Arsenal have often been accused of prizing style over substance. Not here. This was a far from swanky performance, with victory secured by a scruffy goal from Per Mertesacker and solid defending rather than sparkling attacking. Points are clearly the most precious commodity at Arsenal right now and, without ever showing Champions League class, Arsène Wenger's team claimed them.
The win lifted Arsenal into third, five points ahead of fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur, who host Manchester City on Sunday. Defeat in the north London derby on 3 March triggered prophesies of doom for Wenger's team but they have responded with hitherto unsuspected efficiency, collecting 19 points from 21 available. Fulham made them dig deep for the three here.
Initially it did not look like Arsenal would ensure such a difficult afternoon. Without dazzling they were quick to gain the upper hand in terms of possession and the likelihood of them turning that into goals increased in the 12th minute when Steve Sidwell, who was just returning from suspension following a red card against Queen's Park Rangers, was sent off for a late tackle on Mikel Arteta. "I can't defend him because that would probably sound ridiculous but I know it was not intentional," said Martin Jol. Sidwell's challenge was not sinister, rather a reflection of the fact that Arsenal were generally quicker to the ball than their opponents and more assured in their movements, but Andre Marriner was nevertheless right to dismiss the player.
This did not prove the turning point that might have been expected. Arsenal struggled to profit from their numerical advantage and Fulham restricted them to few openings. It was, in fact, the home side who created the first clear chance of the game, aided by Olivier Giroud giving the ball away in the 21st minute. Urby Emanuelson picked it up and galloped forward before slipping a pass through to Dimitar Berbatov, whose shot from 16 yards was turned away by Wojciech Szczesny. Emanuelson went close himself in the 40th minute, dispossessing Nacho Monreal before letting fly from the edge of the area. Szczesny again pushed the shot away for a corner.
Those were rare breaks by the hosts as Arsenal dominated most of the first half, but in mostly sterile fashion. The visitors' passing was not inventive enough to prise a diligent Fulham apart, and Wenger's side seemed a lot like skint philanthropists – full of worthy intentions but lacking the ability to implement them. Giroud, like Theo Walcott, was enduring another off-day but did play a prominent role in Arsenal's most cutting move of the first half, hitting a low shot against the post from 16 yards after nimble work down the left involving Monreal and Santi Cazorla.
Mostly, though, Arsenal looked like they needed something different, such as the jagged running of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Lukas Podolski. Before the need for substitutions became urgent, however, Arsenal took the lead through a straightforward set-piece. Walcott curled a free-kick from deep to the back post, Laurent Koscielny nodded it back across the face of goal and Mertesacker headed in from a yard.
If Arsenal thought that would make the second half easier, they were disappointed. Fulham doggedly kept them at bay and, indeed, came close to scoring on their infrequent ventures upfield, Bryan Ruiz curling a free-kick over the bar before a misdirected cross by Stanislav Manolev in the 70th minute had Szczesny scrambling backwards to tip over the bar. Wenger withdrew the ineffective Walcott and Tomas Rosicky moments later, introducing Podolski and Jack Wilshere, but Arsenal could not find inspiration and Fulham continued to prove pesky.
The Craven Cottage crowd were momentarily catapulted into joy in the 76th minute when Manolev slotted the ball into the net from close range after Szczesny parried another Ruiz free-kick but the sight of a rightly raised offside flag curtailed those celebrations. Emboldened, Fulham pressed harder and their increasing directness led to frantic defending in the Arsenal penalty area.
As the visitors tried to take play down the other end in the last minute Giroud got himself sent off, winning the ball from Manolev but inadvertently following through into the Bulgarian's ankle. Again there seemed no malice but Wenger recognised that the referee was entitled to consider the challenge dangerous. "The two [red cards] looked all right," he said. "I spoke with Giroud and he said he did slip at the moment he went for the ball … He went a bit over the ball and knowing Sidwell had been sent off before I had no illusion about the colour of the card."
Wenger acknowledged that his team did not exploit Sidwell's sending-off as well as they could have, suggesting that their inability to do so was partially down to tiredness following their hard‑fought midweek draw with Everton. "Everton was a very physical game and I think somewhere we were a bit jaded in the second half here – maybe that is also why Everton lost at Sunderland."