There is a strong sense of positivity around Arsenal. Mikel Arteta’s team have developed an increasing momentum since June. Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Fulham at Craven Cottage reinforced the upbeat mood around the Gunners. There are stiffer tests ahead but the club appears to be moving in the right direction.
The new additions caught the eye on their debut against Fulham. Gabriel Magalhaes, the centre back who cost £27m from Lille, had an impressive game overall. After making a bad mistake in the opening minutes – letting a backpass he could easily have cleared run into the area to allow the home team an early chance – the Brazilian showed his strength, especially in the air. He seems equipped to deal with the physicality of the division and scored Arsenal’s second goal, rising to power home a downward header in a crowded six-yard box.
The centre back position has long been a problem area at the Emirates and Arteta thinks the 22-year-old is the solution. “He has special qualities,” the manager said. “The way he plays he can adapt to the Premier League.” Early indications suggest that may be true. Arteta praised “his character and his personality on the pitch.” In the centre of a three-man back line, Magalhaes was comfortable. Kieran Tierney on his left, an early mistake aside, was secure defensively and dangerous going forward. Rob Holding on the other side was less comfortable on the ball when Arsenal played out from the back but as a unit the trio showed positive signs.
The other player making his debut was Willian, bringing a wealth of top-flight experience from his time at Chelsea. He was involved in all three goals, joining in the scramble before Alexandre Lacazette’s opener, providing the corner for the second and supplying an exquisite cross-field pass for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s third. The 32-year-old also hit the post with a first-half free kick. Willian was selected ahead of Nicolas Pepe and the decision paid off. The Brazilian has a wider repertoire than Pepe.
During his time at Stamford Bridge, Willian was accused of drifting out of game on occasion. That criticism makes sense if the attacking aspect of the game is the only thing taken into account but just because a player is not on the ball, it does not mean he is not making a contribution. Willian was effective when Fulham had possession, pressing when necessary and dropping deeper to protect the space around Hector Bellerin. An understanding is already forming between the two right-sided players. Willian shifted wide to clear a route for the Spaniard to thrust down the inside channel. Willian’s knowhow adds another dimension for Arsenal. “We need a mix,” Arteta said. “We have lots of young players with big talent and big futures but need role models. He doesn’t say much in the dressing room but he does on pitch.”
The front three of Willian, Lacazette in the centre and Aubameyang on the left will prove a handful for better teams than Fulham. Aubameyang was the principal tormentor at the Cottage, stretching the back line repeatedly. Denis Odoi was unable to deal with the Gabonese and the full back’s dispiriting return to the Premier League hit a low point when the marauding Arsenal forward cut back in the area and curled the ball into the far corner of the net. Odoi was sent in the wrong direction. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was a useful accomplice for Aubameyang, too. Arsenal thrived out wide.
Liverpool’s success in the past two years has proved the value of width and although Arteta’s 3-4-3 system is different to the tactics that Jurgen Klopp employs, it has a similar impact and means that the central midfielders are not the creative hub of the team. In years past, Arsenal supporters might have groaned at the thought of Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny in the middle of the park but both were disciplined and impressive. They allowed the home side to have the ball in areas where the threat was small but quickly closed down the opposition and supplemented the defence when danger loomed. Scott Parker’s team never subjected the central pair to real spells of pressure but Xhaka and Elneny ensured that their side was rarely unbalanced, despite the wing-backs’ desire to get forward.
The Arsenal manager indicated that he will vary his methods to suit the demands of individual matches, perhaps recognising that this was not a game from which he could develop a template. Fulham were very poor and, after an energetic start, were never in the contest after the visiting side opened the scoring in the ninth minute. Parker needs to get his defensive summer signings on to the pitch as soon as possible in the hope that they will be able to provide significantly more security across the back line. Within 10 minutes of the new season beginning it was clear the relegation battle had already begun.
Arteta, by contrast, has loftier ambitions and enough flexibility in his squad to change his approach when necessary. “We have to be efficient and we need to adapt,” he said. “We can do certain things against certain opponents and in other matches we need to do something different, because the thing that I like most is winning.”
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