The surprise when Willian signed a three-year contract at Arsenal was tempered by awareness that, for the here and now, the 32-year-old remains an exceptional operator. Three assists on his debut provided instant reassurance of that. It was a masterful display from the Brazilian and a convincing one from his team, too, that maintained the inescapable sense of progress under Mikel Arteta’s stewardship.
Fulham were not poor opponents but lacked teeth and faded on their return to the top flight. Once Alexandre Lacazette had given Arsenal the lead, capitalising on a rebound from Willian’s shot, the outcome never looked in doubt and the margin of victory could have been higher. But Arteta will be happy enough with a goal from another debutant, the centre-back Gabriel Magalhães, and a sublime clincher from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Both were set up by the former Chelsea schemer, and the clarity with which Arsenal performed bodes well.
Lacazette’s opener was a surprise at the time given that, in the early exchanges, it had been Fulham who threatened the season’s first goal. They almost took advantage of the defensive uncertainty that has blighted Arsenal’s preparations within two minutes. Arteta had cautioned that, rather than being preoccupied by the goalkeeping debate that hogged the headlines, he felt concerned about language issues among his back line. So it transpired that, when Ainsley Maitland-Niles passed backwards, Gabriel opted to let it run towards Bernd Leno. He had bargained without the presence of Aboubakar Kamara but Leno, timing his intervention superbly, managed to divert the ball away as the striker attempted to dart past.
Leno was playing after Emiliano Martínez withdrew from the squad amid offers from Aston Villa and Brighton. He was soon deployed again, more straightforwardly, when Denis Odoi marauded upfield and uncorked a shot that was grabbed at the second attempt.
It had been a sparky start from Fulham, while Arsenal’s fireworks had been confined to a spat between the substitutes Dani Ceballos and Eddie Nketiah during the warmup. A challenge by the former had led to an altercation and some afters. They took their places on opposite ends of the bench but could rejoice at the outcome of their teammates’ first serious attack.
The chance came after Aubameyang cut back for a shot by Granit Xhaka, which was blocked on the six-yard line. Willian’s attempt to turn in the loose ball was saved by Marek Rodak, but it ran free and Lacazette made no mistake. The striker has been linked with a move but it is hard to see how Arsenal could replace him with a striker of comparable potency.
His goal calmed them and they were under little pressure thereafter. Willian stood out for his composure and ability to make difficult executions seem routine. Arsenal have missed a player with his intelligence, and also one who is as reliable with the dead ball. When they won a free-kick 20 yards out before the half-hour, Willian stepped up and thudded the base of Rodak’s post.
Four minutes into the second half he delivered a right-sided corner and this time his prowess brought a goal. An increasingly commanding Gabriel had ended the opening period by getting his head on to a dangerous Fulham set-piece. Now he ran onto his compatriot’s cross and, perhaps with more shoulder than head, made enough of a connection to beat Rodak.
The corner had arisen after Rob Holding, perhaps channelling the injured David Luiz, created an opening for Lacazette with an improbable exhibition of ball juggling. Arsenal were enjoying themselves and the third goal, which followed quickly, was a masterpiece. A fluent move that, as is increasingly their hallmark, began on their own six-yard box ended with Willian spearing a perfect crossfield pass towards Aubameyang, who sped into the box and whipped beautifully into the far corner. It was a signature finish, and will be all the more satisfying when he puts pen to paper on his new contract soon.
He would have added another if Michael Hector had not headed an angled effort off the line. But there was more than enough here to suggest that, with Willian pulling the strings, Arsenal are bound for brighter days.