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.

Willian has been a fixture on the Premier League’s higher plane for seven years so his rapid impact made perfect sense. The fact that his compatriot, Gabriel Magalhães, ran him close in the man-of-the-match stakes encouraged Arteta even more. The signing from Lille only began training with his new colleagues this week and would have been granted a longer integration had five centre-backs not been injured. He was pressed into his first game since March and, after an early wobble, purred through the afternoon. A goal four minutes into the second half, laid on by Willian’s devilish outswinging corner, was the clincher and put matters beyond a limited Fulham.

“Willian knows the league and the country, so I knew his performance would settle straight away,” Arteta said. “For Gabriel it was a big challenge to come in today. Ideally I wanted to give him some time because he only trained a few days with the team and physically he hasn’t played for six months. He had a terrific performance.”

That had not necessarily been signposted early on. In the second minute Gabriel unwisely left an Ainsley Maitland-Niles backpass for Bernd Leno, who was brought in with Emiliano Martínez discussing a transfer to Aston Villa or Brighton, and was aghast when Aboubakar Kamara darted in. But Leno timed his intervention superbly and Arsenal were spared punishment for the communication issues Arteta had feared among his reshaped back line.

Gabriel Magalhaes (second left) is mobbed after doubling Arsenal’s lead.



Gabriel Magalhaes (second left) is mobbed after doubling Arsenal’s lead. Photograph: Ben Stanstall/EPA

It was Arsenal’s first major alarm and, as it happened, their last. They were set at ease when Alexandre Lacazette opened the scoring, gobbling up the rebound after Willian had seized on a blocked Granit Xhaka shot and forced Marek Rodak to save well. It was a simple finish but Lacazette, recently linked with a move, showed again that a replacement with comparable potency would be hard to find.

After that they were comfortable. Willian, on the right but drifting, stood out for his composure and ability to make difficult executions seem routine. Arsenal have missed a player with his intelligence, and also one as reliable with a 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.

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Shortly after the restart 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 Fulham set-piece. Now he ran on to Willian’s corner and, with more shoulder than head, made enough of a connection to beat Rodak.

The corner had been won after Rob Holding, channelling the injured David Luiz, created an opening for Lacazette with an improbable exhibition of ball juggling. Holding had seemed likely to join Newcastle on loan but that is off the cards now and, albeit faced with minimal threat given Fulham started Aleksandr Mitrovic on the bench for their top-flight return, he was convincing throughout. “I said to him, change your mind because you are not going anywhere,” Arteta explained. “Now why would I have to let him go?”

Arsenal were enjoying themselves and saved the best for last. A move that began on the edge of their own six-yard box, as is increasingly their hallmark, ended with Willian spearing a perfect crossfield pass towards Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The captain will sign a new contract soon and his finish, whipped into the far corner, showed how important that is.

Arteta claimed not to have seen a pre-match altercation between two of his substitutes, Dani Ceballos and Eddie Nketiah. By the end that flashpoint seemed a trick of the light, in any case. With Willian pulling the strings, long-term harmony seems that much closer.

source: theguardian.com

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