Scott Parker probably didn’t need a reminder of how brutal the Premier League can be, but Arsenal handed out a chastening lesson in any case. The Gunners dominated this opening day encounter at a sunkissed Craven Cottage, surviving a couple of early scares before ruthlessly exploiting the frailties that were laid bare during Fulham’s last examination at this level. Mikel Arteta’s side settled some early nerves when Alexandre Lacazette poached an opener at the far post from their first serious foray forward and, although the hosts battled manfully, they were clearly second best. The contest was settled by a debut goal early in the second half for the impressive Gabriel before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang curled home a sumptuous third.
Parker will have been pleased that his Fulham side battled to the end, but plucky resistance won’t be enough in the Premier League. The fact that the newly-promoted club have yet to add a centre back, given how woefully short they were found to be in that position two seasons ago, is astonishing – and if they needed any more evidence of how urgent that acquisition is, it arrived inside the ten minute mark here. A speculative shot from Granit Xhaka sparked a scramble in the box after Tim Ream made a hash of his clearance, Willian was denied by a sprawling block by Marek Rodak, but Lacazette snaffled up the rebound from a couple of yards out.
Fulham had actually began quite brightly. Aboubakar Kamara, preferred up front to Aleksandar Mitrovic, pounced on a backpass from Ainsley Maitland-Niles that fell between Gabriel and goalkeeper Bernt Leno, but the French forward couldn’t quite round the goalkeeper to give the Whites a dream start. Denis Odoi found himself in some advanced positions from right back but an early shot was straight at the Arsenal keeper and, even after going behind, Kebano had a powerful volley blocked bravely at source by the recovering Maitland-Niles.
Fulham pressed with purpose, but found penetration of Arsenal’s well-drilled 3-4-3 system far harder to come by. It was a task made harder without Mitrovic as the focal point of their attack and the visitors gradually settled into a comfortable rhythm. They could easily have been further ahead by half-time: Willian rattled the far post with a beautiful free-kick from just outside the box and Aubameyang surged clear of the Fulham defence after being released by a floated through ball from Xhaka, forcing Rodak into a smothering save at his near post.
Parker would have pleased to get his side in only a goal down at the break, but his half-time teamtalk was left in tatters just five minutes after the interval. Some brilliant ball-juggling skills from Rob Holding, who burst away from a couple of Fulham challenges in the middle of the field, won Arsenal a corner, where they crowded Rodak inside his six-yard box. Willian’s delivery was inch perfect and Gabriel forced it between Rodak’s legs to give the Gunners more breathing space – the decisive touch seemed to come off his shoulder. How the Brazilian defender was allowed such freedom to guide it in unchallenged is a question to ask Michael Hector, who failed to get off the ground himself.
Conceding such a routine goal would have deflated both Parker and his charges. Fulham looked visibility robbed of confidence and they soon conceded a third. This was a sumptuous team goal, with Willian taking out the majority of the Fulham defence through a fine switch of play, sweeping it crossfield for the maurauding Aubameyang. He surged into the penalty area from the left flank and bent a beautiful finish into the top corner.
Mitrovic belatedly arrived to add a little heft and power to Fulham’s front line, but the game was so long gone. Arsenal might have more goals but Rodak did well to thwart Lacazette and Hector Bellerin in quick succession before Hector headed off the line when Aubameyang’s deft chip looked destined to nestle in the back of the net. The Fulham game plan was clear – keep things tight and try to nick something on the break, but this tactical approach didn’t work as well as it did against Brentford in the play-off final at Wembley. Arsenal are a different proposition under Arteta and in Gabriel, who headed away countless crosses during a largely untroubled first outing, they seem to have found the commanding centre half they have been craving. Parker, who could certainly do with defensive reinforcements, has plenty of hard work ahead.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Hector, Ream; Reed, Cairney; Cavaleiro, Kebano (Anguissa 63), Onomah (Decordova-Reid 75); Kamara (Mitrovic 63). Subs (not used): Areola, Christie, Le Marchand, Knockaert.
BOOKED: Hector, Cairney.
ARSENAL (3-4-3): Leno; Holding, Gabriel, Tierney; Bellerin, Maitland-Niles, Xhaka (Ceballos 77), Elneny; Willian (Pepe 75), Aubameyang, Lacazette (Nketiah 87). Subs (not used): Macey, Kolasinac, Saka, Willock.
BOOKED: Aubameyang, Bellerin.
GOALS: Lacazette (9), Gabriel (49), Aubameyang (57).
REFEREE: Chris Kavanagh (Lancashire).