HomeSportsDeclan Rice adds steel to Arsenal's style and leaves Mikel Arteta thrilled

Declan Rice adds steel to Arsenal’s style and leaves Mikel Arteta thrilled

Declan Rice showed why Arsenal paid £100 million for him with a back-to-the-wall display at Selhurst Park – Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers

Two wins out of two, six points out of six, and Arsenal are not yet at their best. In fact, they don’t even come close. This trip to Crystal Palace was instead an evening of gritting teeth and keeping on the line, especially after Takehiro Tomiyasu’s red card left them 10 men against the home side’s combination of 11 players and 25,000 supporters.

There will be occasions this season when Mikel Arteta’s squad unsettles their opponents as master locksmiths. Those performances will look great and the players of Arsenal will enjoy every moment. This was the opposite of an evening, with defensive resilience being key after Martin Odegaard’s second-half penalty put Arsenal ahead.

If Arsenal maintain that advantage after half an hour of play with 10 men, it will be a huge satisfaction for Arteta and his players. If they want to challenge Manchester City again, they can’t win every match in style. Sometimes this league calls for steel and Arsenal have shown that here. “I loved it,” said Arteta. “I absolutely loved it.”

Would it have been different if Palace had had Michael Olise available? It would certainly have benefited the creativity of the home team. A lack of sharpness in attack could be a regular problem for Roy Hodgson this season as South London’s post-Wilfried Zaha era begins. The longer they pressed for an equalizer against the wall of Arsenal defenders, the less likely they were to score.

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Robustness has rarely been a strength for Arsenal over the years, but here they have looked strong, powerful and aggressive all along. In the second half, after Tomiyasu was shown a controversial second yellow card, their defensive resistance was led by the tireless Declan Rice, who swung quickly at tackles and closed space all over the pitch.

Defending Arsenal against Crystal Palace

No way past – even as Arsenal down to 10 men made life difficult for Crystal Palace attack – PA/John Walton

Odegaard provided a captain’s goal and Rice provided real leadership behind him in midfield. The club record signing has been bought for his technical quality, but also for moments like this when his team needs energy, strength and that football’s most precious quality: guts. At the end, Rice clenched his fists and waved his arms at the road supporters. They roared back. That relationship is developing rapidly.

Did the Arsenal fans see why the club deemed Rice worth more than £100 million? “Hopefully we saw a little,” Arteta said. “I think he was great. He was the boss in midfield. I think he dominated the game. He was very influential, both offensively and defensively.”

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Speaking to Sky Sports after the final whistle, Rice said: “Before the game tonight I was on my way to the game and I just thought, ‘Just go there and have it tonight. Just go out and try to put on a show.”

“Even during the warm-up I just felt an energy – I wanted to get out there and perform. I was really looking forward to it. Only two games have been played, there is so much talk about the price tag and me playing for Arsenal, and I want to keep proving people wrong and proving I can play at the top.”

Arteta now has more options at his disposal than at any other point in his managerial career and as Arsenal maintained his defensive form in the last half hour it was striking to see how physically imposing his team has become. “If we have to take the game and be physical, we are very capable of doing that,” said Arteta.

Arsenal’s defense for those final moments included the following: Thomas Partey, William Saliba, Ben White, Gabriel Magalhaes, Jakub Kiwior, Rice. All six of those players are over six feet tall and all six are capable of dominating their opponents in physical duels. Palace continued to pass the ball and Arsenal continued to clear the ball. Saliba was especially dominant, making eight clearances during the night.

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William Saliba

William Saliba was dominant in defense on a night when Arsenal proved they can both roll up their sleeves and put on a show – Getty Images/Stuart MacFarlane

“We have to give Arsenal the credit,” said Hodgson. “For their defensive organization and the fact that they defended crosses very well and brought in the blocks when needed.”

There was some surprise when Odegaard stepped in for the penalty in the second half, after Eddie Nketiah was fouled by Palace goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, rather than the usual taker Bukayo Saka. Arteta himself was shocked, saying he had “no idea” that Odegaard would accept. “It’s about player leadership,” said Arteta. “If they felt it was the right thing to do, then I’m fine with it.”

He will be less happy with his side’s shooting in the first half, when Nketiah was especially wasteful. The striker is often described as an excellent finisher who doesn’t offer enough in general play, but this time the opposite was true. First he hit the post, when he was one-on-one, and then he somehow scooped the ball over the crossbar from close range.

Tomiyasu’s first yellow was for wasting time, which was far from smart. His second was for an alleged tug on Jordan Ayew’s shirt, which replays suggested did not exist. Hard, sure, but Palace couldn’t capitalize. As Hodgson’s side tried to move forward, they seemed to run out of ideas before they ran out of time.

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