If Arsenal needed Patrick Vieira’s managerial credentials ramming home, the message was delivered here. It should have been embossed with three points but Crystal Palace, who had been the better side for more than two thirds of the game, were denied at the very last and their players’ immediate reactions were of the kind more commonly associated with a chastening defeat. For those picking over the touchline battle, though, this was only a win for Vieira: while Mikel Arteta’s players struggled for cohesion and fluidity, Palace looked supremely composed once they had cleared their heads from an early setback and performed with a conviction that augurs well.
They only needed to maintain it for another 10 seconds when Arsenal won a corner in the fifth minute of added time. But their defence could not clear and Ben White was allowed to control before volleying through a crowded box 12 yards out, his effort taking a deflection and squirming off Vicente Guaita’s foot. Alexandre Lacazette was given a tap-in and Vieira, who had celebrated lustily as his side overhauled a potentially disastrous start to lead, would have to stomach a third straight draw.
“On merit I think we were the better team today,” Vieira said. “I think it’s two points lost for us. The draw hurts because of the performance we had today. I’m really disappointed for my players because they played well, showed a lot of character and personality.”
Those attributes were required in spades because, by the time Palace had come out of the traps, they were a goal down. At that point it was hard to see an outcome beyond an analogue of Arsenal’s evisceration of Spurs: only eight minutes had passed when Nicolas Pépé, allowed time to cut inside and execute his signature move, curled a left-footed shot that Guaita tipped away. The keeper’s respite lasted a split second, because Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was careering in at the far post and jabbed into the open goal at a moderately taxing angle.
That was the only clear chance Arsenal created until Lacazette’s introduction midway through the second half. Palace wrested control of midfield and Arteta’s decision to field Thomas Partey as his sole defensive conscience in the engine room came to look foolhardy. While their possession only brought two genuine near misses before half-time, Odsonne Édouard lofting a half-chance over and Aaron Ramsdale clawing Conor Gallagher’s volley wide, they had shown enough to feel confident of turning things around.
The argument Arteta could deploy was that they should not have been able to do so with a full complement. With the interval three minutes away James McArthur cocked his boot in what, presumably, was an attempt to volley at goal after a Palace free-kick was cleared. Bukayo Saka reached the ball first but McArthur completed his action anyway, following through and cracking his opponent on the calf. It was a desperately poor challenge, although that word would appear generous, but VAR did not interfere with Mike Dean’s decision to settle for a booking.
“I cannot believe how the player stayed on the pitch,” Arteta said, questioning the lack of intervention. “What was explained to us at the start of the season and what happened tonight doesn’t make sense.”
Arteta had a strong case and felt doubly bruised given Saka had to be replaced at the break. He was on shakier ground with his analysis of what followed, admitting Arsenal had lacked composure but insisting they were good value for their point. “In the end I think we got the reward we deserved,” he said. “I don’t think we deserved to lose the game.”
His players had a fair stab at doing so. They had begun the second half promisingly but then Partey, who struggled for much of the night, was mugged by a sharper Jordan Ayew 15 yards outside his own penalty area. Christian Benteke quickly seized possession and, driving past Gabriel Magalhães, swept a clinical strike past Ramsdale. It was his first goal since he breached the same opponents at Selhurst Park in May, and his performance made light of Wilfried Zaha’s absence through illness.
Lacazette’s arrival sparked Arsenal but, moments after he had drawn a save from Guaita, Palace struck again. This time Albert Sambi Lokonga, who had replaced Saka, was robbed and the visitors countered slickly through Gallagher and Michael Olise. Eventually Édouard, surging into the box with White backing off, finished emphatically off Ramsdale’s crossbar.
Kieran Tierney struck the other frame before Lacazette belatedly spared Arsenal’s blushes. It does not say much for the development of their attack that the Frenchman, sparingly used this season and unlikely to be long for these parts, appears the key to mounting sustained pressure. That was no concern for Vieira, who could see through the frustration clearly enough to relish the rousing reception he received before kick-off.
“It was really nice,” he said. “I’m not surprised because it says a lot about Arsenal and myself, because of the nine years I spent at the football club,” he said. Should he keep this up, fate might conspire to ensure that one day he enjoys a few more.