One of the most potent weapons of past English champions has been the knack for winning without playing well. For 45 minutes against Fulham on Saturday afternoon, Arsenal were jittery and uninspiring, and their main striker was borderline anonymous. For 20 minutes of the second 45, they were eager and excellent, and that's all it took for them to remain at the Barclays Premier League summit.
Arsène Wenger heralded Arsenal's victory at Aston Villa on Monday night as a "massive result", and although the 2-0 defeat of Fulham was eventually achieved with a minimum of fuss, it is fair to rank their fifth consecutive League win in the same category.
Anxious Arsenal could be a thing of the past if this Wenger side maintains its consistency. The wheels have occasionally creaked at home this season, against Aston Villa and Everton, but the Emirates Stadium is beginning to resemble a fortress for the first time in its seven-and-a-half-year history. There is that sense of inevitability Arsenal will bang on the door until it's reduced to mere splinters, and Santi Cazorla did the kicking for Wenger this time.
"In these kinds of games against teams who are fighting not to go down it's a question of patience," Wenger reminded Gooners.
Fulham, who have never won away at Arsenal, arrived posing a greater challenge than the sorry one Sunderland faced seven days ago. The returns of Brede Hangeland and Clint Dempsey, alumni of the 2010 Europa League final hegemony, gave them a more familiar and encouraging look about their starting 11, but the first 10 minutes suggested otherwise. The visitors barely had a kick of the ball in an utterly dominant start for Arsenal, as Mesut Özil had a shot blocked inside four minutes in a stylish onslaught largely reduced to distance shots.
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Hangeland's return midweek was perhaps overstated, thanks to the unglamorous occasion of an FA Cup third round replay with Norwich, yet his organisational skills heavily contributed to a more assured showing from the League's flakiest defence. Partnered by Dan Burn, making his first ever Fulham start in the top flight after four months on loan at Birmingham, at just half an inch smaller than the Norwegian, the beanpole duo were a more reassuring presence than Philippe Senderos.
And Fulham's confidence began to build. One of the most demanding set of home supporters in the country, impatience crept into cries of "Come on Arsenal" and the boos reverberated around the Emirates Stadium ahead of Fulham goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg's goal kicks when half-an-hour hadn't been played. Dempsey's selflessness as an auxiliary midfielder, extra cover Fulham lack when the maverick Adel Taarabt starts, suffocated any effect Özil or Wilshere might have.
René Meulensteen's reputation for technical coaching was impressively evident, even if Arsenal seemed inexplicably hesitant to press. Dimitar Berbatov, who has invariably excelled at the Emirates, wielded the baton despite being the furthest away from the ball at times, perhaps auditioning ahead of a move to north London.
It was testament to Fulham's defiance following last week's disastrous defeat to Sunderland that the first save of the match didn't come until 26 minutes in, when Steven Sidwell, on a goalscoring spurt of three in three games, unleashed a ballistic volley from 20 yards which Wojciech Szczęsny punched away. That did elicit a response from the hosts, as Bacary Sagna was denied by Stekelenburg following Özil's meek free-kick into the wall.
Fulham's liveliness could be measured by just how animatedly disappointed Meulensteen was on the touchline, as they squandered presentable openings in the final third. The two wingers, Alexander Kačaniklić and Ashkan Dejagah, were both guilty of flustering when they ought to have tested Szczęsny. Kačaniklić's heavy touch, following some poetic play from Berbatov, was particularly shameful.
"I was very pleased at half-time, to say the least," Meulensteen said. "We got in out stride, we knew that we needed to have a very solid defensive performance today if we wanted to get something out of the game, and I thought we looked very comfortable in the first half. The chances you're going to get are scarce, but if we could have just produced a bit more quality in the final third we could maybe have nicked something out of that."
Although there is little different from the Arsenal squad which risibly showed off their trophy for finishing fourth last year, they are a more dogged and determined side. They have recently had to patiently bide their time for breakthroughs at home against Everton and Cardiff, yet the wait was not as long against Fulham.
Arsenal were relentlessly enterprising from the second the game restarted. Serge Gnabry was brilliantly denied by Stekelenburg, Laurent Koscielny hit the post, while Gnabry and Sagna had shots blocked, but it was coming. On 57 minutes Cazorla strolled into the area, latched onto Jack Wilshere's loose pass and struck the ball out of Stekelenburg's reach.
"He was out for a long time at the start of the season," Wenger said of the Cazorla. "He had some injury problems and after that he had an ankle problem. Only recently, since mid-December, he has come back to his level." It is no coincidence Cazorla's impact came away from the congested midfield.
Five minutes later, the Spaniard made it three goals in as many games to double Arsenal's lead and all but condemn Fulham to a second successive League defeat. Meulensteen, who helped oversee a couple of galling defeats of Arsenal alongside Sir Alex Ferguson, threw on Darren Bent for Dejagah but no one was seemingly designated the role of playmaker, as Sidwell and Scott Parker embarked on unsuccessful charges.
Berbatov became increasingly disenchanted after Cazorla's goals and was placated with a floating role which still starved Fulham's frontline of any service. Lukas Podolski, on for the ebullient Gnabry, had a ferocious shot magnificently tipped onto the upright by the excellent Stekelenburg yet Arsenal were content with a Spanish double.Suggest a correction