For the second season running, Arsenal kick off their Premier League campaign on the road.
An uninspiring, if not dogged 1-0 win away at Newcastle got the ball rolling for Arsenal last time out, but on this occasion it’s one of the Premier League’s new boys first up on the chopping block for Mikel Arteta and co.
While the Cottagers are no strangers to the top-flight, the manner of their relegation in the 2018/19 season has many putting them down as favourites for the drop once more. Throw in the mix a rookie manager (they could say the same about Arsenal) and a lack of quality investment in the squad and it doesn’t help their case. Is that reason to be optimistic? I suppose we’ll only know come full-time on Saturday.
To prepare us for the early kick-off, here is the lowdown on the Gunners’ next opposition.
In central defence, Fulham boast last Championship season’s outstanding central defender in Tim Ream. The American was the driving force behind their promotion charge, with his effective carries out of defence and assurances in the air pivotal to their success.
He, along with Michael Hector, formed a fine partnership in front of Marek Rodák, another impressive member of last season’s squad.
In attack, there is an air of unpredictability with the Cottagers’ forwards that is cause for concern. Granted, the vast majority of their goals came through Aleksandar Mitrović, but Anthony Knockaert and Josh Onomah possess enough flair that they can sculpt an opportunity out of thin air.
Of course, it’s the Serb who is their major strength. Having top scored in the Championship last season with 26 goals, his fierce physical presence is sure to ruffle Arsenal’s defensive feathers, with David Luiz and possibly William Saliba needing to be monitoring his movements with a fine tooth comb in and around the box.
The aforementioned unpredictability that the Fulham front line boast is also a key downside in their play. Capable of conjuring up some magic at any point, the cold, hard truth is it didn’t happen often enough for Scott Parker‘s side.
Praised for their fluidity in attack, it’s a ploy that revolves around specific moments as opposed to detailed phases. When they get into forward areas, they rely on one of their wide players to pull something out of the bag, without any standout rhythm to their play. A ‘hit and hope’ variation that when faced up against tougher defences, can fall flat.
The other areas that Arsenal could exploit are down the flanks. Ola Aina is en route to bolster right-back, but it’s nevertheless the prominent weakness in their squad. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and one of either Bukayo Saka or Nicolas Pepe will be eyeing up these areas on Saturday lunchtime, likely aided by the supporting cast of Hector Bellerin and Kierney Tierney.
In central midfield is another area where Arsenal can exploit. If they had more pace, that is. While Tom Cairney, Harrison Reed, Mario Lemina, Stefan Johansen, Kevin McDonald and Jean Michaël Seri are not without talent, they all lack the necessary speed to recover in transition. Of course, their Arsenal counterparts are hardly pacy themselves, but if Ainsley Maitland-Niles tucks into the midfield when in possession, he has the legs to make the bursting runs through the midfield line that could cause damage.
Style of Play
Parker has sought to alter the nature of Fulham’s play since taking the reins, placing more emphasis on a possession-based style. In the Championship last season, no side made more short passes (WhoScored) than the Cottagers. Given their key strength, these pragmatic progressions up the pitch normally end up in wide areas where crosses were are pinged into the box. The same source reveals that Fulham ranked in the top five for crosses.
Offering the tools and advice he can, Parker is clearly confident in his players to make the right choices in advanced areas. It’s not all willy nilly, but he does provide his side with the platform to express themselves more than any of his predecessors. That can result in an exciting brand of football, centred on pinning the opposition back in their own half, but equally adept at slotting into a low block when the pressure is telling.
Without getting too ahead of ourselves, we can expect it will be mostly the latter on the weekend. That’s not to say Fulham won’t have their moments, but Arteta will command his side to control the flow of the game and heap pressure onto the back four, eyeing those full-back weaknesses as key sources of explotation.
It goes without saying that Fulham’s key player is their top scorer of the last two seasons, Aleksandar Mitrović. 12 goals in his first 17 league matches for the club was a superb return in his initial loan spell, which was followed up with 11 more in the Premier League – a tally that is even more impressive considering the side only scored 34 all campaign.
He top scored again in the second tier last term with 26, six of which were headers. This is where he excels. A physical presence who loves to get touch-tight with opposition defenders, his imposing frame means he’s always a handful. His only negative point is an over-reliance on his right foot. Despite netting a ton of goals in 2019/20, not a single strike came via his left peg.
No doubt this will be made known to the Gunners’ central defenders, who whenever possible (or if at all) will show the Serbian on to his left side.
The likes of captain Cairney in midfield can’t be overlooked, either. He’s the pivot at the base who sprays balls into wide areas, and if he can be kept quiet, Fulham will lose much of their attacking flow.