Yeses: the rumors are true. The Premier League, which never really disappeared, is back. And it was pretty good on a sultry Friday night, watching an Arsenal squad of eager new moving parts do a great job of raising tender early-season hopes at Selhurst Park.
It was 24 degrees in south London as kick-off approached on the first date England’s highest level has ever started. It was a kind of parched heat, the grass a scorched white, the sky a deathly blue. The English summer has at least a sense of irony. To avoid the Gulf sun, the Premier League will instead play through a heat wave in England.
Still, it was a fun and airy start to the season. If last week’s Community Shield felt like some sort of visitation, football reimagined as a 90-minute Sopranos dream streak, there was a familiar flavor to it. A London Derby. A densely capped systems manager. This yellowish summer sun. Maybe it was real after all.
It’s a question that could also apply to Arsenal in a season that will define Mikel Arteta’s job to this point. They started with a bold starting 11, the kind of 11 that walks around on fan cats, the hopeful 11, the breakfast cake 11. Saliba! Martinelli! No filling! Except maybe Granit Xhaka! But it’s ok, it’s also good now!
At the end of a hard-fought 2-0 win, a scoreline that failed to reflect Crystal Palace’s resilience between goals, it felt like something was moving here. Gabriel Jesus was good. Oleksandr Zinchenko was good for a while. William Saliba was very good and will get the most attention.
Saliba made seven clearances without ever having to tackle. His passing was solid. He didn’t look pissed off or even terribly tired at the end, a step up from the loaded and snot-stained performances of Arsenal’s centre-backs. He walked through this, teasing things for a few seconds in his head. Its good. Where did he go again?
While the game was reassuringly lively, for opening day viewers there were some disconcerting developments in Sky Sports coverage. Before kick-off, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher were sent in to do vox pops with the fans, a step up from fetching milk, but a dilution of the expert analyst role. Why not go all the way and stick them in a pub somewhere?
Gaz and Carra did their best. But there are plenty of frowning guys wearing replica shirts outside of the paywall. Graphic-laden forensic content is what people pay their subscribers for.
Then there was the weird, claustrophobic prospect of Patrick Vieira being forced to say breathless platitudes at half-time. It was unpleasant for everyone involved. Vieira doesn’t want to do that. He’s not part of the show at this point. It’s not American wrestling yet. Stop overproducing this stuff. The game is good. Trust him.
And those two teams were good, Arsenal from the start. Gabriel Jesus did something brilliant after three minutes, stealing the ball 40 yards from goal and producing a nutmeg and side step. For long periods of time these pink shirts, the color of heat-damaged processed ham, found cute little zipped triangles. Zinchenko was incredibly mobile, taking more touches in the first half hour than anyone else on the pitch.
He participated in the first goal, finding five meters of open space by completing a looping run from the edge of the box. He was heading the ball backwards. Martinelli nodded.
Jesus was also quick on his feet and desperate to dribble and spin. He describes exactly what Arsenal needed: pressure, advantage, authority. Maybe people forgot how good he is or how good he was supposed to be. Between them, Jesus 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 just as good.
Palace have been depleted by injuries and the loss of players. Expectations are low, which could be a helpful place, but Vieira seems to really know what he’s doing and which players to trust. They held off Arsenal either side of half-time 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, forcing Marc Guéhi to deflect a hard low cross into his own net.
For Arteta, the trajectory is clear from here, a time to realize the investment of time and resources. But they have a style of play and a plan. The shadow of the great Arsene has passed. The flaws here are the flaws of this team, the strengths that Arteta piggybacked on. Whisper it, but it was actually quite encouraging.