Thankfully for Arsenal, this season began as the last one ended, with a shot of pure relief as Aaron Ramsey arrived at the right time to deliver the matchwinner. The Welshman had the last word in the FA Cup final victory that triggered a domino effect of optimism through the summer. Here he salvaged a day that threatened to end in exasperation after Palace had resisted with the instincts instilled by the man conspicuously missing from the away dugout, Tony Pulis.
This time last year, the atmosphere at the Emirates was toxic as Aston Villa helped themselves to three points on the opening day of the season, and the crowd was mutinous as Arsène Wenger was assailed with furious cries to spend some of that luxuriously priced ticket money.
This year, money has been spent and spirits were high at kick-off, yet a disjointed performance against Crystal Palace headed towards another situation where the new season curtain didn’t so much swish open as collapse unceremoniously as the game slunk into stoppage time all square. Against a team without a manager. Thanks to Ramsey’s intervention, this is one to file away as three points thanks very much, with the rest best forgotten.
For Palace, it was a bitter end to a stressful few days. The team could not have given more under the circumstances. “I am proud of the players. When you think about what they have been through the past couple of days, you are never quite sure how we are going to respond to Tony leaving,” mused caretaker Keith Millen. “You could see from their togetherness they were going to work hard for each other and the club.”
Two days after that bizarre separation, the imprint of their old manager was still all over their performance. This was Tony Pulis’s team, Tony Pulis’s system, Tony Pulis’s spirit of determined organisation, and playing in the style of the ex-boss was sufficient to frustrate Arsenal for a long period.
Wenger did not seem overly bothered in the end. “You could see on the first game of the season we are the only team who has won at home,” he pointed out. “So that shows you it is difficult for everyone on the first day of the season. We got the three points we wanted so let’s focus now on Besiktas.” With a Champions League qualifier in Turkey on Tuesday, followed by a difficult assignment at Everton (a fixture they lost painfully last season) on Saturday, this is a busy period of their season where hard results evidently count for more than beauty contests.
Arsenal were not at their most cohesive. “Our attitude was right. Our fluency we can do better. That will come,” noted Wenger. “We still lack a bit of pace in the final third to change what we build up into a dangerous situation.”
That was a fair assessment. Rhythm was hard to come by, partly because they are working on their sharpness, and partly because Palace were drilled well enough to make life difficult. They were well manned at the back, with Brede Hangeland slotting in and Joe Ledley and Mile Jedinak sitting tight in front of the back four.
Arsenal’s meandering passing was rudely interrupted when Palace took the lead. They showed a sudden sense of adventure when Wojciech Szczesny sprinted out of his area to deal with a long ball but he could only hoik his clearance as far as Marouane Chamakh, level with the front edge of the centre circle. The forward who never cut it at Arsenal took aim, and Laurent Koscielny improvised superbly to hook away the danger and then make another saving tackle to deny Fraizer Campbell.
From the resulting corner, though, nobody was able to match the giant frame of Hangeland – certainly not Alexis Sánchez, who was the man detailed with trying to mark him. Not the obvious choice, it must be said. Hangeland’s height advantage was a full 30cm. After going three entire seasons without a league goal, he managed one in less than half of his Palace debut, running in to rise above Koscielny to nod into the bottom corner.
Shortly before half time, Arsenal responded when Sánchez stood over a dead ball and chipped the ball forward to drop enticingly for Koscielny to glance in the equaliser.
Palace were reduced to 10 men at the end of a sluggish second period when Jason Puncheon was sent off for a second booking. Whether that man down made the difference was moot, but Palace suddenly looked unstable as the ball pinged around their box in stoppage time. Koscielny and Olivier Giroud won important headers, Mathieu Debuchy lashed in from close range, and Julián Speroni’s point-blank save fell invitingly for Ramsey.
Instinctively he bundled the ball in to take all Arsenal’s frustration and load it on to Palace.