Fulham 2 Arsenal 1

Arsenal succumbed to their first defeat of the festive fixtures in a controversial loss at Craven Cottage. Laurent Koscielny headed the Gunners into a deserved first half lead, but disaster was to strike late into the second 45 minutes. Twelve minutes before full time, Johan Djourou was shown a second yellow card, and with their football in the ascendency, two late goals from Steve Sidwell and Bobby Zamora were to rock Arsenal who, after the exertions against Queens Park Rangers only 48 hours earlier, just could not respond.

Makeshift defence

It was to be a game too far for a makeshift Arsenal defence, who having coped with the demands of playing players out of position for so many fixtures, the fact remained that inevitable was always going to be on the cards. Francis Coquelin was asked to play at left back, with Djourou on the right. Koscielny has continued to excel alongside an improving Per Mertersacker in the middle, but Arsene Wenger desperately needs to get his established defenders Bacary Sagna, Kieran Gibbs and Andre Santos back.

Deflected

Having registered the win in their previous London derby against Rangers, another cross capital derby at a ground that has had a habit of causing the odd upset over the years may not have been Wenger’s first preference, but when Koscielny opened to scoring, all looked to be on track for Arsenal. The neat passing and movement was back, and Aaron Ramsey’s deflected cross fell just right for Koscielny who had time to head neatly past an exposed David Stockdale. Moments later, Fulham’s ‘keeper produced an outstanding double save to deny Van Persie and Gervinho as Arsenal sensed more goals.

Wrong decision

Gervinho’s pace was causing Fulham all sorts of problems, and Arsenal were earlier denied a nailed on penalty when the Ivory Coast striker was caught by Philippe Senderos. Wenger was to later angrily bemoan the performance of referee Lee Probert, and here he would have a point, as the official got that decision horribly wrong. It seemed not to matter much at that stage as Theo Walcott, Ramsey and Mikel Arteta were making Arsenal tick along nicely, even if lone striker Robin Van Persie only saw limited opportunities. The Arsenal number 10 had already seen a corner clear the Fulham defence, with the unmarked Gervinho missing the target from close in.

Isolated

Teams have been targeting Djourou in defence, but his first yellow card was totally avoidable after he brought down Mousa Dembele with there being no imminent danger. Walcott was having to defend more often than he would have liked, but going forwards, apart from the occasional burst, the England man cut a very isolated figure.

Fulham began to see more of the ball in the second half as it seemed Arsenal’s holiday fixtures began to take their toll. They did not need to be reduced to ten men, but when Djourou impeded Zamora, after Mertersacker lost the ball attempting to play his way out of trouble a second yellow was produced, with 12 minutes still on the clock. The Cottagers had seen Bryan Ruiz denied by an excellent save from Wojciech Szczesny, and the home side’s momentum was building. Wenger resorted to desperate measures, throwing on Sebastien Squillaci for Ramsey, with Tomas Rosicky and Yossi Benayoun also introduced.

Wide open

Five minutes before time, Arsenal failed to deal with Ruiz’s corner, Senderos headed back across the goal and Sidwell headed in. At that stage point a piece would not have been a disgrace for the Gunners, but leaving Zamora wide open to find the target in the second minute of the three for time added on, was a blow that the Gunners could not recover from. Stephen Kelly’s deep cross was headed back into Zamora’s path by Squillaci and that was to bring the Cottagers the winner.

Envisaged

A sixth Premiership defeat, and the loss to begin 2012 will not have been what Wenger or the massed travelling Arsenal fans would have envisaged at the start of the match, but given the Gunners’ impossible defensive worries, the Arsenal manager has to respond in the transfer window. Playing players out of position is never ideal, but at Craven Cottage, Wenger’s lack of defensive options came to cost his team a valuable three points. The defensive woes cannot be allowed to continue.