Arsenal vindicated pre-season talk of their potential improvement with a deserved 2-0 win over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Two new signings and a long-awaited Premier League debut will only add to the excitement.
Arsenal’s summer appears to have been an exercise in mounting pressure. A late-season blunder that allowed their rivals to secure Champions League football ahead of them was followed by a documentary recording in detail how these events unfolded.
Bringing in transfer spending in excess of £100m which appears to have addressed the main weaknesses. It adds to impressive pre-season form that included goals against Chelsea and Sevilla. This mix had Arsenal fans expecting much, much more.
With this evidence, this optimism is vindicated. Arsenal started strongly, proving too quick and too skilful for a Palace side that looked sluggish in comparison. When the pressure came in the second half, they held on before adding a second goal. It was impressive.
It hasn’t always been like this on occasions like this. This is the second season in a row that the Gunners have started their Premier League season under the Friday night lights. Last year, across the capital, they were bullied and beaten by Brentford.
More recently, in Arsenal’s last trip to Selhurst Park in April, there was an even more crushing defeat. That 3-0 defeat to Palace was miserable. Mikel Arteta’s side have spurned the chance to move up to fourth in the table, ahead of Tottenham with a game in hand.
“It’s time to accept the criticism, put your hand up and apologize because this performance was not good enough for this club,” Arteta said at the time. Subsequent defeats at Brighton and Southampton further curtailed the momentum. It turned out to be expensive.
Seven of the starting lineup for this game were the same, but it’s the identities of the new additions that have helped change the mood. William Saliba has finally arrived. Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus arrive with an obvious pedigree as Premier League champions.
“We come here full of optimism. The new signings have brought more energy, quality, leadership and know how to win football games,” said Aaron Ramsdale. Sky Sports previously “We’re all trying to get into the same mindset as them.”
Of course, winning transfer windows and winning games are not the same thing, but City’s signings and the returning Saliba played a pivotal role in this win. It is already clear that they can help Arsenal become a better team this time around.
Left-back was a problem for Arsenal last season due to Kieran Tierney’s fitness issues. Nuno Tavares was unconvincing and at times unlucky, pressing Granit Xhaka into action in an unfamiliar role. Zinchenko’s arrival changes that.
Indeed, the Ukraine international could change beyond Arsenal’s build-up game as he is not a normal left-back. His propensity to come in to control possession was a feature of his game at Manchester City and there were signs of that here too.
“It’s really interesting to see Zinchenko,” said Jamie Carragher, covering the match Sky Sports at Selhurst Park. “He’s taking the inside positions he did at Man City. Other times he’s very high and wide. There’s a great mix in his game.”
It was Zinchenko’s positioning that led to the first goal. Ben White’s decision to step forward to the edge of the box for an attacking corner distracted Wilfried Zaha and bought Zinchenko space for a header for Martinelli to score from close range.
Jesus’ smart move
Martinelli should have scored by then, but this chance was all about the brilliance of Jesus. The sequence of play in the fourth minute summed up his game: winning the ball up the pitch before pulling free to create the chance.
Jesus was electric and his movement off the ball seems likely to improve everyone around him. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette at times last season lacked that will to run the ball. Jesus is different.
“That’s what he’s going to bring to this team that they didn’t have last season,” Carragher said. “He’s very sharp. He seems to have a point to prove. He’s the main man now. Every time he passes the ball around the box it looks like something is going to happen.”
Saliba solid on defense
Good defending was still needed for Arsenal to claim the points and much of that came from Saliba. Supporters had waited three years and three loan spells to see him in the side and he did not disappoint with a commanding display in difficult circumstances.
Ben White, pushed to the right-back to accommodate the France international, was struggling to contain Zaha. But when they beat white, there was Saliba. His entry into the penalty area early in the second half was perfectly timed and absolutely essential.
The distribution was simple but effective. He had the best passing accuracy of anyone on the pitch. When the ball had to be headed away, he was there. No Arsenal player made as many clearances as him. “It was very impressive,” Carragher said.
“Even before you see him play, he looks like a player, he looks like a role. You’re just looking for signs of that and for such a young age, the way he tackled that second half, a couple of times helping Ben White. and balls in the box. It looked like the real problem.”
It had to be good because Palace didn’t make it easy, pressing hard for an equalizer before Marc Guehi’s unfortunate own goal. Arsenal endured all this. Another encouraging sign. And so Arteta’s words in the build-up to the game proved prophetic.
“We’re a lot closer now,” he said Sky Sports. “We’ve had to undo a lot of things and it takes a bit of time to change the squad, the squad, to change a lot of things around the club. To shake things up and move things around and get everyone on board with the same idea.
“Building that unity and desire to be together doing something special has been extremely difficult, but I think we’re in the right place and everyone is excited.” This result – and, in particular, these new additions – will do nothing to quell that enthusiasm.
Neville: “Saliba reminds me of Rio”
“The most important thing for young players in general is to play football,” said Gary Neville Sky Sports.
“We see a lot of players get stuck between the first team and the subs, and they don’t get football.
“Saliba has football in him and he impressed me a lot.
“He reminded me of a young Rio Ferdinand. He will actually get stronger and his body will be more coordinated. He is still such a young centre-back at 21.
“Crystal Palace away, it’s a tough game in the Premier League because they throw everything at you. Palace’s forwards challenge you one-on-one, drive you all the time and never give you a moment’s peace.
“This is a big night for Saliba, who is debuting with such a strong performance.
“The clean sheet, coming in the second half when maybe Arsenal weren’t at their best in that part of the game, was the funnest thing for Mikel Arteta tonight.”
Saliba: ‘I’m back’
“It was tough, but we’re happy to win today,” Saliba said Sky Sports after his man of the match display.
“We conceded a few chances, but we were strong and solid.
“It’s the first game. We knew it was going to be tough here, so we stayed compact and strong, and that’s good for the team. It’s important to win for confidence.”
After signing for Arsenal in 2019, Saliba was loaned back to Saint-Etienne and has since had two more seasons in his native France, most recently with Marseille last season.
“I’ve waited a long time for this moment and I’m happy to start my first game with a win and a clean sheet.
“It helped me to spend two years on loan in France because I’m young and I need to play. Now I’m back and I hope we can have a good season.”
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