Jack and Loz at the Cottage - Blog 267

Date: 31st December 2023

Opposition: Arsenal

Score: 2-1

Fulham goal scorers: Raúl Jimenez, Bobby Decordova Reid

Weather: Biblical in the second half

Atmosphere: electric in the second half

MOTM: we always know it’s been a good Fulham performance when we have to debate who the best player was for more time than it takes to drink a glass of wine (and, in the case of Sunday’s match, sound out our fellow drinkers in the Blue Boat too!) It’s easy to focus on Raúl for his redemption, Tom for his control or Calvin for his defensive masterclass. But when you look beyond these standout performances you see someone who was responsible for the victory by doing multiple jobs in every area of the pitch and working tirelessly to ensure it was all done perfectly and without fuss. Bobby Decordova Reid was nominally a right winger in a standard formation but when that formation flexed and flowed from attack to defence Bobby played second striker, attacking midfielder, wingback, defender and everything in between. And, of course, scorer of the winning goal.

Lunch: Truth

Drinks: the Blue Boat

Things Fulham have struggled with recently:-

Beating Top 6 sides ❌

Gaining points from a losing position ❌

Winning London derbies ❌

Scoring goals ❌

Defending consistently ❌

Following the disappointing defeats, and even more disappointing performances, against Burnley and Bournemouth, we weren’t looking forward to Fulham’s final match of 2023 against high flying Arsenal, a team we haven’t beaten since 2012. The best we thought we could hope for was a bit of a battle and minimal damage to our goal difference.

Admittedly, there were some promising signs - Willian was back from injury and Raúl was back after his 3 game suspension. The latter, who had just found scintillating form before inexplicably doing kung fu in a football match, owed us big time. But would he be able to jump back on that wave of form immediately? And, anyway, 2 OAP footballers couldn’t make that much difference to a Premier League side……could they?

Because we are Fulham, and have been making life hard for ourselves since 1879, we couldn’t just keep the score level and play our way into the game. No. We had to give Arsenal a belated Christmas present in the form of an early goal. In the Hammersmith End, alarming visions flashed before our eyes, like a 0-8 scoreline and leaving for the pub at half time.

For lesser Fulham teams, indeed for this Fulham team as long ago as…..Boxing Day, there would have been no way back from this point (or rather, lack thereof). But the players were galvanised rather than cowed. And, let’s face it, if you’re going to come from behind to win, it’s good to give yourself 91 minutes in which to do so.

Arsenal are a very good side with excellent players but after the 4th minute they struggled to create anything worth writing about. Leno didn’t have to make any super saves and the referee didn’t have to make any difficult decisions. But this isn’t because Saka and Co weren’t trying to play their best, it’s because Fulham stopped them doing so. Arsenal looked menacing on the break but they couldn’t deliver on the threat. Antonee Robinson contained Saka himself while Calvin Bassey dealt, more or less single-handedly and without too much effort, with the rest of the Arsenal attack. We didn’t notice most of their big names until Ivan Berry announced they were being subbed off.

Meanwhile, something special was happening. Raúl was back, Willian was back, the press was back. And so was Fulham’s free-flowing, fast and flexible football. Raúl nearly scored, Willian nearly scored, Iwobi was dancing and darting forwards, Bobby was tackling, tussling and taking on all comers. And Tom Cairney was controlling it all. Calmly and wisely, knowing where all his teammates were, knowing their limits and their abilities. Against a Top 6 side. Against some of the best players in the world. Our captain.

The first goal was a fitting one for the system and the personnel. Back to front at lighting speed and with perfect passes. Bassey to João to Willian to Tom to Raúl. Tom’s exquisite cross will live long in the memory and there was never any doubt that Raúl was going to put the ball in the back of the net. This is what you want from your striker - confidence, presence and a clinical touch. Raúl may consider himself forgiven.

1-1 at halftime with all to play for and Marco would have been the happier of the two dark clad and damp managers. Arteta had already told his flappy goalie to feign injury so he could do some on the spot coaching but it hadn’t done his team any good and, as the game went on, the ref got wise to Arsenal’s acting.

The second half was a series of dramatic incidents given a blockbuster quality when a cloud burst over Craven Cottage and a squally wind whipped sheets of water across the pitch and into the stands while the floodlights fractured and refracted through the sudden gloom.

Fulham had been attacking with intent for a while before the breakthrough came. A well-won corner was swung in by Willian and pinballed around before falling for, and being snatched at by Bobby who found a split second to make the right connection to direct it around the flailing goalie.

We were one goal up in the derby, we were outplaying a top side and the heavens had opened. The word “scenes” was made for these Moments.

The next act in the drama was the subs. If Raúl reestablished himself as a hero on Sunday, Marco reasserted himself as a genius, not just with his starting line-up and tactics but with the timing and selection of his substitutes. Dropping Andreas seemed controversial but the decision paid off when our blond Brazilian bombshell entered the action with a point to prove. Rescuing Willian from the downpour was a necessity but Harry looked lively when he came on, and the later introduction of Diop might have gone against Marco’s attacking principles but was exactly the right move to see out the game safely.

It could have been 3 with Tom’s on-target effort well saved and Andreas renewing his on-off relationship with the woodwork. But the final decisive moment of the game was João’s sliding block to deny Saka an easy shot. João has been a little off his game recently, over-cautious and tentative but our daring do-or-die tackler was back with a vengeance on Sunday and dispossessing Saka was only one of a long series of brilliant interventions. We’d been concerned the cracking open of the transfer window might have distracted João again. Then he celebrated that clearance like we’d won the league and we knew we could stop worrying.

The last few minutes were nervy but not terrifying. Fulham’s tenacity had knocked the fight out of Arsenal and the crowd and the team fed off each other as we maintained the intensity to the final whistle. Arsenal were outplayed, outfought, out coached and outthought. Fulham did everything right. Even allowing the early goal only added to the drama on an epic afternoon.

This was the perfect way to finish 2023 and the perfect appetiser for January - a month which will be very important for Fulham both on and off the pitch.

Random musings:-

- Bobby was injured in his goal celebration (as anyone would be when 14 grown men jump on them) but he recovered to play on

- We haven’t mentioned him yet which kind of says it all but is Castange the Most Consistent Player in the World? He isn’t quite as good as Kenny at his best but he’s better than every other kind of Kenny

- Nigeria’s gain is Fulham’s loss. We’re really going to miss Iwobi and Bassey while they’re at Afcon

- Tom and the olés at the end!

- So do we conclude that 2 OAPs really do make a huge difference to the team or is it the case that Marco’s system only works properly with a striker who is fast, skilful, alert, works hard for the team, can win the ball and link the play?

Things Fulham did on Sunday:-

Beat a Top 6 side ✅

Won a match from a losing position ✅

Won a London derby ✅

Scored goals ✅

Defended brilliantly ✅

This is an odd Premier League season full of inconsistent teams and unexpected results. And this is an unpredictable Fulham team - sometimes haphazard, sometimes unplayable. But beating Arsenal feels like a turning point, like the team is poised and ready for anything. Which is good. Because the season is about to get interesting.