Yis: the rumors are true. The Premier League, which never really went away, is back. And it felt pretty good on a sultry Friday night, watching an Arsenal team of eager new moving parts do an excellent job of sparking 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 flight has started. This was a kind of desiccated heat, the white grass scorched, the sky a deadly blue. The English summer has at least a sense of irony. To avoid the Gulf sun, the Premier League will play during a heat wave in England.
For all that, this was a fun and light-hearted start to the season. If last week’s Community Shield felt like some kind of visit, football reimagined as a 90-minute dream sequence from The Sopranos, there was a familiar flavor to it. A London derby. A thickly groomed sysadmin. That sallow summer sun. Maybe this was real after all.
It is a question that could also apply to Arsenal in a season that will define Mikel Arteta’s work to this point. They started with a bold starting 11, the kind of 11 used in fan chats, the hopeful 11, the cake for breakfast 11. Saliba! Martinelli! Unfilled! Except maybe Granit Xhaka! But that’s fine, he’s good too now!
At the end of a hard-fought 2-0 win, a scoreline that doesn’t reflect Crystal Palace’s ability to bounce back between goals, it looked like something might be moving here. Gabriel Jesus was good. Oleksandr Zinchenko was good for a while. William Saliba was very good and will attract the most attention.
Saliba made seven clearances without ever making a tackle. His pace was solid. He didn’t seem nervous or even very tired at the end, a step up from the tense, snot-smeared displays of Arsenal centre-backs in the past. He navigated through this, triggering things seconds in advance inside his head. This is good. Where have you been again?
If the game was reassuringly spirited, for opening day viewers there were some disconcerting developments in Sky Sports’ coverage. Before kick-off, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher were dispatched to do fan talk, a step up from going out to get some milk, but a dilution of the role of expert analyst. Why not go all the way and just stick them in a pub somewhere?
Gaz and Carra did the best they could. But guys with scowls and replica jerseys abound outside the paywall. Graphics-laden forensic content is what people pay their subscribers for.
Then there was the strange and claustrophobic prospect of Patrick Vieira being forced to deliver breathless platitudes at halftime. This was unpleasant for everyone involved. Vieira doesn’t want to do this. He is not part of the show at that stage. This is not American wrestling yet. Stop overproducing this thing. The game is good. Trust it.
And both teams were good, Arsenal from the start. Gabriel Jesus did something brilliant with three minutes remaining, stealing the ball 40 meters from goal and producing a nutmeg and lateral pass. Over long stretches, those pink T-shirts, the color of heat-damaged processed ham, turned into neat, energetic little triangles. Zinchenko was excitingly mobile, taking more touches in the first half hour than anyone else on the field.
He had a hand in the opening goal, finding five yards of unattended space by making a looping run from the edge of the box. He headed the ball back. Martinelli agreed.
Jesus was also quick on his feet and desperate to dribble and spin. He is, overall, exactly what Arsenal needed: pressure, edge, authority. Maybe people have forgotten how good it is, or how good it was meant to be. Between them, Jesús and Martinelli had eight dribbles and four shots in the first half hour of the season. They played together for Brazil against Japan in Tokyo in June. They should be that good.
The Palace has been hampered by injuries and the loss of players. Expectations are low, which could be a useful place to be, but Vieira really seems to know what he’s doing and which players to trust. They pushed Arsenal back on either side of halftime and used Wilfried Zaha as a weapon against Ben White. But it was also an opportunity for Saliba to show his qualities. In addition, Arsenal have Saka, who scored the second goal and forced Marc Guéhi to deflect a hard low cross into his own net.
For Arteta, the trajectory is clear from here, a moment to fulfill the investment in time and resources. But they have a style of play and a model. The shadow of the great Arsène has passed. The faults here are the faults of this team, the strengths that Arteta has grafted on. He whispers, but this was actually quite encouraging.