The season is underway and it is underway with three points and three goals from The Arsenal, without reply from Fulham at Craven Cottage, which makes for a lovely Sunday today in the English late summer sun.
There’s something exciting brewing under Mikel Arteta and we are seeing that every week little by little. And look, perhaps there will, and should, be some caveats given that Fulham are only just promoted and decided that they wanted to continue their possession-based game against Arsenal, but we still had to do the business and last season at times it didn’t matter who the opponent was because we just couldn’t finish those ‘lesser’ teams off. I think even Tim Stillman posted a fact on Twitter that last season we only picked up three points against the newly promoted teams, and seven in total away from home against the bottom six or seven sides.
So getting this win under our belts was important and particularly given the really tough run we have coming up. We need to pick up maximum points on game weeks one and two because after that it is scary and I don’t think we can expect to be unbeaten by the time the end of November comes around. So I’ll absolutely take the performance and result of yesterday even if it was ‘only Fulham’.
The starting line up for yesterday was always going to be an interesting one and much like with most seasons, it was going to be a little unusual feeling, because not everyone is fully up to speed. If you remember last season we started with a win at Newcastle that included Mkhitaryan, Willock, Chambers and Monreal. But none of those guys were regular names by the end. That’s because so many players weren’t ready and that’s how yesterday’s match was. We seemed to have been running out of centre halves and it meant one of the new boys was thrown in, in the shape of Gabriel, right into the centre of a back three. And after a couple of minutes I’m sure there were plenty of us who wondered whether the early miscommunication between Leno and Gabriel would be a worrying sign of first day news for our young defender.
But I tell you what, we needn’t have worried, because after that he was superb. I’ve heard people talk about his aerial ability, as well as his ability in one-v-one duels, but I didn’t expect we’d see evidence of it so quickly in a different league. He was great. His debut goal off the shoulder aside (thank you Willian for a great corner – more on that anon) he was imperious. I loved his ability to stay on his feet and win the ball back so effortlessly; he’s like the anti-Mustafi!!
He will have sterner tests than those Fulham front line players but he dealt with that with such ease that I’m already excited to see such a strong and physically imposing centre half deliver on an opening day like yesterday. Either side of him I thought Tierney was good and although I bemoaned Rob Holding’s distribution at times (he is terrible with his longer ball accuracy!), all three did really well in essentially keeping Fulham at arms length for the majority of the game. Apart from that very early hiccup in which Leno had a strong palm to stop Kamara from putting us behind, the German didn’t really have too much to worry about, which is very comforting given how many shots we were haemorrhaging last season.
The formation worked but it worked because of its fluidity, as we talked about almost immediately on the GunnersTown podcast straight after the game. In possession and out of possession we are different beasts. At times I saw Maitland-Niles – supposedly taking up the left wing-back position – in between Aubameyang and Lacazette in a pocket of space, then there were also some instances of Bellerin driving in field more centrally. Positions on the field are fluid with this Arsenal team and that makes it very difficult for teams to predict what is happening.
The second goal is a perfect example of that. Rob Holding juggling the ball about 15 yards in front of the opposition D before winning a corner isn’t something I thought I’d ever write. Yet here we are. A good ball in from Willian (I will get to him, honest!) and fellow new boy Brazilian Gabriel doubles our lead and I’m starting to think “we look very comfortable here!”. I haven’t felt like that for some time!
We were in control. Possession was good, Elneny was acting as a very simple receiver and distributor of the ball, whilst not really looking spectacular. That’s his game though, although when Ceballos came on you could see the difference in class, so I suspect Elneny’s position may be different next weekend. But he did well, as did all of the Arsenal players on the pitch and in particular, the new lad Willian.
Talk about an ‘oven ready’ Premier League footballer. He was one of Chelski’s best players last season and you could see why. He presses, he retains possession, he dribbles his way out of trouble and he has end product. I don’t think we can count the first goal – honourable poachers mention for Lacazette on that one – as an assist, but he was in the centre of the pitch in the right place to be a nuisance and force the issue with the goal. Shortly after he struck the post with a clever free kick. He drove at Fulham defenders all day and had himself an assist with the corner to Gabriel. But the best goal of the day and also his best bit of football, was the diagonal to Aubameyang to bag a now trademark finish for number three.
That goal was a thing of beauty. Controlled possession out from the back, movement from players to find space, before a splendid ball from Willian to let Auba put one in to get himself off the mark. What was also pleasing about the goal, however, was the number of players who were providing options should Auba need it. That creates doubt in defenders minds and means they can’t just over cover the space so Auba can’t shoot, because it would have left too much room for Tierney on the overlap.
It’s going to be a long season. It’s going to be a tough season. We won’t always play that well. But in terms of starting off on the right foot, we ticked all the boxes there, and I couldn’t ask for more when I write today’s first game of the season match review.
Onwards and upwards lads.