If this was pitched as a battle between two of the three oldest managers in English league football, the Premier League’s old guard were enjoying two very different seasons. Seventy-year-old Roy Hodgson is basking in an Indian summer in south London. Sixty-eight-year-old Arsene Wenger is fighting against the biting cold and enduring the winds at Arsenal. No longer is he the omnipotent force.
Arsenal needed to make a statement after the impending departure of Alexis Sanchez was rubber-stamped late on Friday evening. Nothing will alter the mismanagement between May and January, nor the underachievement that made the Chilean yearn for Manchester and truly meaningful silverware. Yet Wenger has always insisted that no player is bigger than his club.
We expected jitters and the continued mood of resentment at how this season has panned out. Having been told that one season out of the Champions League could provide the platform for a hard reset and long-term improvement, Arsenal have taken further backward steps.
What we got was a first-half salvo with all the pomp of a team apparently pleased to have this whole messy Sanchez affair over. Arsenal scored four times and could have had at least two more. The goals came with such regularity that even the supporters sat in front of the press box stopped bothering to record every moment of the game on their phones after half an hour. They had enough digital memories for one week.
With Sanchez absent, Theo Walcott gone, Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck injured and Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang still transfer works in progress, Arsenal looked worryingly light up front. Yet those fears were dispelled by 3.15pm thanks to an extended period of defensive capitulation that home supporters at the Emirates have seen before – not always from the visitors.
Arsenal were as effervescent as you would expect, determined not to let this weekend be clouded by a bad news story. Jack Wilshere drove forward in the manner that must now make him a dead cert for England’s World Cup squad. If Alex Iwobi is the direct beneficiary of Sanchez’s absence – at least until new signings arrive – he also made his case for further faith. Granit Xhaka’s passing was still occasionally wayward, but you can’t have everything.
Mesut Ozil was the headline winner, at his sumptuous best and providing the creativity of at least two of three attacking midfielders. Ozil’s name was repeatedly sung around the Emirates, as if urging the German to sign a new contract. The concerns over his attitude and work-rate seem an awfully long time ago, while the natural talent was never in doubt. Measuring leadership solely through demonstrations of passion and desire is unhelpfully one-eyed.
Yet even Arsenal supporters will concede that their team were the recipients of extraordinary generosity. Palace had lost one of their last 12 in the league, but that was against an Arsenal team who scored thrice at Selhurst Park. Hodgson’s defence saw that initial bid of incompetence and raised it ten-fold. Nacho Monreal was afforded farcical amounts of time and space as he skittered forward. Arsenal’s left-back as the natural replacement for Sanchez was a plot twist I hadn’t banked on.
The roll of dishonour read as follows: James McArthur, who allowed Monreal to steal past him at a corner and head home; Timothy Fosu-Mensah, whose weak clearance allowed Monreal to pull the ball back for Iwobi; Martin Kelly, who lost Laurent Koscielny in the penalty area; Wayne Hennessey, whose inability to stop a moving ball puts his suitability to be a Premier League goalkeeper in doubt.
Having won the match at a canter in its first third, Arsenal resorted to their usual party trick of trying to score the perfect goal to no avail. Players regularly offered the ball to a teammate when in a perfect position to shoot themselves, like a cat playing with an injured mouse. So often do Wenger’s team stick to this strategy when they have a dominant lead, you wonder if it is their means of instilling belief, a life force.
They also gave Palace some fuel on which to keep warm after half-time, regularly misplacing passes in their own half as if seriously affected by a bad case of complacency. Yet even the groans of home supporters desperate for their team to score six or seven would not dullen the shine of Arsenal’s first victory of 2018. A clean sheet ruined will annoy Wenger, but isn’t enough to ruin an afternoon.
With a League Cup semi-final second leg in midweek and then a six-day break until they travel to Swansea, Wenger will hope that his team can now make progress on and off the pitch. The banner in tribute to Atom and Humber might remain in place – dogs are for life, even if their owner wasn’t – but Arsenal must find new leaders and new heroes without Alexis Sanchez. Emphatic home victories are the perfect tonic.