We may be just one down in a 38-fixture season, but after doing the most Arsenal thing ever by losing to West Ham on the opening day of the campaign, the Gunners’ Premier League clash with Crystal Palace on Sunday is practically a must-win game.
Of course, the north Londoners are the Premier League kings of final run-in flourishes. With their Champions League status at stake after incurring six losses in the first half of the season, Arsenal amassed 39 points in their final 15 fixtures of the 2012/13 campaign, only losing to Tottenham Hotspur, to clinch fourth spot. Likewise, last term, the Gunners rose from sixth place in February to third by the end of May, winning 10 of 14 and producing a level of form suggesting they’ve finally awoken from their decade of title-less dormancy.
But that’s precisely the point; if Arsenal are to be a genuine threat in this season’s title race, they need to be on song from the first game to the last. Dawdling out of the starting blocks has stunted their potential over the last few years and after the shock defeat to West Ham, they’re already playing catch-up. The Premier League’s opening weekend always throws up surprise results, so perhaps the Emirates affair can be forgiven. But anything less than a win on Sunday could leave Arsenal five points adrift of the division’s summit – or worst-case scenario, six points adrift and rock bottom of the table.
In my opinion, there’s no question Arsenal entered their opener with West Ham overconfident after a dominant pre-season. They won every game to produce an aggregate scoreline of 15-1, winning such un-coveted accolades as the Asia Trophy, the Community Shield and their self-invented Emirates Cup, and entered last Sunday under the assumption that they’d humiliate the Hammers in equally effortless fashion. But for all the insatiable talent in their starting XI, only Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looked truly psychologically prepared for a new Premier League season. He alone wasn’t enough to prevent a 2-0 defeat.
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The good news is that I can’t seeing the Gunners making the same mistake twice. They were wrapped up in all the hype last weekend and fatally underestimated the opposition. But their squad is bursting with top draw talent – especially in midfield – and if they come anywhere close to matching the performance levels of last season against Palace, they’ll take at least a point.
The bad news, on the other hand, is that Palace have become one of the most formidable acts in the Premier League since Alan Pardew’s appointment in January and have only grown stronger through the course of the transfer window, completing deals for Bakary Sakho, Alex McCarthy, Connor Wickham, Patrick Bamford and arguably the Premier League’s biggest coup of the summer, former PSG playmaker Yohan Cabaye.
The Eagles are no longer simply a troublesome starting Xi. Pardew’s squad options put the rest of the division’s rank and file to shame, epitomised best by Yannick Bolasie – the talismanic counter-attacking force who netted a hat-trick against Sunderland last term – and midfield-warrior-come-club-captain Mile Jedinak starting the season on the bench. Likewise, Selhurst Park is one of the toughest Premier League grounds to visit; a gritty, old-fashioned arena bursting at the seams with militant support and stands looming over the touchline to create a feeling of encirclement.
Perhaps most worryingly for Arsenal, however, Palace seem almost tailor-made to exploit their weaknesses. Dimitri Payet ran riot on the counter-attack at the Emirates and that’s exactly the kind team Palace are, with a well-organised, physical defence, scintillating power and pace on the break and the added layer of Cabaye’s quality at the heart of midfield.
They were also the Premier League’s most prolific from dead ball situations last season, equalling West Brom’s division-best 19 goals from set pieces, and demonstrated their deadliness again on Saturday as Damien Delaney converted a knock-down from an expertly-timed late Papa Soaure run. Another poorly placed defensive line at a free kick – like the one that committed Petr Cech to erroneously concede Arsenal’s first against West Ham – could have equal or greater consequences during the visit to Selhurst Park.
And in that sense, the Palace clash will give a vital insight into the Gunners’ title credentials; whether last week’s disappointment was a not uncommon opening day blooper or whether poor results to physical, counter-attacking sides will become a recurring theme of their season.
But more important to Arsenal than how a defeat may be perceived is simply the matter of getting some points on the board. Chelsea incurred just two defeats en route to the title last season (albeit losing another to West Brom after their champions status had been mathematically secured), yet Arsenal are already one down and three points behind pace-setters Manchester City.
It may be early doors, but another slip-up on Sunday could end the Gunners’ title bid before it’s even started. How many times have we seen that over the last ten years?