Two wins from two, six points from six, and Arsenal are not yet at their flowing best. In fact, they are not even close to it. This trip to Crystal Palace was instead a night for grinding the teeth and holding the line, especially after Takehiro Tomiyasu’s red card left them with 10 men against the home side’s combination of 11 players and 25,000 supporters.
There will be occasions this season when Mikel Arteta’s side unpick their opponents like master locksmiths. Those performances will look pretty, and Arsenal’s players will enjoy every moment of them. This was the opposite sort of night, with defensive resilience the key after Martin Odegaard’s second-half penalty had given Arsenal the lead.
For Arsenal to preserve that advantage, after half an hour of play with 10 men, will be a source of immense satisfaction for Arteta and his players. If they hope to challenge Manchester City again, they cannot win every game in style. Sometimes this league demands steel, and Arsenal showed it here. “I loved it,” said Arteta. “Absolutely loved it.”
Would it have been different if Palace had Michael Olise available? It certainly would have helped the home side’s creativity. A lack of cutting edge in attack could be a regular problem for Roy Hodgson this season, as the post-Wilfried Zaha era begins in south London. The longer they pushed for an equaliser against Arsenal’s wall of defenders, the less likely they looked to score.
Sturdiness has rarely been a strength for Arsenal over the years but here they looked strong, powerful and aggressive throughout. In the second half, after Tomiyasu was shown a controversial second yellow card, their defensive resistance was led by the tireless Declan Rice, who snapped into tackles and closed down space all over the pitch.
Odegaard provided a captain’s goal and Rice offered genuine leadership behind him in midfield. The club-record signing has been bought for his technical quality but also for moments like these, when his team requires energy, power and that most precious footballing quality: guts. At the end, Rice pumped his fists and whirled his arms towards the away supporters. They roared back. That relationship is developing fast.
Did the Arsenal fans see why the club deemed Rice to be worth more than £100 million? “Hopefully we saw a little bit,” said Arteta. “I think he was great. He was bossing midfield. I think he dominated the game. He was very influential, both attacking and defending.”
Speaking to Sky Sports after the final whistle, Rice said: “Before the game tonight, I was on the way to the game and I just thought: ‘just go out there and have it tonight. Just go out there and try to put on a show.’
“Even in the warm-up I just felt an energy – I wanted to go out there and perform. I was really up for it. Only two games in, there is so much talk about the price tag and me playing for Arsenal, and I want to keep proving people wrong and proving I can play at the top.”
Arteta has more options at his disposal now than at any other point in his managerial career and, as Arsenal held their defensive shape in the final half an hour, it was striking to see how physically imposing his team has become. “If we have to take the game and be physical we are very capable of doing that,” said Arteta.
Arsenal’s defence for those final moments included the following: Thomas Partey, William Saliba, Ben White, Gabriel Magalhaes, Jakub Kiwior, Rice. All six of those players are well over six-foot tall, and all six are capable of dominating their opponents in physical duels. Palace continued to cross the ball, and Arsenal continued to clear it away. Saliba was especially dominant, making eight clearances across the night.
“We have to give Arsenal credit,” said Hodgson. “For their defensive organisation and the fact that they defended crosses very well, and got the blocks in when it was necessary.”
There was some surprise that Odegaard stepped up for the second-half penalty, after Eddie Nketiah had been fouled by Palace goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, instead of usual taker Bukayo Saka. Arteta himself was shocked, saying he had “no clue” that Odegaard would take it. “It’s about leadership of players,” said Arteta. “If they felt it was the right thing to do then I’m fine with it.”
He will be less happy with his side’s shooting in the first half, when Nketiah was especially wasteful. The striker is often described as an excellent finisher who does not offer enough in general play but, on this occasion, the opposite was true. First he hit the post, when one-on-one, and then he somehow scooped the ball over the bar from close range.
Tomiyasu’s first yellow was for time-wasting, which was far from clever. His second was for a perceived tug on Jordan Ayew’s shirt, which replays suggested was non-existent. Harsh, certainly, but Palace could not capitalise. As Hodgson’s side attempted to push forward, they appeared to run out of ideas before they ran out of time.