Fulham's point friendly patch of matches comes to an abrupt end Saturday with a trip to north London to take on Arsenal. Rene Meulensteen will probably have considered six points gained as the bare minimum acceptable after matches against Norwich City, Hull City, West Ham United, and Sunderland. With said bare minimum in the coffers, Fulham currently find themselves placed 16th in the league table, but any number of realistically possible scenarios could see the Cottagers slip back into the relegation zone with a loss to Arsenal Saturday. A cruel, cold, heartless, and unfeeling twist of fate could see Fulham move into the basement of the Premier League after this round of fixtures, but such a scenario seems mercifully unlikely.
Meulensteen will be buoyed by the return to fitness of Brede Hangeland, and it's likely that the lanky Norwegian will be in the first XI for the match Saturday. How's that for a welcome back? While I'm hopeful that Hangeland will do much to shore up the incredibly porous Fulham back line, I'm inclined to err on the side of cynicism. Even before Hangeland began his lengthy layoff, his performances at the beginning of the season were decidedly un-Brede like. Hopefully, this was a symptom of the emerging injury that eventually put the Fulham captain on the shelf. Either way, he's only one man, and at this level one man cannot possibly be the solution to a - 24 goal differential.
But what about two men? Dan Burn, the Fulham youngster who until recently was on loan at Championship side Birmingham City, has been permanently recalled and has impressed in his two appearances with the first team. He's tall, strong, physical, and has a bit of pace, but what's impressed me most is a confidence and willingness to communicate that belie his 21 years. My gut says a start against Arsenal is a bridge too far, but like I said, - 24 goal differential so....
Rene Meulensteen will also have to decide how to deploy his team against one of the league's front-running sides. The narrow 4-2-3-1 deployed against Sunderland is surely dead and buried. The expansive 4-2-3-1 deployed against Norwich in the FA Cup was fun to watch, but there's a massive difference between Norwich in the cup at home and Arsenal in the league away.
My hope is that Meuelnsteen does something pragmatic and opts for a 4-5-1, possibly with Darren Bent as the loan striker. I know, I know, I know...to many of you Darren Bent has become "He Who Shall Not Be Named", but from where I sit, Fulham's best hope in this match is to remain organized, compact, and disciplined and then maybe try to nick one one on a counter. Dimitar Berbatov is not the sort of striker who is capable of doing said nicking. Even one point at the Emirates would be sweet manna from heaven. To risk a heavy beating by fielding an attacking lineup would be the opposite of sweet manna from heaven. Excrement from hell? I digress.
Ideally, I'd like to see a back four of Kieran Richardson, Hangeland, Burn, and Sascha Riether. My midfield five would consist of Pajtim Kasami on the left - Steve Sidwell, Scott Parker, and Giorgos Karagounis holding the center - and Ashkan Dejagah on the right. Darren Bent goes it alone up top. It's the most defensive Fulham lineup I can come up with that still offers the sort of pace necessary to possibly get one on the counter.
Arsenal are not without injury issues as Nacho Monreal and Thomas Rosicky both picked up knocks in the Aston Villa match and Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, Nicklas Bendtner, and Thomas Vermaelen are all set to miss out through longer term injuries.
It would be the most Arsenal thing ever to come out flat and minus important players in a home match against a much, much weaker side and get nothing more from the match than a puffy coated Arsene Wenger tirade. Here's to hoping!