10-man Arsenal held onto a 1-0 lead for 30 minutes to see off a pesky Crystal Palace side at Selhurst Park. It shouldn’t have been as difficult as it was. But there is no escaping the fact that Takehiro Tomiyasu received two incredibly soft yellow cards that completely changed the match. Not soft yellow cards from my Arsenal-tinted perspective, either. Soft yellow cards in the view of pretty much any neutral who weighed in on the decisions. Even former Tottenham and Crystal Palace player Andros Townsend on the call thought it was harsh.
Arsenal were up a goal and in control of the match before going down a player, and even though it felt nervy, they defended really well after that. Crystal Palace, despite bossing the possession and moving the ball around in the Arsenal defensive third, hardly generated any chances. Aaron Ramsdale had to make just the one save, I believe. Mikel Arteta got the substitutions right, too. Really well done all around.
The match could have been much less stressful, however, had the Gunners done more with their chances in the first half, which continues to be a theme. Gabriel Martinelli, who had a poor match, failed to pull the trigger just minutes into the game despite being wide open in the box. Eddie Nketiah chipped over the bar from in close. Arsenal need to be more clinical, convert the chances they generate, and put teams away when in control of matches.
Declan Rice was superb on the evening. He seemed to be everywhere on the pitch, disrupting Palace, winning the ball, and contributing to the attack. The reasons Arsenal spent all that money to buy him were on full display. William Saliba was excellent, as well. His ability to defend 1-v-1 and cover so much ground is a big part of why Arsenal are able to play the way they do. Mikel Arteta trusts him completely to win his battles, which enables a more aggressive setup. Kai Havertz had a solid game, too. He does all the little things, is involved early in the attacking moves, and works hard when Arsenal are out of possession.
Martin Ødegaard scored the only goal of the match, converting a penalty won by Eddie Nketiah. Arsenal won the spot kick with a clever set piece, taken quickly by Gabriel Martinelli. Thomas Partey created congestion that Nketiah was able to run around to get free and the quick restart caught Palace unaware. Palace keeper came charging off his line, dove wildly at Nketiah’s feet, and took him down.
There was a VAR review to determine whether Thomas Partey had committed a foul in creating the congestion, but it was quickly dismissed. What Partey did is no different than what every team does on literally every set piece to free up attackers.
Partey was the subject of a VAR review at the other end of the pitch as well after Eberechi Eze went down in the Arsenal box. There might have been the slightest bit of contact on Eze, but Partey was pulling out of the challenge as opposed to going into it, and Eze went down extremely easily, anticipating the contact. It would have been incredibly harsh to give after Nketiah was not given a penalty in the first half for a similar amount of contact.
David Coote and the VAR got those calls correct. Other than that, Coote had a pretty awful day, which is not surprising. He is one of the worst referees in the PL for my money.
Takehiro Tomiyasu held the ball for eight seconds on a throw-in before he was shown his first yellow card. Yes, it was clear Coote was going to book somebody on Arsenal for delay after having told the side no more time-wasting, but the card should have gone to Kai Havertz. Havertz held the ball for almost 30 seconds before tossing it to the fullback.
And then the second “foul” was ludicrous. It wasn’t a foul. Jordan Ayew spun off Tomiyasu and threw himself to the ground. There wasn’t any shirt pull. I’m not even sure there was an incidental clipping of heels. But it didn’t matter. And since it was a second caution, it couldn’t be reviewed by VAR, which is a rule that needs changing. I’m not suggesting we review all potential 2nd caution fouls, just ones where the 2nd caution is shown.
The second yellow was particularly galling because not five minutes earlier, Jordan Ayew (on a yellow card, by the way) grabbed Bukayo Saka from behind with both hands and pulled him down from behind. Even if you grant that Tomiyasu caught Ayew (which I’m not granting), Ayew’s contact on Saka was 10x the severity. The lack of consistency on two similar fouls committed mere minutes apart is inexplicable. And then for good measure, late in the match, Jefferson Lerma pulled Eddie Nketiah down from behind to stop an Arsenal break without receiving a caution.
And David Coote’s incompetence doesn’t stop there. One of the new directives this season is that players who ask for cautions for opponents are to be automatically booked. Apparently Mr. Coote forgot that bit. Both Eberechi Eze and Thomas Partey asked for yellows, yet neither were booked for making the gesture. What is the use of pointless, misplaced emphasis if you aren’t even going to enforce your own dumb rules?
It feels so much better to be miffed at another questionable refereeing performance when it hasn’t cost Arsenal points. You could tell from the Gunners’ celebrations at the final whistle they were thrilled with the win. And they should be. They fought hard for it. Selhurst Park is not an easy place to play, and Crystal Palace have been quite good, especially under Roy Hodgson. Arsenal and Manchester City are the only clubs to beat Palace on their ground in the last 10 Premier League matches played there.
Arsenal are clearly not the finished product yet. Oleksandr Zinchenko is still working back from his injury. Gabriel Jesus isn’t back from his Kai Havertz is settling into his role. Declan Rice will continue to get better. The play does not look as silky smooth as it did last season. Mikel Arteta is still tinkering with the lineup.
Still, the Gunners have two wins from two matches. And when they start firing on all cylinders, watch out.