Here we go then folks! Strap yourself in because pre season is officially done and dusted and tonight, for the second season in a row, we are first up on the Friday night football billing as we travel to Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. In the game last season it was shuffled to a Monday night fixture and Selhurst Park is always a daunting place to go when it’s under the lights; there will be a raucous atmosphere, Palace fans baying for Arsenal blood, the desire to repeat the events of last season on the same ground with the same team will be strong for them. And for Sky Spots and the watching media too. Nobody is fooled as to why this was seen as the Friday night slot; Sky Sports, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, most of the English media, they all want a repeat of what happened on the opening game of the season last year as we were defeated to Brentford. Everyone wants history to repeat itself.
We are just going to have to face facts for this evening, the world is against us, I’m afraid. In England we love a giant killing and what better way to start off the season than Palace winning under their home fans. That’s what the TV schedulers want, but we have to show that they’re not going to get it and we have to be ready to change the narrative for this evening, because the pencils are also being sharpened to trot out more narrative about how Arsenal are flaky, Arsenal always flatter to deceive, blah, blah, blah. It’s tiresome, it’s boring, it lacks any kind of thought process, but hey, if it gets a few clicks then whatever, right?
Wrong, and Arsenal need to be able to prove that this evening, although I am acutely aware that this will be no easy feat. Our record at Selhurst Park is, after all, pretty dire of late, you have to say. An absolutely tonking last season in a performance that was so far from acceptable that it had me sent out for a walk at halftime by the management for dropping far too much foul and abusive language in my own living room. We were appalling that day and Zaha had a merry ol’ time up against Cedric. Up top Mateta is expected to start and last season he scored within 20 minutes, bullying our centre backs and being a bit of a handful all day. He’ll want to replicate that approach tonight, as will Zaha on the left and with Ayew on the right. He’s a nasty little pr*ck is Ayew and I seem to recall a few seasons ago where he got away with persistent foul after persistent foul so if he’s allowed to tonight – not unthinkable given we have the atrocious Anthony Taylor as the ref – then we could be up against it on a tough evening.
But here’s where the hope comes in. Firstly, they don’t have their midfield lynchpin in Conor Gallagher tonight. He is back at Chelsea and he was the engine room of that team. They have Doucourre in the middle of the park and he’s a very good, impressive, unit of of a man, but will he be able to cover the same ground Gallagher does? I’m not so sure. They are also missing McArther this evening, which means Bukayo can perhaps rest easy as he won’t be larruped in the air without fear of refereeing consequence, whilst Olise is also not available. That is good for us; I think he’s a very impressive player with the ball and he could certainly have caused us issues.
My hope is that this Arsenal side is very different to the one that crumbled so pitifully at Selhurst Park last season. For one thing there is Ben White and Saliba who will have to contend with Zaha and the very fact we don’t have Cedric – who can away a clumsy penalty against the Ivorian last season – feels like a big boost. We also have Zinchenko on the other flank, who you’d hope won’t get the same torrid run around that Tavares got last season. Then, to further add to the hope, we don’t have the waddling Frenchman up top to offer us basically nothing as our focal point. Instead we have a rapid, mobile forward in Gabriel Jesus, flanked by Martinelli and Saka, who will – I hope – enable us to move that Palace defence around a lot more than we did last season.
These are all factors that are contributing towards my excitement and hope for this evening, but I’m not completely immune to those worrying thoughts of a repeat of last year. I don’t think there will be – I certainly hope not – but a defeat this evening is not completely off the table if we aren’t 100% up for it. Palace will definitely be in front of their fans. They’ll start this game with high intensity but I wonder if they will start with a high press too? I think their victory over us last season came with a clinical edge; they scored three of their four shots on target, had five shots in total and ceded most possession to us (33% to our 67%). They won a lot of aerial duels, made a load of tackles and generally the story of the match was about the fight of one team and the lack of fight of another. I am expecting the same fight tonight, but what I want to see is our ability to be more clinical; we need to be on them early on and hopefully score early, because we know how this Arsenal team is when it goes behind. Let’s try to blitz Palace early to quieten the crowd, but let’s also see if we can’t put the game to bed in the first half like they did to us last season.
The chances of that happening are quite slim; Palace are very good at home and last season had one of the best home defensive records aside from Liverpool and Man City. I think I read that they have kept clean sheets in five of their last six matches. When you also then factor in our poor record in recent times against Palace – one win in the last eight matches stretching back to October 2018 – It doesn’t make for the most comfortable reading. With that in mind, would I take a draw this evening, if somebody were to offer it to me now? I’m not sure you know…that sounds like a sensible idea, but we have looked so impressive in pre season, we already look like a very different side compared to last season, that part of me thinks that we should be looking at a victory tonight. Come 10pm I might be feeling altogether very different, but as I type this away in the crisp, fresh morning of a Friday before the game, I’m inclined to think the answer is ‘no’. Let’s go out and get the win.
Hopefully that can happen and we can get our season off to a proper start this time.
Up the Arsenal.