Bukayo Saka runs the show as Arsenal cruise past rudderless Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace may have arrived at the Emirates Stadium without a manager and winless in 2023, but Arsenal had good reason to be wary. When they faced Everton last month – also on a long winless run and heading into their first game after Frank Lampard’s sacking – few foresaw the relegation contenders claiming a precious win.

Everton were better set than Palace, however: Lampard’s successor, Sean Dyche, was already in place. Patrick Vieira’s time at Palace came to an abrupt end on Friday morning, giving Paddy McCarthy, drafted in from his role as under-21s coach, a little over 48 hours to salvage a game plan from the wreckage. A task that proved too great as they were soundly beaten 4-1.

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From the start Arsenal looked determined to stop their opponents’ disrupted preparations from coming together. Amid a thick grey fog drifting from the away end, where flares and smoke bombs greeted the first whistle, the hosts’ rhythmic pressing game clicked into gear immediately, Leandro Trossard smothering the first attempted pass of the game in a sign of things to come. Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka probed the flanks, the former threading through Trossard who failed to tempt Stuart Attwell, the referee, into awarding an early penalty after going down in a tangle. The visitors struggled to get on the ball, chasing shadows in the acrid haze.

As the smoke lifted, Palace produced two flashes of danger. McCarthy had promised aggression and speed in the final third and Wilfried Zaha obliged, taking advantage of a turnover out wide to dance in behind and unleash a low shot that Aaron Ramsdale could only push on to a post. It was pure luck that, having ricocheted out on to his trailing leg, the ball went behind for a corner rather than crossing the line. Not long afterwards, having ghosted through a yawning gap between Rob Holding and Gabriel Magalhães, Odsonne Édouard went one-on-one with Ramsdale only to be denied by an excellent save. If Palace were second best in possession, they still looked more than capable of hitting back on the counter-attack.

Arsenal players piqued fans’ curiosity by posing with a replica of the famous clock which adorns the Emirates – as it did Highbury – after their win at Fulham last weekend, spawning several theories as to its significance. Martin Ødegaard gave some more insight into the meaning of the gesture in his programme notes, explaining that “we spoke about the importance of working together as a team, like the parts of a clock”. After those two scares, Arsenal’s internal mechanics began to whir in unison. Martin Ødegaard drew a save from Joe Whitworth, the young goalkeeper filling in for the injured Vicente Guaita, while Saka and Martinelli pinned Palace’s full-backs deeper and deeper into danger.

As the game approached the half-hour mark, Arsenal made their breakthrough. Ben White won the ball out wide on the right before playing in Saka, who lofted a cross to Martinelli. Having steadied himself, he sent a shot whistling past Whitworth and into the back of the net. From there, the inevitable tick, tick, tick of Arsenal pressure grew ever louder. Thomas Partey headed over at a corner, Trossard and Ødegaard both went close and, unable to upset their opponents’ relentless tempo, Palace were almost entirely constrained to their own half. Just when it looked like they might make it to half-time with only a one-goal deficit, White played a beautiful one-two with Saka who curled into the far corner to leave Palace visibly shattered.

Arsenal faced little resistance in the second half, even if they did squander their clean sheet. Granit Xhaka made it 3-0 with a dinked finish from close range after being played through by Trossard who, in the process, registered an impressive sixth assist in five league games. Palace pulled one back at a corner via Jeffrey Schlupp, with the goal surviving a VAR check for handball. Arsenal missed the commanding presence of William Saliba, injured in the midweek against Sporting, in the box, although their defence otherwise held up well in his absence.

If that was Palace’s opportunity to launch a comeback, they failed to take it. Zaha went close after a bad miscue from Ramsdale, but his shot fizzed inches wide of the far post. After that, Arsenal’s well-oiled cogs, coils, and motors sprang back to life. Saka rounded off the win when Kieran Tierney, on as a substitute, teed him up inside the box after some outstanding play from Gabriel Jesus in the build-up. The home fans ended the game chanting Vieira’s name, both a show of support for their former captain and an echo – even if it still feels like tempting fate to say it – of past glories no longer feeling quite so far away.

With Manchester City occupied by the FA Cup, victory takes Arsenal eight points clear. After the stumble that began with defeat to Everton, they have momentum behind them once more. The trip to the Etihad next month may seem like a potential climax of the season, but wins like this one, the steady movements of the minute hand, will decide who wins the title. With 10 games remaining, Mikel Arteta will feel the clock is working just as it should.