A new season and a new, ruthless winning machine called Arsenal? Nobody would sensibly take things to such an extreme but this was a big improvement on the fare they were serving up a mere four months ago. Back then they were demolished here, losing 3-0 and simply failing to turn up; no such accusation could be levelled this time and, while there were enough wobbles to leave Crystal Palace feeling a draw would have been fair, the fact they steered home safely at a traditionally turbulent hunting ground can only augur well.
As opening games go this was intense, engaging fare in which both sides carried the fight admirably. A goal in each half settled things but perhaps the defining sequence, from an Arsenal perspective at least, came eight minutes after half-time when Wilfried Zaha was denied by the cleanest of tackles from William Saliba as he twisted towards the byline. An old foe had been bested by a newcomer to the league and it would not be the final time; Saliba was outstanding in his first game for Arsenal, three years after arriving from Saint-Etienne, and came into his own during waves of second-half pressure from the hosts. He will take some dislodging from their central defence now.
“You don’t really see that at 21 years old in a debut in the Premier League against this opponent where you face difficult players and [have to] resolve the situation,” Mikel Arteta said. “He’s done it with that composure, that calmness and that presence. Big credit to the boy.”
Arteta was right to feel Arsenal’s application was light years ahead of their derelict offering from April. “We showed great resilience,” he said. “You don’t win here without it. Building that mentality and finding a way to go through those moments and maintain clean sheets is going to be vital for our success.” When Jordan Ayew’s eyes lit up on the edge of the box as proceedings entered the final 20 minutes, Martin Ødegaard was in like a flash to take the ball off his feet; before half-time Zaha had wriggled past the stand in right-back Ben White only to find Bukayo Saka was the last man.
Those were the details that saw them through, although earlier in the game it had appeared the points might materialise more easily. Arsenal began like a train, rotating positions dizzyingly while showing the sharpness and ferocious pressing that had whetted appetites in pre-season. Gabriel Jesus was predictably to the fore, seeing Marc Guéhi block after one slaloming run, while Oleksandr Zinchenko’s deflected strike tested Vicente Guaita.
The two arrivals from Manchester City were winning the league together in May; Arteta has made no secret of his hope that such experiences rub off on their new teammates.
Jesus was, in his manager’s words, “electric” in that early spell but it was Zinchenko who helped unlock Palace from a routine straight off the training ground.
Saka initially appeared to have overhit a corner from the right but in fact it was a set-piece of pure, simple artistry: Zinchenko had made an untracked run into the far side of the box and there was no mistaking the intent as he flexed his neck at the ball, heading meaningfully across for Gabriel Martinelli to time his own leap perfectly and nod across Guaita.
It was certainly an improvement on Martinelli’s start to 2021-22, when he did not score for three months. The forward could be pleased at his interplays with Jesus, the pair resembling dervishes at times. Arteta lamented that Arsenal did not seal the points more quickly after that, ceding control too readily in spells, but they made sure as the minutes ticked down. Balls had been fizzing across their six-yard box but, when Saka contrived a similar situation at the other end in an increasingly rare raid, his driven centre snicked off Guéhi’s head and in.
Palace, who announced Christian Benteke’s departure to DC United before kick-off, could lament that they were broadly dominant between the 35th and 80th minutes after such a slow start.
Aaron Ramsdale repelled Odsonne Édouard’s header from six yards before half-time and was called upon again early in the second half. White went walkabout and left a gaping space for Eberechi Eze to latch onto Zaha’s pass but, with time to weigh up his finish, he allowed the keeper to block.
“In a football match there are important moments when you need to take chances,” Patrick Vieira reflected. “The story of the game is that we didn’t score the goal to get back into it: that’s the biggest frustration.”
For Arsenal, the story was that they did not let Palace score it. “They are ready, they look hungry, with the mentality that they really want to win,” Arteta said of his side. So far, it is hard to argue.