Arsenal know winning ugly is key in Premier League title chase


LONDON — Arsenal invited familiar criticism from the celebration police for the intensity of their reaction to Monday’s 1-0 win at Crystal Palace, but it is because the margin for error is so small that a win so early in the campaign will feel this big.

The Gunners won 16 of their first 19 Premier League games last season, amassing 50 points at the halfway stage only to lose and find themselves overhauled on the run-in by Manchester City.

Try telling Gunners coach Mikel Arteta and his players that a slow start this time around is acceptable. Arsenal have now secured maximum points from their opening two games and, although many expected them to do so with a more authoritative style demanded by the expensive arrivals of Declan Rice and Kai Havertz, it will galvanise a group seeking to prove they can last the distance this time that the points were secured in such combative fashion.

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Eddie Nketiah missed two good chances against Palace — the first he made himself with smart play, the second he simply chose the wrong option — but Martin Odegaard’s 53rd-minute penalty was enough to secure Arsenal the win.

Improvement is needed, but that can come later. Points are paramount for a team making no bones about targeting the title, and keeping pace with City early on will be key in driving their self-belief.

Each late block or — at times frantic — piece of goalkeeping in stoppage-time was greeted with high-fives and gritted teeth. The full-time whistle sparked first-pumps, an Aaron Ramsdale roar at the Holmesdale Road Stand and Arteta applauding a travelling support gleefully chanting his name.

“I loved it, absolutely loved it,” said Arteta after the match. “It’s a really difficult place to come, we played the way we wanted to play 11 against 11. We dominated the game, we created enough chances, we missed two very, very huge chances that normally he [Nketiah] puts away.”

Arteta’s exhaustive search for marginal gains is well documented, and it appeared as though he had made another ruthless decision in replacing Bukayo Saka as his regular penalty taker. Saka had established himself as a reliable option prior to his miss against West Ham United in mid-April contributing to the four-game stumble which cost them the title. There had been no suggestion of a change until Odegaard stepped up, ball in hand after Palace goalkeeper Sam Johnstone felled Nketiah in the box.

As with just about everything he does, captain Odegaard was unflustered in dispatching the spot-kick, but Arteta revealed he had no influence on the decision for Saka to sit this one out.

“I had no clue,” said the Spaniard. “It’s about leadership of players. If they felt it was the right thing to do then I’m fine. I was surprised like everyone else. They made that. He scored the goal, which is the most important thing, and we won the game.”

That leadership manifested in other ways. Rice’s £105 million price tag demands show-stopping moments, but his value will become evident in more subtle ways, enabling Arsenal to control the game as they did for spells here and also to remain resolutely compact once down to 10 men following Takehiro Tomiyasu’s 67th-minute red card.

“I prefer not to make comments because for me it’s so obvious,” said Arteta after Tomiyasu was adjudged to have pulled back Jordan Ayew, having earlier been booked for time-wasting.

“This is the standards. I don’t know how long it was. [On being told it was 23 seconds]. It wasn’t. I think it was eight seconds. We might have to play with a stopwatch. It’s OK, we won the game, I’m happy.”

It does seem a curious anomaly in the implementation of VAR that it can intervene to upgrade a second yellow card to a straight red — an action that does not remotely change the game involved — but cannot highlight an error in rescinding a second yellow if a mistake has been made.

“I don’t know if that’s the solution,” he said. “The decision is made. We’re not going to change it. We adapted to it. Obviously it made the game much tougher and normally you’re going to drop points when you play 30 minutes down to 10 in this league.

“To survive the way we did is not something that usually happens. But we’re so happy that we overcame that big hurdle.”

The second week of the season is a little early to speak of “big hurdles” but Arsenal know the stakes in trying to surpass Man City. Nketiah remains an unconvincing deputy for Gabriel Jesus, sidelined after a knee operation, while Havertz continues to make a quiet start to life at his new club.

But these are issues that Arteta can work on from a useful position of strength, underlining once again why these three points felt so important, even in August.

POST AUTHOR: James Olley

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