Saturday, December 3, 2022

Crystal Palace 0-2 Arsenal: Debutants impress as Gunners kick off with a win

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It may not have been perfect, but kicking the season off with a win, a clean sheet, and three points is really nothing to be sniffed at, especially when you consider how we all felt on this equivalent Saturday morning 12 months ago.

As expected, Mikel Arteta chose the same team that beat Sevilla last Saturday, meaning a trio of debuts for William Saliba, Oleksandr Zinchenko, and Gabriel Jesus. All three were very important last night, and the former Man City men immediately made an impact. Our dominant start to the game and a very impressive opening 25 minutes featured them both in a significant way.

Jesus basically terrorised the Palace defence early on. The run through so many defenders which presented the chance for Gabriel Martinelli would have stood the test of time and won assist of the season (if such a thing existed), but his fellow Brazilian didn’t quite sort his feet out and shanked it wide when he should have scored.

However, we got the goal our early play deserved from a well-worked corner routine. Saka delivered, Zinchenko headed it back into the mix, and Martinelli was there to nod it home from close range. Afterwards, Arteta told Sky Sports:

It was one of the set piece coaches that created the routine, yes. We practiced it yesterday.

I think this team still has a tendency to let the intensity drop a little after we score, so instead of building on the lead, we allowed Palace back into it. The superb passing range of Joachim Andersen from the back was a real weapon for them (something I wish we’d tried to close down more, to be honest), and they were clearly looking to get Wilfried Zaha running at Ben White. Personally, I thought he did well out there. Zaha offered very little all game, White ended up making 8 successful tackles and 4 clearances so I’m a little bemused at the notion he struggled. Perhaps one or two misplaced passes early on created that perspective, because we know he’s better than that, but defensively I thought he did his job well.

Speaking of misplaced passes, there’s probably a slight through-line between Palace getting back into the game and Aaron Ramsdale making a poor clearance at the back. There was obviously more to it than that, but it raised their energy a bit and they got on top. Ramsdale then made two fantastic saves, one either side of half-time which were far more important than the one mistake and deserve more focus. We were under pressure, and our goalkeeper played his part in keeping that clean sheet.

From our perspective we struggled to get control, midfield felt a bit subdued and under-par, and during the second half I looked at the bench and didn’t really a see lot there to change things. I know we have Fabio Vieira and Emile Smith Rowe to come back, but you can see how at least one more quality player to operate in that third between the middle and the attack would really be useful for this side.

A one goal lead is always precarious, but I didn’t feel quite as nervous as I did with this kind of scoreline last season. I think we’re defensively more solid, and a big part of that, a Gallic 6’4 part of that, was William Saliba. I said on the Arsecast Extra last week that he just looks like a serious dude, but that’s not just the expression on his face. It’s the way he goes about his job.

Honestly, last night he was absolutely outstanding, in a completely calm and controlled way. This wasn’t some helter-skelter display of last ditch defending. This was composure manifest. 7 clearances, one blocked shot, and one incredible tackle in our box which had to be perfect in this era of VAR and players who make it look like they’ve been shot every time they’re touched. He has presence, he reads the game extremely well too which, for all his physical attributes, is what separates a good defender from a very good defender.

Afterwards, Arteta was full of praise for the young Frenchman, saying:

You don’t really see that at 21 years old, a debut in the Premier League against this opponent, these physical players and resolve the situation the way he’s done it with that composure, with that calmness and with that presence. Big credit to the boy.

It augurs well for what’s to come, and after so long it was really pleasing to see him make his debut and mark it with a performance like that. The fact we couldn’t really do much up the other end until late in the second half made it even more important too.

Kieran Tierney and Eddie Nketiah came on for Zinchenko and Jesus, and both were involved in our second goal. I don’t quite understand why KT was the furthest man forward in the 85th minute, lurking like some kind of target man, but Ramsdale saw him and picked him out with a long pass from inside his own box. Tierney did well to head it to Martinelli, it went from Xhaka to Eddie, who played it out wide to Saka, and his cross forced the own goal off the head of Marc Guehi. Perhaps a little against the run of play, but that’s football.

2-0 meant it was game over. Palace knew it, the Arsenal fans knew it so they serenaded Patrick Vieira, and the final whistle brought an end to a tough game against difficult opposition who made life quite hard for us. Afterwards, Arteta spoke about the resilience his side showed:

You don’t win here without it. We experienced that last season. We started in a really different way that we did last season here, but building that mentality and finding a way to go through those moments. Finding a way to maintain clean sheets in this league is going to be vital for our success, and we have managed to do that so hopefully that will build some confidence as well in the team.

Clearly there are things we can do better. To go as long as we did without being able to really change the momentum of the game is something I’m sure the manager will be concerned with, and as I mentioned earlier, I still think there’s room in the squad for another player or two who you can turn to when you need to get hold of a game again.

However, there were plenty of positives too, and it’s much easier to have a discussion about what we can improve when you’re sitting there with three points in the bag. All in all a pleasing way to start the new season, and I’m sure there’ll be plenty of work on the training ground this week ahead of Leicester next Saturday.

Right, that’s it for this morning. Chat away in the Arses, and James and I will have an Arsecast Extra for you tomorrow rather than Monday.

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