LONDON — With 10 games to go, Arsenal find themselves firmly at that stage of the season where supporters peruse the fixture list, searching for the home bankers, the games where any point is a bonus and of course, the potential banana skins where their title tilt might slide off the rails.
When they returned from last year’s spring international break, it was not their meetings with those immediately around them that cost Mikel Arteta’s side a top-four finish. They beat Chelsea, Manchester United and West Ham. Still, by then they had ceded much of a hard-earned advantage to Tottenham by frittering away points against mid-table Brighton, Southampton and Sunday’s opponent Crystal Palace. This season the stakes are far higher and, in spite of the eight-point lead they have built up having played a game more than Manchester City, the margin for error is minimal.
Heading into the finishing straight, this does not look like a team who is going to blow its lead unnecessarily. Anfield, St. James’ Park and the Etihad could well be the graveyards of this Arsenal side but Pep Guardiola should not expect any helping hands when his title rivals face those lurking at the bottom rungs of the Premier League.
Just as they had against Fulham, a side whose record has flattered them this season, Arsenal took an inferior opponent to the cleaners, cruising to a 4-1 win over Crystal Palace that chipped away at City’s goal difference advantage while stretching their points advantage. The Eagles might have arrived in north London at a low point after sacking head coach Patrick Vieira on Friday morning — the Emirates faithful chanted the name of the Invincibles skipper with ever-growing gusto — but Arsenal themselves were hardly at peak powers as they welcomed a team undefeated on their last five visits to this ground.
Less than 72 hours earlier they had crashed out of the Europa League in the worst fashion possible: 120 minutes of football against an energetic Sporting CP, a penalty shootout defeat, injuries to two defenders. This had all the bearings of a trap game for the Gunners. Instead, they played with their customary ferocious intensity from the outset, bullying Palace on their way to wrapping up their three points by the interval. Goals from Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka in the first were followed by Granit Xhaka and another for Saka either side of a Jeffrey Schlupp goal off a corner.
“We took any question mark away from it,” said Arteta, “showing a lot of determination and purpose in our way of playing. We’re really happy to perform the way we did after playing 120 minutes, after losing two big players for us and then still compete and win the game in the way that we did.”
Across the pitch, Arsenal players dominated their individual duels. After one slip-up early on, Wilfried Zaha’s low drive tipped against the post by Aaron Ramsdale before the ball deflected off the Arsenal goalkeeper’s back and to safety. Ben White took it upon himself not just to silence Palace’s most dangerous attacking weapon but to force him into the sort of defensive positions where he hindered Tyrick Mitchell more than he helped. Both first-half goals came from Arsenal’s right-back finding space on the corner of the box to slip the ball through to Saka, first a cross fizzed to the back post and then an elegantly taken finish at the back post.
“Ben White was incredible today,” said Saka. “He has been incredible all season. We are building a great partnership, with Martin on that right side. Of course, I am not going to tell you the secrets of what we work on in training but, yeah, I am enjoying playing with them.”
Next to White, Rob Holding was easing any fears that William Saliba’s absence would be critical for Arsenal. No one would confuse Holding, who in recent years has settled into the role of defensive closer when there is a lead to be clung on to, with a Rolls Royce in the way they do the Frenchman but he offered all that Arteta could have asked of him. He won 70 percent of his aerial duels — Saliba averages 55 percent for the season — and completed more clearances than any player on either side. Not for nothing did Arteta label him “a clear example” for a team that “have to give more if we want to maintain [today’s] level”.
If Arsenal are to assert themselves on the best sides they may well need Saliba, who will be assessed tomorrow but is due to withdraw from the France squad. Arteta is hopeful that those scans will bring him a boost as he awaits confirmation that Takehiro Tomiyasu, who also limped out of the Sporting loss, will be out for the season. He is expected to undergo surgery next week. “It’s not looking good,” the Arsenal manager acknowledged. “Tomi is not one to exaggerate things. He was really concerned straight away and we are concerned.”
The depth is there, however, with Arteta able to use the closing stages of this win to get minutes in the legs of Emile Smith Rowe, Jakub Kiwior and Gabriel Jesus; as against Fulham last week the Brazilian schemed dangerously without finding the net, though his pressure forced two nervy Palace clearances that allowed Kieran Tierney to tee up Saka for his second. With 12 goals and 10 assists he finds himself in auspicious company; Alexis Sanchez is the most recent of seven club greats to have reached double figures in those categories.
Like some of his predecessors — Robin van Persie, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp in particular — Saka has a convincing case to rank among the best players in the Premier League. He even has Gary Lineker’s vote for player of the year. Against this caliber of opponent, the elite tend to feast. Saka did that and so did Arsenal. There will be plenty of games in the run in where they are more evenly matched but on recent evidence this does not look like a side who are going to give away points to those who are not at their level.