Arsenal’s high-profile summer arrivals have claimed the headlines in a pre-season bubbling over with goals and optimism – but it was an “old” new face who made the biggest impression when the serious business started.
Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko have brought their winning mentality from Premier League champions Manchester City as they reunited with Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta as he tries to push the Gunners forward this season.
And while both showed quality and pedigree as Arsenal opened the season with a 2-0 win at Crystal Palace, it was the defensive performance of 21-year-old William Saliba that outshone everyone else to create a real stir of excitement among the visiting fans.
Saliba took the scenic route to his first Premier League start after joining Arsenal from St Etienne for £27m in July 2019, taking in loan spells back at his parent club then at Nice and Marseille, impressing so much there that he won full France honours.
He was Ligue 1 Young Player Of The Season last year and his spell away from Emirates Stadium raised questions about where he fitted into Arteta’s plans, with Marseille keen to make his loan deal permanent.
Arteta insisted he was simply handling Saliba with care until his development reached a stage when his time had come – and judging by a truly outstanding display at Selhurst Park, it has now arrived.
Jesus, who will offer Arsenal pace, movement and goals, shone as they took the lead through Gabriel Martinelli but as the game went on and Palace raised a gallop at last, Saliba delivered such calm command and controlled power that he emerged as the game’s outstanding performer.
Saliba’s central defensive partnership with Gabriel is in its infancy and there were anxious moments when Arsenal keeper Aaron Ramsdale was called into action to save from Odsonne Edouard and Eberechi Eze.
Throughout, however, Saliba was unruffled and virtually faultless to delight his manager.
It is one game, an early call, and no-one at Arsenal will be getting carried away with their result or the performance.
Saliba, however, looked such an exciting, composed talent, confirming all the background noise that this was a top class defender ready for the Premier League, that a little excitement should be allowed.
Arsenal simply carried their thrilling pre-season form into this first game of the season, dominating possession and running Palace ragged in a fashion that suggested Arteta has used his time well, bolting young and established talent from last season onto his new acquisitions.
They had to survive pressure of sorts from Palace and it took a late Bukayo Saka shot deflected in by the head of Palace’s England defender Marc Guehi to seal the deal, but this was fully deserved win.
It was all so different from the opening Friday night of last season when a Covid-hit Arsenal were handed the unwanted assignment at newly promoted Brentford, sinking meekly without trace in an awful start to the season, £50m new boy Ben White enduring a nightmare debut, although he was not alone.
Here, Arsenal showed no nerves in the sort of atmosphere Selhurst Park specialises in and could have been ahead even before Martinelli opened the scoring, all Palace’s early enthusiasm given its only outlet by chasing the ball to all parts of the pitch.
Arteta has hinted strongly that there will be more new arrivals before the end of the transfer window, with Leicester City’s Youri Tielemans constantly linked, and while Manchester City and Liverpool are hotly tipped to conduct another two-horse title race, Chelsea are in a state of flux and Arsenal could easily mount a top four challenge.
Arsenal’s manager has received some lampooning for his style in the latest “All Or Nothing” access all areas documentary, but the opening evidence suggests he has done some smart work this summer.
Fabio Vieira, the £34m midfield signing from Porto, will be an asset when fit, while there was the welcome sight of Kieran Tierney restored to full health and coming on as a substitute, ready to restore his influence.
Arsenal’s fans will be wary of reaching conclusions too quickly but the imperious manner in which Saliba strode through a game that always presents a test, even with Palace short of their best, will have only added to the feelgood factor engendered by the addition of proven, winning quality in the shape of Jesus and Zinchenko.
The joyous Gunners fans chanted “top of the league” in the closing moments – tongue in cheek of course but a loud affirmation that this was a much more pleasurable experience than their last opening Friday night of Premier League action.