The opening day defeat to West Ham was a wake-up call for Arsenal. The team looked like they believed the pre-season title hype and got punished for being complacent. There was a marked difference in the attitude, effort and performance at Selhurst Park on Sunday as the Gunners secured their first points of the new season in a battling 2-1 win.
Arsenal played the game against Crystal Palace in the manner of a team who are prepared to fight for title, and almost highlighted how poor the performance was last week against West Ham.
This was led by Alexis Sanchez, who brought his relentless energy back into the team from the start of the game. The Chilean shouldn’t really be starting a league game at this stage of his pre-season, and there were moments where he obviously lacked match sharpness, but the influence he had on the team in terms of attacking with some more pace and intent was very noticeable. I’m concerned about him picking up an injury from not having had a proper pre-season, but he is a fitness freak. His general energy levels seem extraordinary, so hopefully that seems him through when others would struggle after playing a similar number of matches.
The determination and drive that he brings to the side was epitomised in the winning goal. A good build-up resulted in Hector Bellerin crossing to the back post. Faced with a tall full-back in front of him in Joel Ward, Alexis sprung miles in the air and hung above the defender to head the ball towards goal. Damien Delaney added the finishing touch into his own net, but the goal owed most to the Chilean’s athleticism and determination to win the header.
Arsenal’s all round attacking game looked more penetrative than it did against West Ham, with Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla conducting things well from the middle of the pitch. Ozil bagged his first assist of the season when Arsenal opened the scoring in the first half as Olivier Giroud scored a fantastic volley into the bottom corner. With all the talk of Arsenal’s interest in a new striker, it was a reminder for people to not forget the qualities Giroud brings to the team. After last week, I expected Theo Walcott to start up front, but Arsene Wenger made the right choice going for the physical presence of Giroud, who also linked up nicely with Ramsey, Ozil and Alexis.
Having gone 1-0 up, Arsenal’s one moment of slack defending in the first half cost them. Laurent Koscielny was unusually reluctant to try and block the ball as Joel Ward took aim from 20 yards. Had the Frenchman not turned his back on the ball, he could have blocked it quite easily.
In the second half however, Arsenal’s defending improved a lot. Yannick Bolasie was removed at halftime as he couldn’t make an impact on the game, but Jason Puncheon and Wilfred Zaha also struggled to get much joy against Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal. Per Mertesacker also led the back line well with some crucial headers and blocks as the game become tense as it drew towards a conclusion.
The Gunners did get a significant amount of luck when Lee Mason didn’t give Francis Coquelin a second yellow card after he committed a few niggly fouls. Having been booked in the first half and waking a tightrope, Coquelin did make some good tackles in the second period before a final foul led to Arsene Wenger understandably withdrawing him. Coquelin does have an energetic style as a holding midfielder, and the nature of the position means yellow cards are likely, but hopefully the game was a reminder to Coquelin that he has to be smart in the centre and has to choose the right moments to dive in or attempt an interception. Later in the game, the experience and calming influence of Mikel Arteta was vital to seeing out the game, and having someone with the quality of the Spaniard in the squad is extremely useful while Coquelin continues to develop his game.
Arsenal could have killed the game off earlier to avoid a stressful end, but it was reassuring to see the team’s commitment and determination to turn things around following the horror show against West Ham. It might be a week late, but it finally feels like Arsenal have got started this season.