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Arsenal at Fulham preview: Steady as she goes

Arsenal navigate the waters of a packed fixture list as they look to continue their momentum

Sporting CP v Arsenal FC: Round of 16 Leg One - UEFA Europa League Photo by Zed Jameson/MB Media/Getty Images

12 matches. That is all that stand between Arsenal and the end of the Premier League season. There is a palpable mix of elation and dread, as each match carries just a little more weight than the one before it. As Mikel Arteta’s Gunners chase their first title in nearly two decades, only a dozen fixtures remain. On deck is a trip to Craven Cottage to take on Fulham for a London Derby of tremendous importance.

Fulham’s form has been one of the most surprising storylines of the Premier League season. Having only just been promoted at the start of this season, the London club are not only a healthy distance from the relegation zone, they are potentially in the running for European competition next season. Sitting in 7th place with 39 points, nobody could have predicted this level of success. Sure, they looked good as the season started, but who’d have thought they’d look this good through 23 of the season?

Fulham have been a quintessential yo-yo club for a while. Since the 18/19 season, they have been relegated and promoted in successive campaigns, struggling to stick around the top flight longer than a season at a time. This season, though, the Cottagers appear safe from that frustrating cycle for at least another season, as manager Marco Silva has turned the side into a frighteningly consistent one.

The form of Alexander Mitrović has been a major contributor to Fulham’s success, but there sustained success has come through contributions from players across the pitch. Former Gunner Bernd Leno has been one of the league’s top shot stoppers. João Palhinha has been a rock in their midfield, but will miss the match due to a red card ban. Manor Solomon has been on a goal scoring tear since the new year. Even former horror show Arsenal signing Willian has found new life with them. Times, they are a-changin!

All of this is to say that Arsenal enter Sunday with a steep task ahead of them. Fulham have only gotten better since they last met in late August. Arsenal have managed to stay more or less consistent - they are still atop the PL table, after all - but have shown some worrying signs down the stretch. Injuries remain a constant thorn in the club’s side, and player fatigue will become more and more significant as the season carries on.

But the most concerning issue has been Arsenal’s inexplicable inability to defend a set piece recently. After two seasons of developing the league’s most stingy set piece defense, the side has struggled to keep the ball out of the net on corners, giving up goals to Bournemouth, Everton, and Sporting CP in recent matches. Fulham no doubt know this, and will want to take advantage of that with Mitrović’s prowess in the air.

The Gunners are also three matches into a tough March run of six matches in three weeks before the international break. Tired legs are always a concern this time of year, and this match falls between two crucial Europa League knockout matches against Sporting CP. This is the only PL match away from home in the six match stretch for Mikel Arteta’s side, and although it’s not far from home, Fulham are no doubt going to give Arsenal the type of match that a team leading a title charge can expect.

Man management is probably one of the toughest parts for a manager to deal with. Gabriel Martinelli’s cameo at striker against Sporting was largely forgettable, but he was also without the service of Martin Odegaard for the match, who missed due to illness. His return will be critical for Arsenal’s attack. Likewise, Thomas Partey’s health is always a concern, as he has yet to complete a full campaign for the Gunners. The return of either Gabriel Jesus or Eddie Nketiah will be a major relief, but I don’t expect either to be anywhere near ready for 90 minutes. Sunday will be a tall test for Mikel’s roster rotation, but good managers find a way to make the right moves when necessary.

For more discussions about lineups and score predictions, please check out Nathan’s post.

The task is simple for the Gunners - just win. Fulham are tricky, and it will take every bit of effort from Arteta’s side to leave Craven Cottage with all three points. But champions find a way. This team believes in themselves and each other. They have shown in through 26 matches so far, and they have only 12 more times to show it.

WHAT: Arsenal at Fulham
WHEN: Sunday, March 12th, 10:00am EST/7:00am PST/3:00pm BST
WHERE: Craven Cottage, London, England
HOW TO WATCH: Streaming on Peacock.

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