Arsenal handling pressure of title race with the confidence of champions
Patrick Vieira may have been absent, but Arsenal again displayed the type of assertive performance during the run-in that typified his title wins as a player. It might be what makes this race all the more interesting, as the leaders are getting very good at this. This 4-1 victory over Crystal Palace was the second successive league match in which Arsenal had beatable but awkward opposition, and yet had effectively claimed three points in clinical fashion by half-time. That’s what can really win titles, as it illustrates no hesitation just when doubt and nerves could feasibly seep in. These notionally easy games could easily become long and tense occasions, after all. Arsenal instead have the confidence of an eight-point lead, albeit with one more game played than Manchester City.
The Europa League elimination didn’t seem to have any negative effect, or matter much at all. Gabriel Martinelli followed his decisive penalty miss against Sporting Lisbon with the strike that set them off here, a wonderfully swished finish that reflected a forward in form. It only emphasised how this is all about the Premier League. That’s all Arsenal want to focus on.
Palace meanwhile need to concentrate themselves, as a position of relative comfort is now looking quite precarious. There was no pick-up from Vieira’s sacking, not that you’d necessarily expect it from a trip like this. They nevertheless still look like a team who have lost faith in their defence and lack any kind of plan in attack. They are also still 12th, sure, but that isn’t what it has meant in previous seasons. The gap from there to the bottom is just four points - with only three to 18th - which is the lowest ever seen this late in the season.
Caretaker Paddy McCarthy had a very difficult hand in being given this for a first game but they now need more assurance, more of an idea. Whether Roy Hodgson is it remains to be seen. Otherwise, it might quickly become difficult to see Palace staying in the Premier League.
A slight irony is that it initially looked like their attackers were enjoying being released. One criticism of Vieira, after all, was that there just wasn’t a sophisticated or modern approach going forward.
In this first game without him, Wilfried Zaha and Odsonne Edouard both enjoyed the freedom to race at Arsenal early on, only for one shot to hit a post and Aaron Ramsdale to do well with a save for the other. Edouard should still have done better with his finish for the second, though, and that was about as good as it got for Palace. Arsenal immediately sharpened up and began to increase the pressure.
Palace’s massed defence couldn’t withstand. Bukayo Saka found the space to work the ball to Martinelli and the Brazilian did brilliantly to turn Joel Ward and fire the ball into the corner in one swift moment.
Most of Arsenal’s attack was in full flight but it was again Saka who soared highest, again showing from how he has gone from a promising attacker to an immensely productive one who consistently decides matches.
He had his first shortly before half-time, while also showcasing that burgeoning partnership with Ben White. The right-back returned Saka’s pass with a neat ball inside, allowing the attacker to swerve the ball around Joseph Whitworth.
That was pretty much the game but Arsenal added more shine, to ensure they also got more out of the game than three points. Granit Xhaka scored, rifling in a close-range shot, to continue a superb season that many would have considered impossible from him even a year ago. The Swiss midfielder is in his own way one of the stories of the season.
Jeffrey Schlupp did ensure it wasn’t a perfect afternoon with a close-range finish from a corner, before Zaha shot narrowly wide.
That could have made it all feel very different, except Arsenal currently feel a very different team. They immediately went up the other end for substitute Kieran Tierney to cleverly cut the ball back and Saka to power home.
By then, the crowd had repeatedly sang Vieira’s old song, almost goading the Palace support with it. The French midfielder’s great Arsenal teams used to make a habit of having won these types of games within the first half-hour, to send them soaring to those three league titles in the Arsene Wenger era.
Mikel Arteta’s side still have a lot to do to even win one title. The key so far, however, is that they have done everything asked of them. It has left them eight points clear, with a game more played, when the expectation would have been so, so different.
This game could have been very different. Arsenal have instead become very good at these kinds of challenges.