LONDON — The Arsenal rebuild is still far from complete, but new signings Willian and Gabriel already look at home. As opening days go, this jaunt to south-west London could not have gone better for Mikel Arteta as Arsenal won 3-0 at Fulham in their first game of the 2020-21 season.
Willian teed up all three Arsenal goals — his trio of assists are already more than Mesut Ozil managed last season in the Premier League. First, the Brazil international’s scrambled shot inadvertently teed up Alexandre Lacazette for Arsenal’s opener; his pinpoint cross found Gabriel’s shoulder for Arsenal’s second, and then his delightful cross ball teed up Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who kept Fulham’s defence on their heels before curling a shot into the far, top corner having cut inside off the wing.
The three goals were perfect representations of Arteta’s style: the first down to graft and determination, set-piece precision for the second and for the third, finding space, pulling the opposition out of position and capping it off with a wondrous finish.
Willian, signing a three-year contract after a free transfer from Chelsea, is a tricky player to mark. He revelled in pulling Fulham’s left-back Joe Bryan and centre-back Tim Ream out of position, floating in from the right wing and dropping deep when trying to quicken the tempo and quality of ball to Lacazette or Aubameyang. His set pieces are also deadly: he struck the post with a first-half free-kick on the edge of Fulham’s box, while his corners, as Gabriel found out to his delight, were on the money.
Another new signing, defender Gabriel, had a shaky opening — an early mix up with Bernd Leno nearly allowed Aboubakar Kamara to pounce — but he grew in assuredness and is undoubtedly a marked improvement at the back. He has increased Arsenal’s resilience to any lofted balls, winning his headers and keeping their backline high up the pitch. It was a promising performance in his first match since March 6 and you can see why so many of Europe’s top clubs wanted the 22-year-old Brazilian; the £27m spent to bring him over from Lille looks to be money well spent. Arteta wanted to give him longer to adjust, concerned about the risk of injury, but was delighted.
“I knew Willian would put in a performance like that straight away. Gabriel was terrific. It doesn’t get much better than that,” Arteta said afterwards. “The commitment they showed, the new boys, was terrific.
“It was really good. Obvious for Willian. He knows the league, the country and is very settled here, so I knew his performance would settle straight away. For Gabriel, it was a big challenge for him today to come in. He hadn’t played any football in the last six months and he had a terrific performance.”
And for all their teamwork on the pitch, Arteta is the heartbeat for this Arsenal side. Now promoted to first-team manager, he’s fascinating to listen to. The absence of crowds — how Fulham could have done with some supporter-created claustrophobia here — means you can hear Arteta’s relentless touchline communication. He talks the players through their passing options, switching effortlessly between an abundance of languages, and establishes himself as a 12th man. You can sense the players learning, even mid-match.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles, receiving interest from Wolves, is essential to Arteta’s system. In defence, Arsenal fall into a back five, with Hector Bellerin and Maitland-Niles tucking in, but in attack Bellerin drops back to form a four-man defence and Maitland-Niles offers a third passing option in midfield. They’re essentially “underlapping” fullbacks, and once they develop this to prevent momentum-killing cutbacks and the runs become more intuitive, that Arsenal front three will have more whipped crosses to enjoy.
There’s also more of a bite about Arsenal under Arteta. Dani Ceballos and Eddie Nketiah showed this in their slight scuffle during the warm-up where frustration during a pre-match rondo boiled over; quietly, Arteta would have loved that, though he declined to give his view on it post-match.
Though Saturday’s win was impressive, Arsenal remain a work in progress. Their squad is still unbalanced, as Arteta said this week, and while their defence stood firm against their promoted opponents, they’re still prone to allowing crosses into their penalty area from dangerous areas. Fulham had Aleksandar Mitrovic on the bench, but how he would have revelled in the space and time Bryan and Denis Odoi enjoyed in the first half as they found the gap between Arsenal’s three-man central defence and the two wingbacks. There’s opportunity there for sharper opposition and Arteta will need to shore this up.
With 23 days of the transfer window remaining, Arsenal still have room to manoeuvre. But with a player like Bellerin and his positioning so key to the Arteta system, they need to keep him happy and away from Barcelona or PSG’s advances. When Arsenal drop into a more conventional 4-3-3, there’s space for a more creative midfielder to complement Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny.
“They have to raise their level and the performances will improve,” said Arteta after the match. “This was what I demand. I am really happy with the boys, the way they train, but selection is getting more complicated, having 18 players in the squad again makes it more difficult.”
To their credit, Fulham looked assured in the first half — with none of their new signings selected from the outset — but lacked a cutting edge up front. They badly need a creative presence in the No. 10 role, and while Ivan Cavaleiro dropped into this position and did his utmost to create some havoc, they found space and opportunity but lacked the firepower to turn promising areas into clear-cut chances.
As opening days go, this was perfect for Arteta, but he knows as well as anybody Arsenal remain unfinished. With time remaining in the transfer window, there will be more departures, but any movement cannot destabilise this ever-developing understanding of Arteta’s wonderfully effective system, which proved too good for Fulham.