The Gunners kick-off their 2020-21 Premier League campaign with the Fulham vs Arsenal game at Craven Cottage tonight. Arsenal ride on the back of two back-to-back trophy wins, while Fulham will be filled with fresh enthusiasm having secured promotion to the Premier League, after spending the 19-20 season in the Championship.
I’ve always loved visiting Craven Cottage because it reminds me of growing up as a football fan at a time when clubs had more intimate grounds. The Cottage and Upton Park were the sort of grounds where you felt as if you were part of the action from a pitchside vantage point, but even if you weren’t as fortunate and found yourself up in the Gods, it still felt more intense.
Well, that pleasure is still some way away and fans will just have to make do with streaming or a selection of satellite channels with canned cheering and rambling commentary until restrictions are relaxed.
Recently promoted Fulham will want to lay down a marker for the new season at home by causing an upset or at least by grabbing a point, but that may prove difficult against an Arsenal side that finished the previous season on a high.
A club who’s already demonstrated that their end-of-season form can bridge the short gap between last season and the next, by following an FA Cup victory with a claim of the Community Shield, Arsenal are getting odds of nearly 1/2 in their season opening match against the Cottagers, and in an away match no less.
It would be a credit to Fulham if they can make Arsenal struggle but as was evident last season, the Fulham defence is a fragile group, susceptible against pace and balls over the top, and they’ll get both from the Gunners.
It’s not that Fulham can’t cause an upset, but they would have to implement a high line and defend in numbers for the entire 90 minutes of the Fulham vs Arsenal game. They would have to close down Arsenal’s players and limit the space and passing options, leaving only long balls and the flanks to provide the chances.
The biggest threat to Arsenal comes from Aleksandar Mitrovic, a proven Premier League performer and goal scorer. When Fulham were relegated last time around, I thought they’d cash in, but they held on to the striker and that’s now proven to be an incredibly wise decision.
Arsenal’s best option is to starve him of service and keep him from cutting into the area. If they don’t, he’ll almost certainly end up on the score sheet. Whoever fills the backline, he’ll provide a challenge and that job could rest with Saliba and Holding.
Arsenal have a clear advantage here over the full 90 minutes and if Fulham don’t follow the script, the Gunners could run riot in a 15-minute spell which would put the game beyond their hosts. Aubameyang, who is currently on fire, will take some containing and this game could be the perfect introduction for Willian to pepper the Fulham box all day long. Service to its strikers was an issue for Arsenal but it now has a host of feeds for Aubameyang and Lacazette, who certainly had to make their own luck in the past.
In regards to the team to face Fulham, Saliba looks likely to make his debut alongside Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney after it was announced that David Luiz will be absent due to a neck spasm. I’m not sure Gabriel will be thrown in the deep end because Arteta will be keen to manage the general weight of expectations.
The midfield will virtually pick itself in my mind, with Ceballos and Xhaka at the heart of proceedings, with Willian on the right and Maitland-Niles or Saka on the left. Upfront, Arsenal have to field their strongest combination of Pepe, Lacazette, and Aubameyang. No room for Nketiah for me, he’s done well, but he needs to develop in the latter stages of games as a substitute or play in a series of cup outings.
No room either for Guendouzi or Ozil, despite the claim of “clean slates” or for Bellerin and Torriera, both the subject of transfer speculation over the past week or so.
Prediction for the Fulham vs Arsenal Game: A hard-fought 20 minutes but Arsenal should go in at the break with at least one or two goals to the good. The Gunners have too much for Fulham and as the game wears on, they will seize the advantage. Eventual score will be a 1-4 Arsenal win.
There are a few differences between my preferred side and the predicted side, which takes into account the possible incomings and outgoings. We may have to wait for the ideal pairing of Saliba and Gabriel for a few weeks until Arteta thinks the player is fully integrated. It will be worth the wait.
Preferred team for the Fulham vs Arsenal Game: Martinez; Holding, Saliba, Tierney; Willian, Ceballos, Xhaka, Maitland-Niles; Pepe, Lacazette, Aubameyang.
Predicted team for the Fulham vs Arsenal Game: Leno; Holding, Saliba, Tierney, Soares; Ceballos, Xhaka, Saka; Willian, Lacazette, Aubameyang.