Yes: the rumors are true. The Premier League, who never really left, is back. And it felt pretty good on a sweltering Friday night, watching an Arsenal team of eager new moving parts do a great job of raising 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 ever started. This was parched heat, the grass burning white, the sky a deathly blue. The English summer does at least have a sense of irony. To avoid the Gulf sun the Premier League will instead play through a heat wave in England.
All in all this has been a fun, breezy start to the season. If last week’s Community Shield felt like something of a visit, football reimagined as a 90-minute Sopranos dream sequence, there was a familiar tang to this. London derby. A densely packed system manager. That dull summer sun. Maybe this was real after all.
It’s a question that could also apply to Arsenal in a season that will define the work up to this point of Mikel Arteta. They started with a bold initial 11, the kind of 11 that is bandied around on fan chats, the hopeful 11, the cake for breakfast 11. Saliba! Martinelli! No filler! Except maybe Granit Xhaka! But that’s good, he’s good now too!
By the end of a hard-fought 2-0 victory, a score line that did not reflect Crystal Palace’s resilience between the goals, it felt as if something could just move 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 having to make a tackle. His passing was solid. He didn’t look flustered or even very tired until the end, a step up from the grueling, snot-stained displays of Arsenal centre-backs in the past. He ran through this, teasing things out a few seconds before in his head. This is good. Where was he again?
If the game was reassuringly fast-paced, for opening day TV viewers there were some disconcerting developments in the Sky Sports coverage. Before kick-off, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher were sent to do vox-pops with fans, a step before going out to get some milk, but watering down the role of expert analyst. Why not go all the way and just stick them in a bar somewhere?
Gaz and Carra did their best. But frowning dudes in replica shirts are in plentiful supply outside the paywall. Graphics-laden forensic content is what people pay their subs for.
Then there was the strange, claustrophobic prospect of Patrick Vieira being forced to spout breathless platitudes at half-time. This was unpleasant for all concerned. Vieira does not want to do this. He is not part of the show at that stage. This is still not American wrestling. Stop overproducing this thing. The game is good. Trust it.
And both of these teams were good, Arsenal from the start. Gabriel Jesus did something brilliant with three minutes left, stealing the ball 40 yards from goal and producing a nutmeg and a side step. For long periods those pink away shirts, the color of heat-damaged processed ham, found neat triangles. Zinchenko was thrillingly mobile, taking more touches in the opening half hour than anyone else on the pitch.
He had a hand in the opening goal, finding five yards of unmarked space with a looping run from the edge of the box. He headed the ball back. Martinelli nodded it.
Jesus was also quick on his feet, and desperate to dribble and turn. He is in draft exactly what Arsenal needed: pressure, edge, authority. Maybe people forgot how good he was, or how good he was meant to be. Between them Jesus and Martinelli had eight dribbles and four shots in the opening half hour of the season. They played together for Brazil against Japan in Tokyo in June. They should be that good.
Palace were depleted due to injury and the loss of players. Expectations are low, which might just be a useful place to be, but Vieira really seems to know what he’s doing and which players to trust. They pressed Arsenal back 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. Plus 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, time to deliver the investment in time and resources. But they have a style of play and a draft. The shadow of the great Arsène has passed. The flaws here are the flaws of this team, the strengths on which Arteta grafted. Whisper it, but this was actually quite encouraging.