Saliba and Zinchenko fire Arsenal’s early-season hopes in sultry opener
Yes: the rumours are true. The Premier League, which never really went away, has returned. And it felt pretty good on a sultry Friday night, watching an Arsenal team of eager new moving parts do an excellent job of raising some tender early-season hopes at Selhurst Park.
It was 24 degrees in South London as kick-off approached on the earliest date the English top tier has ever begun. This was a desiccated kind of heat, the grass scorched white, the sky a deathly blue. The English summer does at least have a sense of irony. To avoid the Gulf sun the Premier League will instead play through a heatwave in England.
For all that this was a fun, breezy start to the season. If last week’s Community Shield felt like a kind of visitation, football reimagined as a 90-minute Sopranos dream sequence, there was a familiar tang to this. A London derby. A densely coiffured systems manager. That sallow summer sun. Maybe this was real after all.
It is a question that might also apply to Arsenal in a season that will define the work to this point of Mikel Arteta. They kicked off with a bold starting 11, the kind of 11 that gets bandied around on fan chats, the hopeful 11, the cake for breakfast 11. Saliba! Martinelli! No filler! Except maybe Granit Xhaka! But that’s fine, he’s also good now!
By the end of a hard-fought 2-0 victory, a scoreline that fails to reflect Crystal Palace’s resilience between the goals, it felt as though something might just be stirring here. Gabriel Jesus was good. Oleksandr Zinchenko was good for a while. William Saliba was very good, and will draw the most attention.
Saliba made seven clearances without ever having to make a tackle. His passing was solid. He didn’t look flustered or even very tired by the end, a step up on the fraught, snot-stained showings of Arsenal centre-backs past. He cruised through this, teasing things out a few seconds in advance inside his head. This is good. Where has he been again?
If the game was reassuringly brisk, for opening-day TV viewers there were some disconcerting developments in the Sky Sports coverage. Before kick-off Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher were despatched to do vox pops with fans, a step up from going out to fetch some milk, but a watering down of the role of expert analyst. Why not go all the way and just stick them in a pub somewhere?
Gaz and Carra did their best. But frowning blokes in replica shirts are in plentiful supply outside the paywall. Forensic, graphics-laden content is what people pay their subs for.
Then there was the weird, claustrophobic prospect of Patrick Vieira being forced to mouth breathless platitudes at half-time. This was unpleasant for all concerned. Vieira doesn’t want to do this. He isn’t part of the spectacle at that stage. This is not American wrestling just yet. Stop over-producing this thing. The game is good. Trust it.
And both of these teams were good, Arsenal right from the start. Gabriel Jesus did something brilliant with three minutes gone, stealing the ball 40 yards from goal and producing a nutmeg and a sidestep. For long periods those pink away shirts, the colour of heat-damaged processed ham, found neat zippy little triangles. Zinchenko was excitingly mobile, taking more touches in the opening half hour than anyone else on the pitch.
He had a hand in the opening goal, finding five yards of untended space by making a looping run from the edge of the box. He headed the ball back. Martinelli nodded it in.
Jesus was also quick on his feet, and desperate to dribble and turn. He is in outline exactly what Arsenal have needed: pressing, edge, authority. Perhaps people have forgotten how good he is, or how good he was meant to be. Between them Jesus and Martinelli had eight dribbles and four shots in the opening half hour of the season. They played together for Brazil against Japan in Tokyo in June. They should be this good.
Palace have been depleted by injury and the loss of players. Expectations are low, which might just be a useful place to be, but Vieira really does seem to know what he’s doing and which players to trust. They pressed Arsenal back either side of half-time, and used Wilfried Zaha as a weapon against Ben White. But it was also a chance for Saliba to show his qualities. Plus Arsenal have Saka, who made the second goal, forcing Marc Guéhi to deflect a hard low cross into his own net.
For Arteta the trajectory is clear from here, a time to deliver on the investment in time and resources. But they have a style of play and a blueprint. The shadow of the great Arsène has passed. The flaws here are this team’s flaws, the strengths those Arteta has grafted on. Whisper it, but this was actually quite encouraging.