Rob Holding’s key role in Gabriel Magalhaes’ imposing Arsenal debut at Fulham
Arsenal built on the positive momentum of their FA Cup final and Community Shield victories over Chelsea and Manchester City to begin their 2020/21 Premier League campaign with a 3-0 win over Fulham on Saturday [September 12].
The Gunners were in control throughout at Craven Cottage, with goals from Alexandre Lacazette, Gabriel Magalhaes and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sealing the victory. Willian also impressed with three assists in a man of the match display.
One of the key aspects of the game for Mikel Arteta besides his team’s overall performance was the inclusion of Gabriel. Signed from Lille for £25million at the start of the month, by starting at Fulham, he was playing his first game of competitive football since Lille’s 1-0 win over Lyon on March 8.
Not planning to hand the 22-year-old his debut at Fulham, Arteta put precautions in place to aid his new centre-back.
First, while sticking with a back three, he kept Kieran Tierney as the left-sided player, using Gabriel centrally instead. With Rob Holding to his right, the Brazilian had cover on either side of him in case anything went wrong.
Of his defensive partners, it was Holding who appeared to be more attentive with Gabriel. During the warm-ups at Craven Cottage, the pair were in constant discussion during their drills, with Holding looking to guide his new team-mate through the exercises.
While these two began to defend high balls and work on who would be the first receiver and who would receive the lay off, Tierney – the third centre-back – was warming up individually, as pointed out ahead of kick off:
During the game, Gabriel certainly looked more comfortable playing through the right side of the pitch as opposed to the left where Tierney resided.
Although he still proved to be confident and effective at having the ball at his feet, when stepping forward and clipping passes down the left, these were more risky than those to the right.
His early miscommunication with Bernd Leno when dealing with an Ainsley Maitland-Niles back pass may have raised eyebrows, but in his first game in England, this is completely understandable.
Arteta even made a point that it would take time for both Gabriel and William Saliba – who wasn’t in the squad – to find real rhythm.
“I think it’s going to take him [Saliba] some time to adapt to our way of playing but as well to get adapted to the language, the rhythm, the physicality of the country,” he said ahead of the game.
Alongside his goal, however, Gabriel impressed after this blip and working well next to Holding, who took a lead on engaging with loose balls in front of the defence.
As for the Brazilian himself, he excelled in one-on-one battles where the timing of his tackles and his strength saw him come out on top, but also in the air as he aerial presence was as key in Arsenal’s box as it was Fulham’s.
Playing his first game in six months, the 22-year-old gave a great account of himself, even if Arteta felt it was a risk to put him in from the start.
“For Gabriel, it was a big challenge for him today to come in. He hasn’t played football in the last six months and he had a terrific performance,” the manager said in his post-match press conference.
“Ideally I wanted to give him some time because he only trained for a few days with the team. Physically, he hasn’t played a competitive match in six months so it was a risk with injury as well but credit to him.
“He performed really well, physically he felt good and I was very happy today.”