An abysmal Arsenal missed the chance to end 2023 at the top of the Premier League table as they were consigned to a deserved 2-1 defeat against London rivals Fulham at Craven Cottage.
Seeking to bounce back from their West Ham United horror show, Mikel Arteta‘s men were on the path to redemption when Bukayo Saka prodded home inside the opening five minutes, but Marco Silva‘s side were on top for the remainder of the game and turned the derby on its head through Raul Jimenez and Bobby Decordova-Reid.
A rejigged Arsenal XI saw all of Kai Havertz, Eddie Nketiah and Jakub Kiwior earn promotion to the starting lineup, while Fulham forward Willian recovered from a hamstring issue to feature from the off against his old club.
Much had been made of Arsenal’s wastefulness in the final third in recent fixtures, but Arteta’s men took just five minutes to break the deadlock in the derby, as Bernd Leno palmed a Gabriel Martinelli shot into the path of Saka, who knew little about it but managed to poke the ball into the open goal.
There was not much in the way of a celebration from the England international, who maybe feared that a VAR review would see reason to disallow the strike, but Tosin Adarabioyo had played him onside and the goal rightly stood.
Fulham’s response to going behind was a positive one, though, as Jimenez forced David Raya into a comfortable diving save in the 14th minute, five moments before Willian’s curler flashed just wide of the top corner.
The Cottagers were looking particularly threatening down Arsenal’s right, and they got the goal their efforts merited via that route in the 29th minute, as Tom Cairney flashed a brilliant ball across the box for Jimenez, who left Kiwior in his wake and finished first-time under a diving Raya.
Once again, Arsenal’s attacking sequences often ended with a misplaced pass or poor delivery into the box, although Martinelli was presented with a decent chance inside the D in the 42nd minute, only to send his first-time effort centimetres wide of the far post.
An injury-time opening for Nketiah also ended with the Englishman missing the target as he aimed for the near post, although the offside flag would have spared his blushes anyway, and a high-pressing Fulham ought to have been proud of their first-half efforts.
A welcome sight for the visiting supporters at the start of the second half was the return of Takehiro Tomiyasu, who took Kiwior’s place at left-back after recovering from a calf injury, and the Gunners’ first chance of the second 45 arrived in unorthodox circumstances.
Referee Josh Smith accidentally blocked Alex Iwobias he went to challenge Declan Rice, who had time and space to pick out Martinelli as a result, but the Brazilian’s curler sailed harmlessly wide as Smith breathed a sigh of relief.
After their set-piece frailties were exposed against West Ham, though, Arsenal conceded from another corner in the 59th minute, when Gabriel Magalhaes‘s sliced clearance deflected off of Tomiyasu into the path of Decordova-Reid, who thundered the ball into the roof of the net from close range.
For all of their tepid attacking play, Arsenal should have been level in the 63rd minute as a Martinelli cross deflected to Saka in acres of space, but the winger’s first-time volley was high, wide and not at all handsome.
Arteta shifted to a 3-5-2 setup in the closing stages as Arsenal tried to turn the screw, and Saka managed to weave his way into space in the 81st minute, but Joao Palhinha produced a lung-busting run to block the Englishman’s attempt.
Arsenal remained without a second-half shot on target as the clock ticked down, whereas Fulham came agonisingly close to sealing the win in the 88th minute, as an Andreas Pereira free kick rattled the crossbar and bounced to safety.
Five minutes of added time was not enough for Arsenal to salvage something from a horrendous display, as the Gunners remain fourth in the rankings ahead of next weekend’s FA Cup third-round showdown with Liverpool, while Fulham – who host Rotherham United in their cup opener on Friday – rise one place to 13th.