For 30 minutes, Arsenal rendered that perennial myth of Selhurst Park being ‘a tough place to go’ utter nonsense. They were bright, vibrant, playing with intent against a static host. Manchester United were dummies in a series of training-ground drills a fortnight ago; Crystal Palace were little different.
Then Arsenal happened. If Spursy has become a synonym for bottling and failing to live up to expectations, the culture that has crippled their north London rivals for so long is entirely more damaging. No club collapses due to a sequence of seemingly unconnected events quite like Arsenal.
Lucas Torreira’s injury – and Arsenal’s subsequently exposed midfield – was the first card to fall. The lack of real punishment for culprit Wilfried Zaha only added to the sense of injustice. Then came the concession of a deflected equaliser, the warranted dismissal of their captain, Jordan Ayew presumably breaking some sort of record by committing seven fouls and avoiding a booking, an intense atmosphere, an increasingly chaotic game and a collective dropping of heads.
Perhaps there is something to be gleaned from the fact Arsenal did not lose. But for that opening half an hour that never seemed like an option. They had 75.8% possession, manufactured a quite wonderful goal and completely dominated Palace, who made 50 passes to the imperious David Luiz’s 43.
It did not resemble a contest. But the longer Arsenal went without truly stamping their authority on either the game or their opponents, the more bullets they loaded into a gun aimed downwards. It came as little surprise that they eventually shot themselves in the foot.
It was as if they expected Palace to be so listless and lethargic throughout. The hosts eventually rallied – James McCarthy made nine tackles in the sort of display that crowds feed off, and thus help sustain and reenergise the rest of the team.
Torreira would have helped to combat that. Matteo Guendouzi, as talented and driven as he is, will either thrive or struggle to survive in that sort of scenario, with no in between.
And those describing this as the sort of performance that was commonplace under Unai Emery are horribly misguided. Arsenal would have lost this game under the Spaniard, swallowed whole by the pressure and imploding after the red card. Mikel Arteta instead pursued victory, Nicolas Pepe hitting the post and Alexandre Lacazette forcing a fine follow-up save from Vicente Guaita in the closing stages.
As suggested in 16 Conclusions on last month’s defeat to Chelsea, Arsenal’s performances are genuinely more important and insightful than their results at the minute. And this was a display that flitted between brilliant and below par, perhaps their worst of Arteta’s nascent reign.
It also keeps expectations in check. Beating United in the way they did gave rise to a hope that felt impossible under the previous regime. Champions League qualification remains a pipedream that requires an eight-point, six-team swing in 16 games. Progress and direction is a possibility that needs time, belief and understanding.
The truth is that no immediate antidote to poison exists. It will linger in the bloodstream for a while, the symptoms still present, mistakes still customary, single-goal leads still susceptible. Health will improve and energy will return, but only in spurts. A full recovery demands patience.
Arsenal are in rehabilitation after 18 months of mistreatment and tactical malnutrition. It will not happen overnight.