It was the first London derby of the season and 44 days on from the FA Cup final, as Arsenal found themselves playing the season opener at Craven Cottage, against newly-promoted Fulham.
This report will aim to analyse the match and breakdown both sides’ tactics.
The hosts lined-up in a 4-2-3-1, with a notable absentee in Aleksandar Mitrović. Scott Parker instead opted for the lighting-quick Aboubakar Kamara to lead the line for the Cottagers. Tim Ream and Michael Hector formed the heart of the defence, with Dennis Odoi and Joe Bryan as full-backs. The impressive Harrison Reed and Tom Cairney formed the two in midfield, with former Spurs academy product Josh Onomah playing further forward. Neeskens Kebano and Ivan Cavaleiro offered the width for Fulham.
Mikel Arteta defaulted to his preferred 3-4-3 formation. The seemingly imminent departure of Emiliano Martinez, saw Bernd Leno return in goal after his injury lay-off. The back three ahead of him was Rob Holding, new boy Gabriel and Kieran Tierney while Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka took the midfield birth. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Hector Bellerin gave the width as wing-backs. The impressive front three consisted of Aubameyang, Lacazette, and the other new signing, Willian.
Both new Arsenal signings Gabriel and Willian started the match and both demonstrated what they can offer going forward. Gabriel had a relatively strong game as the central centre-back in Arsenal’s back three. There was only one moment of miscommunication between himself and Leno, which nearly saw Kamara round Leno and score. However, the due diligence of the German spared any blushes. From there on out, Gabriel was strong, composed, and showed why Arsenal fought to sign him. His goal, albeit poor from Fulham, showed how imposing he can be in both boxes. On the ball was where Gabriel really shone. He made a game-high 109 passes, successfully finding 106 of them. His main passes were to his centre-back colleagues: Holding (34 times) and Tierney (24 times).
Willian’s debut was that of dreams. Playing off the right wing, his technique, skill, eye for a pass, and sheer class was enough to play a large influence in all three Arsenal goals. One of the most notable aspects of Willian’s play in the right wing role was his body orientations. He could receive the ball on the half-turn, burst away from his marker, and then find either a final pass to a teammate in a dangerous area; or he would shoot at goal. This is something Pepe doesn’t offer and Saka still needs to develop in his game. Willian seems to be the perfect to stop-gap filler to aid the development of Saka and mentor him over the course of the season.
Arsenal often looked to play long passes over the top of the Fulham defence, searching for the pace of Aubameyang and Lacazette. Arteta pinpointed and looked to exploit the lack of positional awareness and aerial ability of Dennis Odoi and Tim Ream. Aubameyang looked to ghost in from a slightly wider position, between the full-back and centre-back when Arsenal had the ball on the right. When Arsenal had it on the left, Aubameyang looked to come more centrally and exploit the space between the two centre-backs, Ream and Hector.
This was achieved thanks to Maitland-Niles pushing higher on the left, almost as a winger, allowing Aubameyang to come more centrally. This allowed Arsenal to overload and run back the Fulham defenders. Arsenal completed 52% of their 29 long passes, as Holding and Tierney played the joint-most long balls with 7 and completed 5 and 2 respectively.
These runs were all the more effective given that Fulham’s goalkeeper, Marek Rodák, isn’t the most aggressive in his sweeping duties. This meant that the area behind the Fulham defence was vacated and once beating the offside trap, Arsenal had time to get shots in on goal.
Similarly to Arsenal, Fulham looked to play over the top of Arsenal’s defence. Parker had identified Arsenal’s high line and tried to exploit it with his pacey forwards. This could have been a large part of the thinking behind Kamara playing over Mitrović. Mitrović isn’t quick and prefers to play with his back to goal, rather than running in behind. Mikel Arteta, ever the studious manager, altered his team to deal with this and rather than press high and risk leaving his defensive line exploited, he dropped the defensive line and lowered the engagement line for the press. This is shown through Arsenal allowing on average 17.8 passes before they met Fulham with a defensive action. To add further context, Fulham allowed 29.4 passes before performing a defensive action, as they looked to hold a medium block and allowed Arsenal’s defenders to pass the ball.
Fulham did find success with their long passes in this game, executing 60% of their 30 attempts. However, they rarely found themselves in a 1 v 1 against Leno. They more often found one of the wingers, Kebano and Cavaleiro.
Something which has been commonplace for Arsenal under Arteta has been their ability to stretch play and quickly create numerical superiority down one flank. Against Fulham, this was once more evident. Arteta knew that Fulham would look to congest midfield and prevent Arsenal from playing to the feet of Lacazette or Aubameyang. Fulham tried their hardest to protect the crucial central areas, especially in the middle third of the pitch. This, however, played right into the hands of Arsenal, who were more than happy to attack through the flanks. Arsenal’s width also helped disjoint Fulham’s defence. Fulham’s full-backs held an aggressive, wide position against Arsenal’s widest players and this opened the channel for Aubameyang to run into and for the pass to be played.
Another aspect of Arsenal’s game which the overloading aided was Arsenal’s positional play. As you can see from the image below, Willian played relatively high and close to Lacazette. This was because upon Lacazette dropping deeper to get on the ball, Willian was tasked with running in behind the Fulham defence. This allowed more space to open between the lines and for Arsenal to continuously rotate positions and create good passing angles. Arsenal’s positional play was to the true detriment of Fulham. The gap between Fulham’s defence and midfield was prised apart thanks to Arsenal’s forwards running in behind and Fulham’s midfielders attempting to close down the Gunners midfielders. Arsenal at times created 4 lines and exploited these gaps at will. It was through these staggered lines, that Arsenal scored there third. The ball was moved across the pitch, cutting through the Fulham midfield, joining the lines of play.
Mitrović and Xhaka
Its already been alluded to as to why Mitrović may not have been selected by Scott Parker, yet it still seems strange. Assuming fitness was no issue and he hasn’t got an impending transfer, surely he was a shoo-in to start. The last thing that the Arsenal defence would have wanted to see was Mitrović backing into them and holding up the ball for runners and support. Fulham came under intense pressure and needed an out ball, and Kamara just didn’t offer it. Mitrović could have peeled off on to either Tierney or Bellerin, with nether being spectacular against his profile of striker. Crosses to the far post with Mitrović peeling off could have caused Arsenal real problems.
One selection choice that cannot be criticised is that of Xhaka. The Swiss international, who has finally come of age under Arteta, put in another great performance. He was the heart of Arsenal’s attacking moves down the left and completed 87% of his total 70 actions alongside Elneny. He also completed 98% of his 56 passes. Xhaka truly is the heart of Arsenal’s positional play and conducts moves from his left-sided midfield position. Xhaka and Elneny are forming a nice partnership and with Ceballos retuning, Arsenal have a pool of talent in midfield.
In conclusion, Arsenal were more than worthy winners. Arsenal created the best chances, recording an Expected-goals of 2.89 to Fulham’s 0.25. Furthermore, Arsenal controlled possession with a first-half share of 57% and had 60% in the second half. Both of Arsenal debutants Gabriel and Willian put in excellent performances and instantly understood Arteta’s philosophy and these signings showed they were archetypal Arteta signings. Moreover, yet again, Arteta read Fulham’s attempts brilliantly and nullified their threats, both at the start of the game and when Mitrović eventually came on.