After last weekend's positive result at Sunderland and the arrival of Scott Parker, Fulham supporters were in high spirits ahead of today's match versus an Arsenal side besieged by criticism. The Gunners were shocked at home in week one by Aston Villa and have yet to make any sort of substantive move in the transfer market, but Arsene Wenger's side did manage to secure a hard fought away victory against Fenerbahce in the Champions League midweek and quite clearly fancied their chances to get back on track in the Premier League at Craven Cottage.
Fulham's 3-1 drubbing at the feet of the Gunners wasn't without bright spots for the home side, but said bright spots were largely individual in nature and can best be filed away in the "lessons learned" folder of Martin Jol's Fulham file.
John Arne Riise was called in to cover at left back for the injured Kieran Richardson and attended to his duties admirably. To go from out of favor to quieting Theo Walcott in one week's time is a big ask and the Norwegian largely acquitted himself of aggressive criticism. If anything, Riise could be accused of trying to do too much, covering the entire length of the left flank to provide width while at the same time receiving little to no help tending to his his defensive duties.
In the preview for today's contest, I suggested that Fulham's key to the match could well be Martin Jol's selection for the berth on the left side of midfield. Jol selected Adel Taarabt in what was essentially a 4-4-1-1 formation that too often mutated into an hourglass 4-3-3.
It's a strange thing to say, but today Taarabt was both Fulham's most dangerous player and greatest liability. The Fulham man was given license to find space wherever he liked, popping up on both flanks and in central midfield. With the ball at his feet driving at the Arsenal defense, he drew fouls in dangerous positions and forced Wojciech Szczesny into at least two stellar saves. Until Jol pulled him off in favor of Alexander Kacaniklic, Taarabt looked the most likely source of a Fulham goal.
Unfortunately, Taarabt's license to create served the dual purpose of unbalancing Fulham's defensive shape and, whether it's a clinical lack of tactical awareness or unforgivable laziness, his indisciplined shirking of his defensive responsibilities served to create attack after Arsenal attack that overwhelmed Steve Sidwell, Scott Parker, and John Arne Riise. Like a pop can that can support a 200 pound man when not compromised structurally, Fulham's defense collapsed down the left side time and again when dinged with the slightest Adel Taarabt shaped dent.
If Arsenal's first goal had a touch of luck about it, their second is down in large part to Taarabt. In the build up to the goal, both Sidwell and Parker had been pulled to the right side of midfield. The back four were in relatively good position to deal with Arsenal's most forward players. Santi Carzola was Arsenal's extra man in midfield and had made a late run into a pocket of space on the left central side of Fulham's defensive third. Taarabt didn't recognize the danger and instead strolled unhurriedly behind the play as Cazorla received the initial entry pass and, unchallenged, switched play to Walcott who took on Riise and then served the ball across where it eventually fell to Podolski who unceremoniously dispatched it into helpless David Stockdale's goal.
Both Parker and Sidwell could be seen trailing behind Podolski as he finished the chance, and it would be easy to assume they were the two villains of what turned out to be the back-breaking goal, but Arsenal had a man advantage in midfield from the first whistle and both central midfielders had rightly decided to close down the right side in order to deal with Arsenal's initial approach.
As the left midfielder, Taarabt has to recognize this and the danger of Cazorla's run and pinch in to force Cazorla to play across the face of the Fulham back four. If he had, even if Cazorla could have completed his pass to Walcott, the Moroccan then would have been in position to clear the ball that eventually fell to the Podolski's feet for the second goal.
This wasn't the only time Taarabt's defensive frailties hurt Fulham. In the second half, he failed to cover for Riise who had worked himself into a dangerous attacking position and then watched as the Norwegian just about made it back to challenge what probably should have been a headed Theo Walcott finish.
Taarabt is a superlative attacking talent, but his inclusion in a side that already boasts Dimitar Berbatov seems a luxury Fulham cannot afford, at least not against a team with the goal-scoring CV of a clublike Arsenal. When not directly liable for a catastrophic defensive lapse, his inability to maintain defensive shape creates so much extra work for the Parker's and Sidwell's of the side that they exhaust themselves as the Little Dutch Boys and have very little left over to get on the ball and dictate play.
It's no coincidence that Kacaniklic's introduction ushered in a spell of Fulham possession that led to a more measured approach and the home side's only goal. Defensively, Kacaniklic worked hard to support Riise and the Fulham central midfielders and, although Arsenal did finish another opportunity, their chances were significantly more limited given the fact that Fulham were then chasing the game.
Martin Jol has a tactical quandary with which to deal and I honestly don't envy him at the moment. Adel Taarabt is the sort of player you want on the pitch when you're going forward but, as Harry Redknapp discovered last term, he's more than a liability when you manage a side where keeping them out at the other end is perhaps more important.
For me, Taarabt would be most valuable coming off the bench to play beneath a loan striker, preferably someone more direct like Darren Bent. To have both Berbatov and Taarabt on the pitch at the same time seems like one too many conductors and not enough orchestra.
Regardless, it's back down to earth for the Fulham faithful. Arsenal are still Arsenal and Fulham, despite our sexy summer signings, are still a side that needs a strong foundation, a modest frame, and perhaps one fancy, copper plated weather vane. But only one.
On to the next one! COYW!