Roy Hodgson has not taken long to turn Craven Cottage into a difficult place to play. Far from the day when Lawrie Sanchez was dragging Fulham close to the drop zone, an extremely resolute back four anchored by Brede Hangeland have turned the Cottagers into a difficult proposition.
For Arsenal, such travels have proven tricky over the last four years. Whereas Chelsea and Manchester United have learned to make the most of lesser opposition, the Gunners have often been stymied by sides that play ten men behind the ball, dropping pairs of points all too frequently in cases when all three should easily have been secured.
So Arsenal’s critics are quick to say that trophies will once again return to North London once this problem can be remedied. Manchester United have given up relying on anything but drab 1-0 results in such contests, and Chelsea have long since been the masters of eking out results in relentlessly boring ways. Both sides’ propensities to win when at anything less than their best is commonly held up as evidence that they have what it takes to win; Liverpool last season and Arsenal for many seasons have been unable to master such a skill.
But if the Fulham game is to be any evidence, Arsenal are starting to learn what it takes. From the start, Fulham looked enterprising and tested Vito Mannone time and time again. Mannone responded with what he called the “best game of his career,” and it was an example of how the Gunners have been missing a goalkeeper that can genuinely steal a game.
Mannone’s double save in the first half and confident command of the area throughout were welcome against the backdrop of what traditionally has killed them repeatedly. One could be forgiven for feeling like with Manuel Almunia in net, the game would have, at best, been a draw. And yet there was Mannone, keeping a clean sheet long enough for Cesc Fabregas to pick one brilliant pass and for Robin van Persie to sublimely control and then finish with two deft touches. The goal led to better football from Arsenal but the game will hardly be remembered by any but the staunchest supporter.
One other thing that Mannone’s man-of-the-match performance allowed Arsenal to witness is how they must walk a tightrope between criticisms. When they play beautiful football and can only compete for Champions League spots or cup semifinals, they are derided for trying too hard to walk the ball into the net and lacking a spine. They are constantly told that they need to learn to win ugly in order to win consistently.
But when they do exactly that–which can be excused against a very respectable opponent in a London derby, then they are “less than convincing” and not to be feared by the real contenders for the title. This is surely only one example of a game in which they used grit and determination, rather than flair and panache, in order to grind out a result. It hardly indicates a new ethos for the team. But if it does end up being a sign of a different, more tenacious side, then those that are typically collecting the silverware may find that they have to share the spoils come May.