Fulham 0-3 Arsenal (Gabriel 22′, Martinelli 26′, Odegaard 45′)
CRAVEN COTTAGE — A large Thank You card delivered from Arsenal Football Club should await Todd Boehly as he sits down at his desk, coffee in hand to start work on Monday morning.
Were it not for the Chelsea owner’s intervention, the Ukrainian forward Mykhailo Mudryk might have been deployed as Arsenal’s “false 9” at Craven Cottage with Eddie Nketiah ruled out due to injury, and the returning Gabriel Jesus only deemed fit enough for a 15-minute cameo towards the end. Instead, Leandro Trossard was handed that task and it was one he seized with energetic enthusiasm.
Mudryk was believed to be Arsenal’s top transfer target in January, before Boehly blew their interest out of the water by making Shakhtar Donetsk an offer they could not refuse. Arsenal’s desire to add a versatile forward to Mikel Arteta’s squad was undiminished, so they bought Trossard from Brighton instead, a player six years Mudryk’s senior and arguably with a lower potential ceiling, but one with significant Premier League experience and a far less inflated transfer fee. The Gunners spent around £60m less on Trossard than Chelsea did on Mudryk.
A couple of months in, and there is no denying that Arsenal have enjoyed more short-term benefit from their new forward than Chelsea. This is not to denigrate Mudryk, a talented young player, trying to adapt to a new club, in a new league, in a new city, but instead to highlight Trossard’s immediate contribution to a title-chasing team. Arsenal cruised into a 3-0 first-half lead at Craven Cottage and Trossard helped himself to a hat-trick – of sorts – by assisting each one.
It was the first time an Arsenal player had set up three goals in a league game since Henrikh Mkhitaryan in February 2018. The early signs are that he may prove a more successful recruit than the Armenian. Only Bukayo Saka (with nine) and Odegaard (six) have set up more goals for Arsenal this season than Trossard (five), despite him starting only five of the club’s 27 matches. With a goal scored against Brentford too, Trossard is averaging a decisive contribution every 65 minutes.
On Sunday Trossard was Arsenal’s centre forward in theory alone. The 28-year-old was virtually un-markable, running the channels to offer an option in behind the defence, dropping in deep to receive it to feet and drifting out into the channels – predominantly to his favoured one on the left – to give Fulham’s back four a neckache. He was constantly on the move, like an irritating fly that refuses to zoom out of the window you have kindly opened for it.
Impressive as Trossard’s feat was, Arsenal barely had to work for their goals given how generous Fulham’s defending was. Gabriel Magalhaes scored the first, rising highest in a crowded penalty area to nod in Trossard’s in-swinging corner from the left, before Gabriel Martinelli out-jumped a statuesque Antonee Robinson to convert the second and Odegaard waltzed through to score the third, both from Trossard crosses.
Trossard’s attacking contributions were key to Arsenal re-opening their five-point lead at the top of the table, but his defensive efforts did not go unnoticed either. The travelling fans chanted “Leo, Leo, Leo” as he raced back to make a tackle and prevent a Fulham counter-attack at the start of the second half. Odegaard continued the praise after the game: “I love playing with him,” the lovestruck Norwegian told Sky Sports afterwards.
Trossard was certainly helped by the absence of Fulham’s anchorman Joao Palhinha, who growing evidence would suggest, might just be the most irreplaceable player for any club in the top 10. Fulham’s league record when Palhinha, serving the second of a two-match suspension this weekend, has been absent reads: three games played, three games lost, 10 goals conceded. Marco Silva acknowledged beforehand that Fulham do not possess another player like him; he was not wrong.
A fine Arsenal afternoon was capped when Jesus made his first competitive appearance since Brazil’s 1-0 defeat to Cameroon on 2 December as a late substitute. The Brazilian looked sharp on his first game back from that knee injury suffered in Qatar and almost capped his return with a dream goal as Leno made a point-blank save. Arteta now has an enviable number of options to pick from.
Such has been Trossard’s rapid impact, Jesus will have a tough time regaining his starting spot, though. Despite matching their record points tally at the halfway stage of a Premier League season, Arsenal’s thin squad required strengthening in January. Trossard is proving to be a perfect afterthought.