Fulham 0-3 Arsenal: Gabriel Shines as signs of attacking fluidity light up 20/21 opener
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Editor)
Well, that was fun. After so many drab performances last season where we failed to create anything of note whilst allowing alarming shot volumes on our own goal, it was very enjoyable to see almost the exact opposite of that in our Premier League curtain raiser. This was an Arsenal performance that looked meticulously coached, full of tactical ingenuity and flexibility, which, unlike at times last season under Mikel Arteta, saw a very positive outcome in terms of chance creation and prevention, and ultimately the result. The underlying metrics supported this which, for me as a football nerd was probably the most satisfying element of today.
An expected goals against value of 0.16 was emblematic of a defensive set up that has improved tenfold under our new manager. Just five shots allowed, with the greatest a 6% chance in the tenth minute of the game- a sign of our ability to limit the opposition’s attempts to create big chances. It may have been a newly promoted side who scraped their way to promotion by defying their own metrics, but it was a Premier League side nevertheless, and the extent to which we shut them out has to be applauded.
A huge component of this defensive masterclass was newboy Gabriel, making his debut following a £27 million switch from Lille. The Brazilian’s defensive contributions saw him dominant aerially, assert himself in one on one situations using his physicality and use his recovery pace to sweep up on several occasions when Fulham looked to break in behind our defence. Considering these were his first minutes of competitive football for over six months, how ably he slotted into a back three system (one unfamiliar to him) bodes well for the future.
He was part of a defence that settled into a conventional five at the back, sitting in a low block out of possession, blocking passing lanes and areas for Fulham to work the ball into the penalty area. Gabriel and Rob Holding remained central, as they looked to deal with aerial balls into the box, whilst Kieran Tierney was given more freedom to roam out, being more aggressive in his positioning and often covering wide spaces on the left.
Arsenal also looked to limit Fulham’s threat by controlling possession. When we had the ball, Ainsley Maitland-Niles tucked inside to form a three-man midfield, whilst Tierney provided the width on the left hand side, Granit Xhaka often dropped into a left sided deeper role and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang occupied the half spaces, meaning Arsenal always had an overload on the left-hand side. This enabled us to control possession, which limited Fulham’s ability to create anything as they had less of the ball. This was reflected in the 57% possession we finished with, completing over 100 more passes than Scott Parker’s men.
Going forward there were rays of light- very encouraging for a side that were very lacklustre for the majority of last season. We finished the game with an xG in excess of 2, something we managed on just 4 occasions in the entirety of the 19/20 Premier League campaign. Whilst we struggled to break the lines and progress the ball for much of the first 30 odd minutes, as the likes of Xhaka and Gabriel grew in confidence on the ball, they began to be more adventurous in their passing and began finding line breaking passes, with the likes of Willian, Aubameyang and Hector Bellerin most often the receivers.
On the left, Tierney and Maitland-Niles’ respective over and underlapping runs gave Aubameyang plenty of options as we looked to overload that left hand side, whilst Willian and Bellerin looked to interchange positions on the right and work balls in towards Alex Lacazette. We also looked to instil a high press at any available moment, as Fulham’s ambitious attempts to play out from the back looked very vulnerable. Willian and Aubameyang’s starting positions were high, whilst more centrally Lacazette and the relentless engine that is Mohamed Elneny charged towards the opposition player who had the ball. A coherent press is something Arteta began to work on towards the backend of last season, but it failed to really come to fruition. If it can be executed to perfection this season, that will immediately provide a solution to several of our chance creation issues.
Our new set-piece coach has clearly begun to imprint his innovative ideas, with an array of routines on display from our corners and free-kicks, most notably our crowding of the goalkeeper which allowed Gabriel to double our lead and more subtly the way we infiltrated Fulham’s wall which enabled Willian to bend his free-kick against the post in a deceiving manner. Defensively, Fulham created nothing from their two corners. If we can see sustained success in this department, it may be the sort of marginal gain that could lead to us picking up an extra 5-10 points across the season.
Overall, a great day and great way to begin our Premier League season. When you take into account the minimal pre-season, the disruption caused by uncertainty over player’s futures, the enforced quarantining period for several members of the squad and the injuries we had going into this game, to put in such an assured and comfortable performance was hugely encouraging. We move.