Sunday, June 16, 2024

Arsenal 2-1 Fulham: Gabriel makes amends as Odegaard shines

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Man City’s comeback win over Crystal Palace put them temporarily top of the table before our game with Fulham kicked off, but a comeback win of our own made it four wins from four to start the start the season, and we went above Pep Guardiola’s side again.

Injuries to Thomas Partey and Oleksandr Zinchenko meant starts for Mohamed Elneny and Kieran Tierney, and I think we missed something in the middle of the pitch. Elneny is a safe player who does what he does with efficiency, while Tierney can’t really play the role that the Ukrainian does, so there was just a bit less spark about us.

To be fair, that can happen during a season anyway even if you have everyone fit, and doing his best to make up for it was Martin Odegaard. I saw criticism of him after the Palace game, where admittedly he wasn’t anywhere close to his best, but each performance since has been better and he was the man pulling the strings for Arsenal yesterday. His movement, his cleverness on the ball, the deft touches which make space for others, he was just a joy to watch.

However, we didn’t really threaten a great deal in a first half that we dominated in terms of possession. Granit Xhaka had a half chance which he put wide (I don’t think the ball back to him from Gabriel Jesus was as good as it could have been), and Leno made a good save when Bukayo Saka cut inside the defender to take a shot from inside the box. The chances we made against Bournemouth weren’t coming, but as yesterday showed, they are a side which allows the opposition a lot of chances.

The second half began in much the same fashion, but we looked like we might be building a head of steam after Leno made saves in quick succession from Odegaard and Jesus. Up the other end though, we conspired to give them the lead. I suppose you could say that Saka’s pass across the box to Gabriel wasn’t the best idea, but this is what they train for – and we know Mikel Arteta prefers them to keep it than lump it.

The Brazilian dallied, Mitrovic pounced and put Fulham 1-0 up. Against the run of play, but that’s football. I won’t say I wasn’t worried, because one of our big weaknesses last season was an inability to come back from a losing position to win games. It happened only once, that late scrap against Wolves, so this was a challenge. Arteta made an immediate sub, bringing on Eddie Nketiah for Tierney, and very quickly we responded.

You could say there was a touch of good fortune to the goal, but if you don’t shoot, you don’t score, and Odegaard’s step-over to make room for the shot was just superb. The deflection took it beyond Bernd Leno for the captain’s third goal of the season, and the scores were level.

The game got a bit end to end then. Aaron Ramsdale had to make a good save from a Mitrovic header which came from a corner which ought to have been a goal kick, so he not only saved a goal, but also some headlines too. Mitrovic was feeling his oats at that point, sparked into life by his goal, and again was strong in the air, heading not far over shortly afterwards .

Eddie made a difference when he came on, curling one just wide with his left foot after making space for himself; and there was a beautiful Odegaard pass which found his run but which demanded a first time shot or nod to the back post for Jesus, but he took a touch and Fulham defended well. There was another from a Martinelli cut-back which saw Leno make a save, but I was waiting for the manager to make further changes from the bench – perhaps throwing on Emile Smith Rowe or Fabio Vieira for the final few minutes.

One slightly disappointing aspect of the performance was Martinelli’s set-piece delivery. It has been consistently good this season, whipping balls in with pace and a trajectory which makes them quite dangerous. Yesterday, they were looping into areas which make it easy for the defenders and the goalkeeper, and on a day when you felt our prowess from these situations might have been very useful, it was a bit frustrating.

Until it wasn’t. A near post delivery caused Fulham problems, Leno came and wasn’t convincing under a challenge from William Saliba, and the ball dropped to Gabriel who was there to poke it home and make amends for his earlier mistake. I’ve seen countless people talking about the atmosphere in the stadium yesterday, and it sounded brilliant, but the way the players celebrated that goal is another sign of what’s happening. Saliba with his tongue out, the injured Zinchenko with his knee in a brace racing down the sideline to join in, Xhaka booting the corner flag like he was Ramsdale booting the ball at Mitrovic’s head. Fantastic.

It was interesting to hear the manager talk about Gabriel afterwards, saying, “He’s changed his mentality and the way he looks at himself”, and perhaps a mistake like that previously might have played on his mind more. In his post-match interview, he told Sky:

After I lost the ball, my head was down, but I looked at my brothers they said ‘Gabi, let’s go, let’s go’, and I put my head up, I scored, and I’m very happy to win.

While Martin Odegaard said:

Someone makes a mistake, we lift him up and we take responsibility and we strike back.

It’s still early days, but there are signs there’s something more resilient about this Arsenal team this season. Obviously what happened yesterday, but both times Leicester scored a couple of weeks ago we responded almost straight away with a goal of our own. Of course there will be tougher tests and more difficult opposition, but the kind of belief you need to be able to react to adversity grows from moments like the ones I’ve just mentioned.

Let’s not also forget that Ramsdale made another good save as the game went into injury time, and this game was a reminder that you have to fight for every win, for every point in this league. I think on the balance of play we deserved all three, but Fulham made it hard work after we made it hard work for ourselves too.

At the final whistle, the celebrations in the stands and on the pitch were – inevitably – the subject of derision from people who really should know better. I cannot abide this idea that football fans, or fans of any sport, shouldn’t enjoy moments like that. If you can’t celebrate a late winner then what is the point of any of it? It’s a social media inspired development of such inanity and stupidity I almost feel like I shouldn’t mention it, but at the same time it merits 100% push-back – and not just from Arsenal fans.

There’s a lot going on in the world these days, lots of it is no good at all, so trying to take away something that means a lot to people for the sake of ‘bantz’ or ‘engagement’ with curated clips of your brainless, half-witted punditry should be rejected out of hand.

Arsenal fans know we haven’t won anything, and that there’s a long way to go, but making it four wins out of four and scoring a late winner when it looked as if you might drop points is something that should be celebrated. Not to mention, we know there’s something important about the connection between fans and a team. It’s good at Arsenal right now, the best it’s been for a long time, and while I like it a great deal, I think it’s not unreasonable to say that others don’t like it at all because it says something about our direction of travel.

Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:

We made an error and it cost us the goal, but even though that happened I think the team showed that against adversity, and Gabi individually how he continued to play. With the supporters, and with the support that we have in the stadium right now, it makes things much easier and the team deserved to win. It’s as simple as that.

Attention now turns to Aston Villa on Wednesday, and fingers crossed we can make it five out of five.

That’s your lot for this morning. Have a great Sunday, Arsecast Extra will be on Monday this week so join us tomorrow for that.

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