Photo: Getty Images
My mental picture of the Crystal Palace training ground these days is remarkably similar to the montage in Lord of the Rings where they show the orc army being hatched, slowly but surely. To no one's surprise, Tony Pulis' men came into the Grove with a game plan of 9 center-halves hacking at everything that moves, in the hopes that somehow Marouane Chamakh could nick something on the break.
We could have told you how well that one was going to work, Tone, old son.
The thing is, there are three crucial differences between now and when we'd drop points at Stoke on the regular - 1. Arsenal are miles more resilient than they were back then. 2. Palace are clearly not at their O-Levels yet in Advanced Football Thuggery (though that prick Mile Jedinak seems to be the star pupil). 3. All season long, Arsenal have found ways to win these games where not everything is clicking offensively.
Look, that first half was dreadful. I know it, you know it. Palace set their stall to defend, aided and abetted by Jonathan Moss' insistence on calling absolutely nothing. The Gunners monstered possession as you would expect against these opponents, but barely troubled them until half an hour had elapsed. At times it looked like Bad Old Arsenal trying to walk the ball into the net, except with worse final passes than usual. Even the technical genius Santi Cazorla exhibited the first touch of a fourth-tier player on several occasions. It was hard to watch, I'll tell you that for free.
Other than one half-chance that Julian Speroni did well to cut the angle on in the opening exchanges, the Palace keeper was a virtual spectator for much of the opening stanza. Despite that, and despite his culpability on both of our goals (more on that in a bit), he came up with one of the more astonishing saves of the season to keep it 0-0 heading into the interval.
Olivier Giroud won a free kick, the latest to suffer from Jedinak's over-enthusiastic defending. Mesut Ozil floated in a beauty, which may or may not have been slightly flicked on by Laurent Koscielny. As a keeper, this is the worst-case scenario for you - you expect someone, anyone to get a solid head onto it, and have to be ready for that. When it just floats on through, you're often flat-footed and at a serious disadvantage to get there. I don't think Speroni is a truly Premier League-level keeper, but credit where it's due, he did fantastically well to get over and claw it to safety.
That took them to half-time, and as a gent I was talking to at the Pig was saying, surely all Pulis said during the break was "Keep doing what you're doing". Fortunately for us, we found a moment of magic to make the Orc King tear up his halftime notes in just the 47th minute. A rare spell on the ball for the visitors was broken up, and Cazorla was away. He skied a gorgeous curving ball over the sleeping Palace backline, into the path of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Speroni sort of came out, then stopped...then fell over as the Ox tapped it in the other direction. I would stop just short of saying the goal was the Argentine's fault, but a better keeper may have done more to cut off the angle.
I can't say I'm complaining that he didn't.
Let's be fair to Palace, though. I had expected the goal to force them to open up, allowing Arsenal to run riot and score three or four more goals. Instead, they stuck to their game plan and could so easily have been level just a few minutes later. I didn't see who played the pass into him, but Cameron Jerome took advantage of horrific back-post defending by Nacho Monreal to come in alone on Wojciech Szczezny. Jerome's header was solid, but Szczesny did brilliantly well to block with his legs.
The Eagles never seriously threatened again though, and our boys sealed the win with 15 minutes left on the clock. The Ox started the move with a cheeky back-heel into the path of Giroud. The Frenchman - who had a good game with his hold-up play, for the record - completed the one-two to the Ox. The youngster still had it all to do, with several defenders in attendance. He beat one, cut inside, and fired a shot on goal. It was a nice effort, but damn near anyone in the Premier League stops it. Speroni, however, let it squirm under him and into the net.
Gooners with longer memories may remember the last time Palace were in the division, and that the miles-past-it Gabor Kiraly was their number 1 back then. Guess who was the guy backing him up, who couldn't get him out of the team? Yep. Julian Speroni. Pulis bought Wayne Hennessey from Wolves on deadline day for a reason, friends.
Anyway, that was pretty much that. Palace essentially gave up the ghost, and our boys mostly played keep-ball the rest of the way. There will be some grumblings from the never-happy set about how we didn't stick 4 or 5 past this lot, but I for one am heartened at how we see these games out now. There's a lot of season left to go, a lot of big games to play, and we do not have a massive squad of players to do it with. How many times in the last 5-6 years have we given up stupid late goals because we were still pouring men forward despite having the lead?
We're smart now. We shut the door, and save something in the tank for the next one. Which, by the way, happens to be Liverpool away. If we ease up on the pedal a bit at home to Crystal Palace so that we have a bit more to give against, as odd as this is to say, a direct title challenger...that's something I'll do all day.
The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:
Szczesny 8, Monreal 6, Koscielny 7, Mertesacker 8, Sagna 7, Arteta 7, Oxlade-Chamberlain 8, Podolski 7 (Rosicky 7), Ozil 7 (Gibbs N/A), Giroud 7 (Bendtner N/A)
Man of the Match: The Ox in the Box, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Side Rant: Some of what I've been reading on Twitter (AKA The Realm of the Damned) and other social media in the last week or two has been almost vomit-inducing. Seriously, some of the abuse leveled at the manager for not buying a striker - despite the fact that we get so many goals from midfield anyway with our style of play - has been ridiculous. Hey, I know I've said my piece about Arsene on several occasions, and to this day I insist that much of the length of our trophy drought falls squarely on his shoulders.
However, anyone with the correct number of chromosomes should be able to work out that this Arsenal team is different, and is in with a real shout of winning a trophy this season. I expect the media to continue their tongue-bathing of Manchester City and Chelsea - the bloody lot of them have always hated us and most of them have severe cases of recency bias anyway. But, I expect better from Gooners. Really, I do. There is one passage in Fever Pitch where Hornby speaks about how everyone hates us, and our united front in the face of that is one of the things he loves about the club. Hell, me too. We're the Arsenal and two fingers up at the rest of you if you don't like us.
Let's just say that it's a damn good thing that the players themselves seem to have a lot more spirit, heart, fight and balls than some of the people who claim to support them. Fuck Man City. Fuck Chelsea. As far as I'm concerned, this is our title to lose.
Who's with me?