With 79 minutes gone at Craven Cottage Leandro Trossard produced a piece of skill that was balletic, high-craft and also – this is key – completely pointless, feinting to his left, sniping inside the Fulham cover and then sending a wonderful left-foot cross snaking right through the scoring zone, watched with varying levels of interest by three green shirts.

The obvious question, watching this, was: why? Why bother? What is the plan here? Arsenal attempted a total of 20 crosses in the course of this 2-1 defeat by a robust and classy Fulham team. Only one or two of those crosses actually found an Arsenal player. Across the Premier League season only Luton and Everton have attempted more crosses than Arsenal. But then, Luton and Everton have a game geared for that kind of attacking energy.

Arsenal, on the other hand, have spent the season living out a kind of dramatic irony, a case of nominative non-determinism. Here we have a team that is literally named after the place where you keep your loaded guns, your scimitars, your shells and bullets. And yet what they really lack, the key omission skewing and stretching the rest of the team, is bullets, sharp edge, weaponry in front of goal. The one thing these Gunners don’t have is a gunner.

This isn’t a difficult observation to make. Just take a look down the squad list and there it is. The key point at the end of a second defeat in four days is that the lack of a cutting edge has begun to skew and bend and muddle the rest of this team, which is better than it looked here, which has so many fine qualities, but which is currently listing, drained by the one-dimensional nature of its own attacking patterns.

Against Fulham Mikel Arteta fielded a mobile, super-talented front three, but a front three nonetheless with two goals combined in nine league games since the start of November.

Gabriel Jesus came on for the final quarter, at the same time as Gabriel Martinelli left the pitch. It still isn’t clear why Jesus spends so much time lurking in strange areas, in a team that already has so many other players drifting between the lines. Then again, Jesus is at least versatile, retaining the ability to be largely invisible in not just one but several positions.

Mikel Arteta walks past a dejected Martin Ødegaard after Arsenal’s defeat at Fulham. Photograph: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

Asked at the end what went wrong, Arteta said: “We weren’t good enough,” which is accurate. Fourth in the league, one point ahead of Spurs is not the new year break Arteta would have imagined even a week ago when the questions seemed be what kind of cushion at the top Arsenal could take into 2024. Instead the record since the 4-3 victory at Luton reads one league win in five, four goals scored, the same game rolled out each time, and a sense that opponents have worked Arsenal out, have learned how to keep them at bay a little too easily.

The issue here is a sense of tired patterns as well as tired players. The plan remains the same. Bukayo Saka will repeatedly try to trick his way past two designated defenders, while everyone else watches, then gets cross when he’s fouled.

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There is a truism about always having “space elsewhere” when a player is double marked like this. But that space has little value when the players in it seem preoccupied with simply funnelling the ball back out to Saka again. Here we have football reimagined as the Penrose stairs, a team in the process of folding back on itself.

Craven Cottage at this time of year is always a Christmassy occasion, a ground that still feels like a gingerbread grotto even with its new stand. Arsenal made the perfect start with four minutes gone. The opening goal was made by a touch from the palm of both goalkeepers, first David Raya’s crown-green-bowls-style rolled pass to Kai Havertz, followed by a surge from Martinelli and a shot saved by Bernd Leno, but only deflected as far as Saka six yards out.

Fulham didn’t sit back. Willian looked like the kind of player Arsenal could use right now, finding space on the left, forcing Martin Ødegaard and Saka to track back, and helping to make the equalising goal with 29 minutes gone, feeding Tom Cairney, whose cross fizzed unimpeded across the Arsenal six-yard box for Raúl Jiménez to score.

From there Arsenal never changed gears. João Palhinha was a smothering presence in midfield. Alex Iwobi hustled to good effect, looking as ever like a man who has wandered on to the pitch in a pair of sliders and just stayed out there, to sensational effect.

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Bobby De Cordova-Reid scored the winner from a corner. All Arsenal really had to offer after this was mannered noodling, familiar patterns, crosses launched in search of some shadow No 9, the absence at the heart of this team.

There is at least a break now before their next league game on 20 January. There was a rumour on social media before this game that Brentford had let slip they want £80m for Ivan Toney. This will sound like a lot. But it won’t feel like a lot if he scores goals that win games. The more pressing concern is that Arsenal don’t have the money sitting in their current account. But this team is in danger of becoming a waste of all that time, care and effort, without someone to turn its craft and play into hard numbers.


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