Wenger applauds gritty Arsenal triumph
Fulham 0 Arsenal 1
Arsenal have often been accused of prizing style over substance. Not here.
This was a far from swanky performance, with victory secured by a scruffy goal from Per Mertesacker and solid defending rather than sparkling attacking. Points are clearly the most precious commodity at Arsenal right now and, without showing Champions League class, Arsene Wenger's team claimed them.
The win lifted Arsenal into third place in the Premier League, five points ahead of fifth-place Tottenham, who host Manchester City today. Defeat in the north London derby on March 3 triggered prophesies of doom for Wenger's team but they have responded with hitherto unsuspected efficiency, collecting 19 points from 21 available. Fulham made them dig deep for the three here.
Initially it did not look like Arsenal would have a difficult day. They gained the upper hand in terms of possession and the likelihood of them turning that into goals increased in the 12th minute when Steve Sidwell was sent off for a late tackle on Mikel Arteta.
"I can't defend him because that would probably sound ridiculous but I know it was not intentional," said the Fulham manager, Martin Jol. Sidwell's challenge was not sinister, rather a reflection of the fact that Arsenal were generally quicker to the ball.
This did not prove the turning point that might have been expected. It was, in fact, the home side who created the first clear chance of the game, aided by Olivier Giroud giving the ball away in the 21st minute. Urby Emanuelson picked it up and galloped forward before slipping a pass through to Dimitar Berbatov, whose shot from 16 yards was turned away by Wojciech Szczesny.
Arsenal however took the lead through a straightforward set-piece. Theo Walcott curled a free-kick from deep to the back post, Laurent Koscielny nodded it back across the face of goal and Mertesacker headed in from a yard.
Fulham doggedly kept going and a misdirected cross by Stanislav Manolev in the 70th minute had Szczesny scrambling backwards to tip over the bar.
In the last minute Giroud got himself sent off, winning the ball from Manolev but inadvertently following through into the Bulgarian's ankle. Wenger acknowledged that his team did not exploit Sidwell's sending off as well as they could have, suggesting that their inability to do so was partially down to tiredness following their hard-fought midweek draw with Everton. "Everton was a very physical game and I think somewhere we were a bit jaded in the second half here – maybe that is also why Everton lost at Sunderland."