Mikel Arteta surely can’t quite believe his luck.
Not because Arsenal were remotely lucky to beat Fulham, but because surely even in his wildest dreams he couldn’t have imagined it would be quite so astonishingly easy. Arsenal have, it’s fair to say, been to the well a couple of times recently to maintain their spot at the head of the Premier League title race. It has been mentally and physically exhausting, and while what it says about Arsenal’s character is all positive, there are only so many times you can do it.
You do need some easier, less stressful afternoons along the way. Yet there was absolutely nothing to suggest this would be one of them.
Fulham’s only three home defeats in the Premier League this season had come against Newcastle, Manchester United and Tottenham. United needed a late winner, while Spurs took a lead late in the first half through Harry Kane and hung on for dear life. Only Newcastle had found things easy here, and that owed much to Nathaniel Chalobah’s eighth-minute red card.
Arsenal, meanwhile, were coming here on the back of a predictably tough Europa League trip to Lisbon and an entertaining 2-2 draw in a game where Arsenal were given not a moment’s rest by a very decent team.
This, then, was a match that absolutely screamed stumbling block, banana skin and litmus test. It was a piece of piss.
It is taking absolutely nothing away from Arsenal’s excellence to note that Fulham were, in the first half especially, abysmally and inexplicably bad. Being without Joao Palhinha is obviously not ideal, but it cannot explain a first half where the Gunners were allowed to do entirely as they pleased.
And this is a really excellent team that you really cannot afford to let do as they please. All three goals came in the first half, and all three showed different elements of what make Arsenal so good. The first was a well-worked corner routine, in which everyone knew what they had to do. Ben White got in Bernd Leno’s way. Thomas Partey’s nudge prevented Tosin Adarabioyo leaping to challenge Gabriel, who nodded the ball home when Leandro Trossard – who ended the first half with three assists – delivered immaculately.
The second goal was a swift counter in which Arsenal’s energy swiftly if too easily earned them a five-on-four. Trossard stood up his cross for Gabriel Martinelli to climb highest and head home. We’d stop just short of calling it a towering header, but of Martinelli’s many great qualities, leaping and outmuscling defenders for headed goals isn’t really up there. Antonee Robinson’s defending was as suspect as a Tory MP’s review of last night’s Match of the Day, while by this point Fulham appeared to have joined assorted MotD staff in refusing to work this weekend in solidarity with Gary Lineker. It makes sense: Fulham are a fundamentally decent club. Not like Arsenal, the shameless scabs. (It’s a joke, don’t start.)
Fulham’s commitment to the cause extended to refusing to accept a freebie from Aaron Ramsdale when he presented them the ball inside his area, and just before half-time the reliably excellent Martin Odegaard put the result beyond all doubt. It was really well taken. Another Trossard cross from the left, and Odegaard had the composure and ability to bring the ball down and wait until the very ideal moment to unleash a left-footed rocket into the bottom corner. It was near identical to a goal he scored earlier in the season against Bournemouth, and he’s become super reliable in those situations.
The second half was markedly different, but with never the hint of any challenge to the outcome. It was one of those where there appears to be an unwritten mutual understanding. Fulham wished to avoid further humiliation, Arsenal wished to conserve energy for the many tests still to come. On those terms, everyone got precisely what they wanted with Arteta able to give both Bukayo Saka and Oleksandr Zinchenko a bit of time off before an away-crowd-pleasing late cameo for Gabriel Jesus.
Arsenal had little need for bench strength today, but it was still notable how much better equipped that bench looked here. It seems obvious to the point of trite given a three-assist performance, but Trossard really was such a canny bit of January business for the Gunners. Like Jorginho, his greatest virtue is not outlandish ability but the ease with which he has been able to seamlessly slot in as an additional Premier League-hardened option. It’s nevertheless hugely to his, his manager’s and his team-mates’ credit that he so swiftly looks like just another part of the slick Arsenal attack. He looks like he’s been playing with Saka, Martinelli and Odegaard for six years rather than six weeks. He is already that rarest of beasts: someone who leaves Brighton for greener pastures and actually finds them.
As for Arsenal, it’s now five Premier League wins in a row and a major run-in hurdle cleared with minimal effort – physical, mental, or emotional. They now have the chance to restore that eight-point lead before Manchester City kick another ball; that’s in part due to the quirks of the fixture list but it’s a monumental feat of endurance and character for a side that has already seen such a lead wiped out by a team with a reputation for relentless steam-rolling victories. Eight-point leads once lost are seldom regained.
Not every day will be as easy as this one for Arsenal, but each one that passes brings the title closer and closer to reality.