It’s been 49 days since the tumultuous 2019/20 Premier League season ended. The longest league campaign in English football history meant that footballers up and down the land were given almost no chance to recover whatsoever; while most clubs relish a six-week break, this time, they were reduced to barely two.
Whatever the preparation time, Arsenal had the privilege of being the league’s first kick-off, away to Fulham Athletic.
It was no surprise that Mikel Arteta named such a strong lineup for the first game, though the absences of Mesut Özil and Mattéo Guendouzi were still noticeable, their exclusions made more sense, given the lack of downtime between holiday and training.
Arsenal were also without David Luiz, who was out with a neck spasm and Emiliano Martínez was left out of the matchday squad to undergo a medical at Aston Villa, ahead of a reported £20m move, while new boys Willian and Gabriel Magalhães made their full Arsenal debuts, while Mohamed Elneny started ahead of Dani Ceballos.
Arsenal’s Premier League start in the South London sunshine was rocky, to begin with. An air of overconfidence plagued Mikel Arteta’s side, most notably from new boy Gabriel, Kieran Tierney and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who’s back pass led to a misunderstanding between Gabriel and goalkeeper Bernd Leno and resulted in the German having to come out and swat the ball away from the onrushing Aboubakar Kamara.
Slowly but surely, Arsenal began to grow into the game, passes were sprayed to the wide positions as Arsenal looked to exploit the spaces in behind Fulham and were soon given their just-rewards.
Granit Xhaka’s shot was blocked into the path of Willian, whose shot was saved by Marek Rodák, which allowed Alexandre Lacazette to pounce and give Arsenal the lead from close-range.
It wasn’t perhaps the champagne total football that Arsenal fans would have liked to have seen, but Arsenal had the lead. There were other chances from there, not too many troubled Rodák, however, Willian struck a beautiful free-kick past an eight-man wall, which cannoned off the post.
Half-time came and went and Arsenal’s confidence began to grow. Though Fulham had created chances, mainly down Arsenal’s left-hand side, they paid dearly for missed half-chances and soon, Arsenal doubled their lead.
Willian’s superb delivery from the corner saw Gabriel leap highest than everyone else and his header went straight through the legs of Rodák and capped off a superb debut, with the Brazilian becoming the first player since Cédric Soares to score on his Arsenal debut.
Mikel Arteta’s voice could be heard from the touchline, dictating where the pass should be going, when to release and who was open as well as individual instructions, which all came together beautifully as Arsenal rounded off a wonderful team move with Aubameyang receiving the ball into the left-hand channel from Willian and cutting inside onto his favoured right foot to curl an unstoppable effort into the top corner and put the game beyond all reasonable doubt.
From there, Arsenal continued to search for more goals but were happy to sit back and dictate possession and allow Fulham to come out and get the ball from them. The introduction of the silky Dani Ceballos saw Arsenal add an element of flair to their possession game as all the flicks and tricks that fans would have loved to have seen began to show.
The final whistle blew and it was fair to say that Arsenal couldn’t have had a stronger start. A comfortable win that was capped off by superb individual displays, not least from Willian, Gabriel and Elneny.
From Mikel Arteta’s perspective, it was the perfect start. A well-organised team performance that seemed to shy away from the performances that had been commonplace at the end of last season.
Last season, Arsenal tended to set-up with the intention of controlling the opposition and their passing, tightening the spaces out wide and withholding possession through nimble-footed players like Dani Ceballos; but Saturday’s game saw Arsenal dictate possession and more willing to be the protagonists of the game.
Though its fair to suggest that Arsenal’s over-conservative approach to certain games last season, such as their 2-1 win over Liverpool or their triumph over Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final were a result of their opposition being vastly superior to them, it was encouraging to see Arsenal looking to control possession in a way that they haven’t seen since the early days of Unai Emery or the majority of Arsène Wenger’s time at the club.
Though the stats give Fulham a 46% share of the possession stats, Arsenal’s numbers show just how much they created with the North London side taking 13 shots, 6 of which were on target.
It was an encouraging display from Arsenal’s debutants as well. Though Nicolas Pépé returned late from holiday, it was a bold move to leave the £72m winger on the bench in favour of Willian, who’s arrival had seen a mixed reaction from the Arsenal faithful, but Willian repaid his manager’s faith in gold, with three assists, a remarkable return, though Arsenal will hope that Willian’s three-assist debut sees his career take a different turn than Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who accomplished the same thing.
For defender Gabriel, it was a shaky start, not aided by his defensive partner’s propensity for over-casual play and alarming awareness of the play around them, but as Arsenal’s began to control the game more, the defender’s confidence rose, towering in the air for most duels and completed the game with an impressive 94.7% pass-succession rate, which suggests that the Brazilian is every-bit the ball-playing defender that Mikel Arteta has been searching for.
For Mikel Arteta, fresh off the back of his new promotion, its perhaps still a little disappointing to see Arsenal setting up with three central defenders, but it’s understandable given the quick turnaround since last season and the fact that Arsenal have yet to secure all of their targets in the transfer window. It is rumoured that Arteta would favour a midfield three, akin to Liverpool or Manchester City, however, Arsenal don’t really have the personnel to make that dream a reality just now, so insulating the defence as best he can, makes the most sense.
An emphatic victory for Arsenal on the opening day sees them take the top spot in the league (albeit briefly) and the attention now shifts towards West Ham, who Arsenal face next Saturday at the Emirates Stadium.
1.) Bernd Leno
2.) Héctor Bellerín
16.) Rob Holding
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
3.) Kieran Tierney
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
34.) Granit Xhaka (Ceballos 78′)
25.) Mohamed Elneny
12.) Willian (Pépé 75’)
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (Nketiah 87’)
33.) Matt Macey
31.) Sead Kolašinac
28.) Joe Willock
8.) Dani Ceballos
7.) Bukayo Saka
19.) Nicolas Pépé
30.) Eddie Nketiah
Fulham Athletic team:
12.) Marek Rodák
4.) Denis Odoi
3.) Michael Hector
13.) Tim Ream
23.) Joe Bryan
21.) Harrison Reed
10.) Tom Cairney (c)
7.) Neeskens Kebano (Zambo Anguissa 63’)
25.) Josh Onomah (Decordova-Reid 75′)
17.) Ivan Cavaleiro
47.) Aboubakar Kamara (Mitrović 63’)
Fulham Athletic subs:
1.) Alphonse Areola
22.) Cyrus Christie
20.) Maxime Le Marchand
29.) André-Frank Zambo Anguissa
11.) Anthony Knockaert
9.) Aleksandar Mitrović
14.) Bobby Decordova-Reid