After the song that echoed from Craven Cottages far side, to the tune of Mach Wah Diddy Diddy, Gabriel Jesus is a master at turning water into wine. Arsenal have savored the aftertaste of his three-month injury layoff, his absence hardly felt for a side whose towering energy levels have not waned, but it was a significant moment nonetheless as he jogged on for the final stages of this Thameside cruise.
Mikel Arteta’s players had swamped a poor Fulham and quickly ensured the outcome was beyond doubt, and here came a new flex in a symbolic return for the player who had pushed his levels through the roof first.
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“He changed our dynamic, changed our beliefs and put the team in a different status,” Arteta said before kick-off. The calculated hope in signing Jesus last summer was that his star quality would rub off on those around him and create winners: his frontline efforts and sheer know-how would tease everyone else, and then they would be watched. That’s exactly how it worked. Even without Jesus, Arsenal have played with fire, precision and relentlessness that would not have been possible before his arrival.
That hardly means Jesus wasn’t missed. The appetite for news of his comeback had been insatiable all week; As Arsenal traveled to Lisbon for the Europa League round of 16 on Wednesday, breathless rumors of his presence at the party circulated on social media and neither the club nor Arteta did anything to dampen them. In fact, he was hiding in London Colney warming up for this one before emerging from the bus here to a noticeable buzz. When he replaced Leandro Trossard with 13 minutes to go, Arsenal fans maintained a long, uninterrupted tone before erupting in cheers as he crossed the line.
Jesus has scored in just four games for Arsenal and drawn gaps in his last 11, but Arteta has rightly pointed to the intangibles he’s brought with him. It’s gratifying that they haven’t escaped the notice of those who watch regularly. There was a chance to return with a bang, which Bernd Leno refused at the end of a swing started by Jesus himself, but he’d spent most of the afternoon watching a team now vibrant with the attributes he’d coaxed out.
Arsenal were helped by the fact that Fulham looked beaten from the start. Marco Silva’s claim that his side seemed absent from the pitch “at certain moments” before the break was generous. An incident ensued in the eighth minute when Antonee Robinson attempted to score Bukayo Saka, trying to show Arsenal their opponents were in the building. Saka, the best Premier League player this season and arguably the toughest, simply picked himself up before fully contributing to the demonstration of speed, power and control. Robinson endured the kind of first half that rears in nightmares.
It was Saka’s 36th start of the season in all competitions, counting England’s World Cup campaign. Arteta has made a project to turn it into a machine that can play, play and play again: also not going through the motions but delivering every time. Saka will fall short of his manager’s target of ’70 games every three days’ set in October but he has become the epitome of resilience, which is remarkable in such a young side and continues to characterize Arsenal.
He, like almost everyone else in an all-black away shirt that offered a suitably drab spectacle alongside Fulham’s home get-up, was heavily involved in a magnificent second goal that the modern arsenal offered in microcosm. That sequence ended with Leandro Trossard creating a cross for Gabriel Martinelli, a player who was delighted by Jesus’ presence earlier in the season and has looked similarly menacing after coming to terms with the Belgian. Trossard was brilliant here: intricate, inventive, accurate; If Mykhaylo Mudryk may have been the long-term bet, Arsenal’s Brighton raid now looks like a steal. It could prove to be cheat code for the depth and experience teams pull across the line.
The belief that they will make it is growing. This was the first game of an away game which, with Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester City looking menacing, was navigated with ease. For the first time, these tributes to Manfred Mann were accompanied by proclamations that Arsenal would win the league. For the past week they’d gotten things straightened out; This time, they made sure there were few questions to answer while providing a tantalizing glimpse into the likeness of Jesus that they have plenty left in reserve.
“He’s got to earn his place like any other team,” Arteta said of Jesus afterwards. The essence of transformation this season may not be as important every week from the start, not with the options Arsenal have now amassed. It’s a problem the manager will welcome. Arteta had bit back on suggestions they were over-celebrating the win over Bournemouth, suggesting naysayers would be better off in the church. As it happened, the church of Jesus got every reason to evangelize next to a field in west London.