A new season and perhaps a new Arsenal, although this was no occasion to reach conclusions. Mikel Arteta’s players were certainly far better than on the night in April when they were beaten 3-0 here, sending their Champions League tilt into a nosedive. They started like a train this time and deservedly led through Gabriel Martinelli’s header; then they had to defend, particularly during a sometimes uncomfortable second half, and Crystal Palace will feel they asked enough questions to force a draw. Any hope of that was scotched by Marc Guéhi’s late own goal, but as season openers go it was engaging fun and on this evidence Patrick Vieira’s side are equipped compete admirably again over the coming months.
Shooting towards a shaft of golden mid-evening light, Arsenal began with a crispness that suggested a resolve to show things were different now. Gabriel Jesus’ searing pre-season form since arriving has been touted as a reason to believe in their resurrection as a top-four power; friendlies are nothing like the real thing but four minutes into the serious business he seized on a loose defensive touch, cut into the box and was only denied by a lunging block from Guéhi. Although Martinelli missed glaringly from the loose ball, his blushes were spared by an offside flag.
Jesus has been signed as Arsenal’s No 9 but rotated with the nominally left-sided Martinelli in the early stages. Palace were pegged back and the next to have a go was Oleksandr Zinchenko, who was winning the league alongside Jesus with Manchester City two and a half months ago. Zinchenko’s deflected shot was beaten away by Vicente Guaita after the ball had been worked across the 18-yard line. Arteta has set plenty of stock in his two proven winners from the Etihad and both had begun with a noticeable edge.
Palace finally showed some when Cheick Doucouré, their own flagship signing, crunched through Martin Ødegaard in what seemed a calculated attempt to ignite his team. Jordan Ayew did the same, less legally, on Martinelli and Granit Xhaka had to clear a Wilfried Zaha cutback. The tide seemed to have reversed slightly but then Martinell got the season up and running.
It was certainly an improvement on his start to 2021-22, when he did not score for three months. Bukayo Saka initially appeared to have overhit a corner from the right but in fact it was a set-piece routine of the highest artistry: Zinchenko had made an untracked run into the far side of the box and there was no mistaking the intent as he flexed his neck at the ball, heading meaningfully across for Martinelli to time his own leap perfectly and nod across Guaita.
The Palace keeper could perhaps have got a stronger hand to the ball. His opposite number, Aaron Ramsdale, looked their best hope of quick parity: he dallied over a clearance and saw Odsonne Édouard charge down, the ball rebounding away, moments before hurriedly extricating himself from another self-imposed tight spot.
But Arsenal were relatively untroubled for much of the half despite Zaha’s hunger to get at the stand-in right-back Ben White. When the winger, a long standing nemesis of these opponents, appeared to come out on top he found Saka tracking back to rescue matters, much to Arteta’s approval.
As half-time approached Arteta would have been concerned that Arsenal had ceded some initiative. Palace began to threaten a leveller and would have had one if, from a routine akin to that which brought the opener, Ramsdale had not parried Édouard’s header from six yards.
Seven minutes after the interval Ramsdale saved Arsenal again. White had been pulled inside and there was nobody tracking Eberechi Eze as he ran on to Zaha’s slide-rule pass. Eze had time to measure his finish but could not find the corner and Ramsdale, standing firm, was able to block. Palace should have been on terms.
There was a spit and thrust to this game now, neither side’s back line looking especially secure under examination. Palace were having some joy with a more direct approach, managing to particularly expose Zinchenko with raking passes, but were fortunate when Jesus hunted Guéhi down and teed up Ødegaard for a chance that was snuffed out. Jeffrey Schlupp saw a shot blocked inside the box and, as the minutes began to tick away, the hosts remained alive.
Arsenal were having to work, Ødegaard taking the ball off Ayew’s toes on the edge of the box. William Saliba, impeccable on his Premier League debut, then covered his right flank to deny Zaha with a perfect tackle. Balls were flying across Arsenal’s six-yard box at this point but then they made a similar situation pay at the other end. Saka reached full flight and his driven delivery snicked off Guéhi’s head and in, resolving any questions for tonight at least.