Arsenal bolted from the sublime to the ridiculous and back on another helter-skelter afternoon that finished with them on top of the Premier League table for the first time since August.
At the heart of their scintillating moments was Samir Nasri, who even took on Fulham in his socks in the 27th minute to go close to laying on a goal. George Best might have smiled down from the heavens. The two goals that Nasri put away were of the highest quality and they established him as Arsenal’s leading scorer this season with 11 in all competitions.
Yet the notion of Arsenal as champions-in-waiting still felt flimsy. This game should have been over after 30 minutes, by which time the Fulham manager, Mark Hughes, had been forced to substitute the 19-year-old left-back Matthew Briggs, who was a rabbit in Nasri’s full-beams. Time and again, Arsenal tore in on that flank and the final straw for Hughes came when Nasri beat Briggs, lost his boot, tip?toed on, crossed and almost saw the ball scrambled home.
Arsenal, however, would have trailed at half-time had Diomansy Kamara finished his second one-on-one in the same way that he had done his first. It was an extraordinary turnaround and one that shone a harsh light on the Arsenal defence, which is the team’s achilles heel, the reason why the club’s fans are sometimes jabbering wrecks and the one that most readily undermines their title credentials. “No, it doesn’t do much good for the heart-rate,” Wenger said of the afternoon. “It takes a few beats away.”
Fulham’s equaliser took in farce and horror. Sébastien Squillaci challenged for the same aerial ball as Laurent Koscielny only to butt him. Dazed and confused as he tried to play on, Koscielny allowed Kamara in behind him before collapsing to the ground and leaving on a stretcher.
The unfortunate incident was far from the only one in which the lines of defensive communication were blurred. With the two holding midfielders playing high up the pitch, not to mention the full?backs, Arsenal had a fragile feel. Simple passes in behind threatened to expose them while they were ever vulnerable to the high ball. Hughes played the big centre-half Brede Hangeland as an auxiliary centre-forward in the dying minutes and he said the crowd were longing for the full-time whistle.
Hughes was asked whether he felt that Arsenal had looked like champions. “Not today in fairness,” he replied, “but that is credit to us. You have to ask questions and I thought we did that really well. Their centre-backs are not possibly as strong as they have been in recent years and at times, you can expose them because they are an attacking team. They always get their full-backs advanced, leaving spaces to exploit.
“You have to make sure that Arsenal do not get into a rhythm of playing and passing. You have to break it up, making the goalkeepers kick long and then challenging so it becomes a more difficult game for them.”
Two of Arsenal’s next three Premier League fixtures are against Manchester United and Chelsea, and Hughes ventured that they would not be able to play particularly freely against his former clubs. “It will be more difficult for them. But I thought we’ve given a template for teams who have to play them. I’m certain they’ll look at how we approached the game and take information from it.”
Wenger said he wanted Alex Song and Jack Wilshere to hold a high line to push opposing teams back and permit Arsenal the space to build up the play. He admitted that “sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park” and that the strategy had its risks. “If we lose the ball in the build up, we are in trouble.”
The bottom line for Wenger is that his team “want to improve our defensive record, that is needed”, although with the creative talent in their ranks Arsenal always have the capacity to out-gun rivals.
It was Nasri who stepped up here, and the thought occurred that Arsenal might be benefiting from his controversial exclusion from France’s World Cup squad last summer. It is no secret that Nasri and France’s marquee player, Franck Ribéry, do not get on.
“The manager [Raymond Domenech] made a choice but I do not think it was for football,” said Bacary Sagna, Arsenal’s France full-back. “Maybe we should ask the manager. Samir has been one of our best players of the season and we won this game because of him.”