A new season, a few new main characters and a suggestion that this reality show may be on track for a sturdier but no less exciting ride this campaign. A Brazilian named Gabriel has indeed opened Arsenal’s Premier League account and while Martinelli may have been the match winner after completing a clever set-piece routine, the frontline led by Jesus shone in this early investigation from Mikel Arteta’s side.
Another recent arrival – though signed three years apart – was just as significant. William Saliba made his highly anticipated Premier League debut and the 21-year-old was solid in defense as Crystal Palace turned up the pressure and Selhurst Park rose in hopes of an equalizing goal late. This was the test that had been predicted, but Arsenal did not follow the script. Instead, they held on and Marc Guehi’s own goal, which was deflected past Vicente Guaita on a cross from Bukayo Saka, meant the Gunners got off to a better start than last season.
A Premier League opener under the lights invariably brought back memories of Arteta’s squad that withered at this time last year under the impressive pressure of Brentford, whose memories may have surfaced uselessly after the release of All or Nothing this week, but if Crystal Palace thought they had the same physical approach they got a different proposal this time.
There were only three players left in Arsenal’s starting line-up, which started what turned out to be a season of boom and bust a year ago, but the way Arteta’s attackers combined and raced the ball between them in the first half, then showing determination and eagerness with their backs against the wall, talking about an even more important transition they’ve gone through since losing their grip on fourth place in May.
Jesus was at the center of most of their encouraging game. The striker is not an imposing figure, but it was his speed of thinking and dazzling touches with his back to goal that led to an efficient lead off the line from a player who saw Pep Guardiola put to wide use last season. Behind him, Saliba took no chances and confidence grew during his debut. Quick on the ground and strong in tackle, he was excellent in defense alongside Gabriel Magalhaes.
This was one of the tougher tests for Saliba to be thrown into. Crystal Palace impressed under Patrick Vieira over the past campaign and although they have had a disrupted preseason, their squad nearly split in two as key players were unable to take part in their tour of the Far East, they eventually gathered enough of a fight to give Arsenal some nerve-wracking moments.
Arsenal, for all their positive play, could have been sharper when the space opened late, but their traveling fans will still be crackling with excitement after their first half. Arteta’s side was exciting on the ball. Palace slumped to avoid space from their opponents and appeared to be physical to deny them time as well, but Arsenal were too quick and their touches on the front line were too smart. Vieira’s side was frustrated as Arsenal strikers squirmed and broke away like nematodes.
For a while it looked like it would be a comfortable night, but Arsenal will be happy to take the opening win, especially given the task presented to them. There was more than a hint of threat behind the decision to give Arsenal the season opener for the second year in a row, following the defeat to Brentford on that balmy summer night last August, which burst a bubble of optimism and sent the Gunners into a tailspin. .
But Vieira had warned that this Arsenal team was of a very different side and that they were by far the more cohesive of the two teams in the opening exchanges. A razor-sharp run from Jesus led to an opportunity for Martinelli who was sent wide from the corner within four minutes and their control in tight spaces led to an early suffocation for Palace. For all of Arsenal’s clever substitutions, however, it would be a fairly simple but well-constructed set-piece routine that brought the opener in the 19th minute. Saka’s deep cross to the back post caught Zinchenko and his header sent Martinelli past Guaita.
Palace ambled and took his time to wake up. New signing Cheick Doucoure hit the mark in midfield, but Palace couldn’t offer much more until they finally rose at half time. They moved the ball faster and Arsenal fell deeper with the concession of cheap free kicks in their half. From one, and almost into a copy of the opener, Joachim Andersen’s knockdown found Odsonne Edouard and required a clever stop from Aaron Ramsdale.
It was the first save the Arsenal goalkeeper had to make, even though he had almost created danger with loss of possession while in possession, but the England international had to come back into action when Wilfried Zaha slipped into Eberechi Eze. Returning Eze, coming back from a lost season to an Achilles tendon injury, couldn’t find the far corner and instead, Ramsdale made the save with his legs. It would prove to be Palace’s best chance.
It had long been a contest of resilience for Arsenal, but they found a leader in Saliba, who rose to the challenge. A perfectly timed tackle on Zaha in the penalty area was the culmination of a flawless defensive performance.
Arsenal had the platform, they just needed the valve, and Saka delivered it, albeit with Guehi’s help as Arteta’s side began to shed last season’s scars with an encouraging first step forward.