Fulham’s return to the top flight allowed them to resume their status as Arsenal’s favourite whipping boys as we put them to the sword in traditional fashion. With a win percentage of 67%, no other team in the top flight was more suited as our opening fixture.
With debuts handed to Gabriel and Willian, and yet another makeshift backline, it was a the perfect start.
Barely a minute had gone by before our first defensive scare of the season and this one was at least more excusable than the kind we’re usually subjected to. A wayward backpass and a communication breakdown between Leno and Gabriel almost resulted in a gift to Fulham if not for some alert goalkeeping. With Martinez’ departure now (sadly) confirmed, we’re back to being entirely dependent on Leno and he didn’t disappoint on this occasion either.
It wasn’t exactly vintage stuff in the early stages and Lacazette’s opener was much the same. It might have been a scramble but it was at least a good example of why it’s important to commit players into the box. The initial pass finding it’s way to Xhaka somehow found it’s way to Willian after some awful defending and Lacazette was in the right place to tuck away that oft-elusive away goal.
Without Mitrovic, Fulham never felt threatening despite the fact that our debutante who was tasked with anchoring the back 3 hadn’t played since March 6th. I don’t think we can attribute that to anything other than Fulham being poor, as they seemed to carry their difficulties in creating chances from last season despite being the second best team in the Championship for possession.
The afternoon got nice and comfy after halftime when all 6’4″ of Gabriel rose highest to head/shoulder in from close range from Willian’s delivery. No doubt planned down to the tee by our new set piece specialist… In all honesty though, it was a glaring weakness in the team last season and the addition of the likes of Saliba and Gabriel paired with a competent coach is an exciting prospect. It was also the first of what is hopefully a burgeoning relationship of Brazilian talent at the club.
The frenzy of last season and initial fears of what kind of carnage David Luiz would bring followed by Martinelli’s emergence wasn’t quite enough to make that kind of statement but the early signs of Willian and Gabriel are at least promising. It’s something that’s often overlooked but particularly for players coming from such a different environment, having some familiarity is an important part of settling a player. Although the crowd is very much split on what kind of player Lucas Torreira is and whether he has a future at the club, I don’t think anyone would argue he’s a player who feels settled. With Martinez now also leaving, his last Spanish-speaking South American counterpart, he may well be looking back to Italy.
The third was a perfect way to round off the afternoon and is the kind of goal you can never tire of. After once again beating the press, the space was there to exploit and Willian’s quality sent Aubameyang on his merry way. Like a carbon copy of his goal in the Community Shield, he was afforded the time and space to open his body up and opened his account for the season.
There have been some Özil-level figures mentioned in Aubameyang’s contract situation but as far as I’m concerned, he’s irreplaceable and we need him signing that contract by hook or by crook. Thankfully, plenty of figures around the club seem relaxed but I’ve been burned before… thanks Thierry and Cesc.
In the end, it was all very routine and it was a nice opportunity for the likes of Ceballos and Pépé to also wet their beaks. The latter especially is one whose season prospects are going to be interesting. I’m a huge fan of his and genuinely think he has what it takes to really light up the division but if there’s one thing he still needs to work on, it’s his decision making. Having a seasoned player like Willian come in and hit the ground running will hopefully give him the competition and drive to build on what he started last year. Based on his time at Lille where he really took off during his second season, it might just be the perfect storm for a repeat.
It also wasn’t a lineup I’d imagine we’re going to see often this season and while he impressed on the day – against an unimpressive side that only made it to the Premier League through the playoffs – I’m surprised Elneny still has a place at the club. It might seem strange to single out a player after a very solid performance and a routine win but going forward, I’m disinclined to be too excited about a player whose limitations we’re already well aware of. That being said, Arteta touched on him after the game saying he’d “been excellent since day one in training and he’s a player I know really well because we played together”. After his managerial upgrade, he may just be adopting a more diplomatic approach to player relations but the jury is still out.
With the sale of Martinez and the likely departures of several others, it feels like we’re paving the way for a real marquee signing – whether that be an Aouar or a Partey – but you never know with this club.