyang and Lacazette are even money to score during the match, with Welbeck crowding in at 11/8. Mkhitaryan is also a strong Gunners option at 7/4, while Mitrovic would provide a 17/10 return beating Leno. Schurrle (21/10) and Luciano Vietto (3/1) are Fulham’s other top options.
These teams are trending in opposite directions, and it is a bit of a dangerous match for Fulham. Things have not gone according to plan for Jokanovic, and much of his press conference centered around confidence, or the lack of it from his team at the moment. The Cottagers have struggled defensively following their promotion, and while Jokanovic took pains to stay true to Fulham’s identity as a side that would play positive football, the tinkering he did in last week’s loss to Everton may have unwittingly done more damage.
If there is a silver lining, it may be a plus to return Sessegnon to left back, where he excelled last season in the Championship bombing forward. How often he pushes up will depend on how well Arsenal hold possession, but a young player going back to where he enjoyed success is something Fulham need as the revolving door on defence continues due to injury.
It would not be surprising to see Ramsey dropped from the match all together as his wife prepares to give birth, though it also would not be surprising to see him on the bench. That Emery has options for either contingency with both he and Ozil relatively well-rested as the former Germany international played just 25 minutes at Qarabag is a huge positive going forward, and it would be interesting to see Ozil back in the middle of the park pulling strings.
Leno gets the chance to follow up a strong outing in his first proper Premier League start after making quality saves in the win over Watford. How he interacts with his back four — notably Sokratis and Mustafi — will be something to watch, as well as his distribution given that was the 1A reason Arsenal paid £19 million to Bayer Leverkusen for his services.
Arsenal’s form is currently too good to see them leave Craven Cottage with anything less than one point and more likely, all three. But it would surprise no one to see Mitrovic put one past Leno in order to make the Gunners work for their result and an extension of their winning streak heading into the international break.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Fulham 1, ARSENAL 2.