On a wild, storm-racked afternoon, Arsenal and Fulham played out a draw that felt by the end like three games in one, as well as at least two different, largely opposed tactical versions of this Arsenal team.
Fulham were neat, sparky and compact in central midfield. They took the lead via the first attack of the game, then equalised with two minutes left of normal time and 10 players left on the pitch after Calvin Bassey’s late second yellow card.
In between Fulham exposed for long periods the weaknesses in Mikel Arteta’s attempts to reconfigure his team in these early days of the league season. Thomas Partey may or may not be an instinctive positional postmodernist, able to slip into a fluid right-back-midfield role. But there was very little evidence of it here and his 55 minutes on the pitch felt like time lost pursuing an under-researched experiment.
For Arteta this was a messy game, one that will draw accusations of tactical egotism, Pep-mimesis, of forgetting that what Arsenal need above all in these early games is confirmation that last season’s progress was real, that hard-won Premier League points are the necessary bedrock of whatever tactical jazz Arsenal’s manager might succeed in introducing.
He was understandably defiant, blaming the result on an early mistake for Fulham’s opening goal. “We were 10 times better than last season [against Fulham], at least 10 times better. Last season, we won 2-1 in the last minute, this time we drew 2-2. This is football.”
The stadium had been a boisterous, hopeful place before kick-off under chilly August skies. But it was reduced to baffled silence after 57 seconds as Fulham took the lead with a goal that was farcical and supremely well executed.
Bukayo Saka’s attempted pass back into his own defence emerged instead as the perfect through ball for an unmarked Andreas Pereira. The finish was also excellent, Pereira spotting Aaron Ramsdale scrabbling about trying to gauge the danger in the middle and curling the ball inside the near post, a lovely piece of improvisation.
Arsenal’s instant response was frantic. There were high looped crosses towards Leandro Trossard, who came in for Eddie Nketiah up front, some defiantly urgent crossfield switches and, above all, a sense of self-induced struggle.
Kai Havertz looked unremittingly confused, not just by his role on the left of midfield, but by the basic fact of taking part in a Premier League match. “He got in great areas but the ball didn’t arrive,” was Arteta’s verdict.
Partey started at right-back again, stepping into midfield alongside Declan Rice when Fulham had the ball. Even in this more natural role he seemed always wary of Pereira sniping into that outside-left position, so hesitant at times you expected to look down and notice he was still thumbing through the manual on how to play this position, thumbing the index, wondering why it is all in Swedish.
It is hard to blame Partey for this. Very few players are able to step in and fill such a complex role without glitches.
Steadily, Arsenal began to apply the expected chokehold, creating the kind of chances that often leave you wishing for the razor edge of a specialist finisher. They had 72% possession and eight shots at goal in the first half, but still looked like they were playing with their shoes on the wrong feet.
Nketiah replaced Trossard at half-time. For a while, Saka played through a kind of rage on the right, whirling and jinking and throwing himself at the Fulham backline.
Partey left the pitch on 55 minutes, replaced by Oleksandr Zinchenko at left-back, shifting Ben White back across and instantly giving Arsenal a more balanced look.
Havertz was replaced by Fábio Vieira and it was he who forced the breakthrough for the equaliser, zipping in from the left and drawing Kenny Tete into a wild sliding challenge.
Saka took the penalty, a little odd given Martin Ødegaard’s precision last week. But as ever with Saka and penalties this had an element of destiny, redemption, vibes. He buried it to level the scores and give Arsenal a 20-minute run at victory.
They needed two to take the lead. Again, there was fine work from Vieira, measuring a perfect low cross into the path of Nketiah.
“He looks a real threat at the moment. He’s full of confidence. There is a fire in the eyes,” Arteta said of a player he left on the bench.
Fulham were not finished, however. Their equaliser was a wonderful finish by the excellent João Palhinha, arrowing the ball into the far corner from Harrison Reed’s corner.
They could have won it had Adama Traoré’s finishing been anywhere near the level of his running power right at the death, a story as old as his professional career. But a draw felt fair, and salutary too on a day when Arsenal resembled a side still unravelling the snags in their own system.