Saka stands out as Arsenal thrash Crystal Palace to take charge of Premier League title race
LONDON — Bukayo Saka scored twice as Arsenal moved eight points clear at the top of the Premier League with a 4-1 win against Crystal Palace.
– Report: Arsenal thrash Palace | Premier League table
Despite sacking manager Patrick Vieira on Friday, just 48 hours before he would face the club he once captained, Palace failed to end their woeful run that has seen them fail to win any game in 2023. Arsenal were just too strong as Saka (2), Gabriel Martinelli and Granit Xhaka scored their goals, with Jeffrey Schlupp netting in the second half for Palace.
1. Saka shines as formidable Arsenal keep Man City waiting for a slip
So much for Arsenal falling away in the title race after losing to Manchester City. Since losing 3-1 to the champions at the Emirates on Feb. 15, Mikel Arteta’s team have won six games on the spin in the Premier League and are now eight points clear at the top of the table.
Bukayo Saka inspired the Gunners to their latest win against Crystal Palace, with two goals in a top-class performance and the England winger exemplified the confidence and belief that is now coursing through this Arsenal team.
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After losing to City and briefly surrendering top spot, much of the talk was about Arsenal falling by the wayside and even being overtaken by third-place Manchester United. But six games (and 18 points) later, Arsenal have silenced all of the doubters by avoiding every single hazard that has fallen in their path.
In most title run-ins, even the eventual champions slip up in games where you least expect them to drop points. But even though they needed to score crucial late winners against Aston Villa and Bournemouth, Arsenal held their nerve and recorded the victories. Every time City thought their title rivals would drop points, Arsenal simply stepped up and won when they had to.
On this occasion, there was never any doubt that Arsenal would coast to victory after Gabriel Martinelli opened the scoring on 28 minutes, making it a reasonably stress-free win. That said, winning with ease is an achievement in itself in a title race, and Arsenal’s ability to do so will be an increasing concern within the City camp.
The Gunners must still visit the Etihad next month and they also have a difficult trip to Liverpool, but with games running out, City need Arsenal to lose sometime soon. The good news for Arsenal, though, is that they don’t look like doing that.
2. Arsenal prove their squad can cope with injuries
Sunday could have been seen as a test of Arsenal’s apparent lack of depth in their squad, but they passed it with flying colours.
For the first time in the league this season, manager Mikel Arteta was without centre-half William Saliba because of a back injury, but Rob Holding stepped in and produced a commanding performance alongside Gabriel. At right-back, Ben White was outstanding in the absence of the injured Takehiro Tomiyasu while Eddie Nketiah, out with a foot injury, wasn’t missed up front.
There have been many questions asked of Arsenal this season, with squad depth noted as one of the recurring issues expected to cost them their shot at the title. But they have also withstood the three-month absence of striker Gabriel Jesus — he’s now fit and playing again — to maintain their position at the top of the table, so Arteta and his players will now be buoyed by the belief that they have the personnel to go all the way.
Their bench against Palace also had the likes of Kieran Tierney, Emile Smith Rowe, Reiss Nelson, Fabio Vieira and Jorginho primed for action – a group of players that would walk into most Premier League teams. With only 10 league games left to play and no cup distractions following Thursday’s Europa League exit against Sporting, Arsenal have the squad to cope with the run-in.
3. Palace look doomed despite manager sacking
Don’t be fooled by Crystal Palace’s mid-table position. The managerless team are in a downwards spiral and it could easily see them relegated this season.
The sacking of manager Patrick Vieira on Friday might have been a surprise to many, but Palace have played 13 games in 2023 without winning any of them. At least they ended their four-game run without a goal when Jeffrey Schlupp scored in the second half.
They say that the league table doesn’t lie, but it is certainly giving a false sense of security the Selhurst Park club right now. Palace are still in 12th position after losing at the Emirates, but they are just three points above the bottom three and only four points clear of bottom team Southampton. Of the eight teams below them, only Nottingham Forest have failed to win any of their last six games; there should be a growing sense of alarm at Palace about their rivals beginning to find form in the relegation battle.
Aside from an 11th minute effort from Wilfried Zaha that hit the post, Palace carried no threat against Arsenal under interim manager Paddy McCarthy, and defeat was inevitable once Gabriel Martinelli put the home side ahead.
Palace were already struggling under Vieira, but it’s tough to see who could come in and arrest their slump. They look like a team heading for relegation.
Best and worst performers
Ben White, DF, Arsenal: The Arsenal right-back nullified the threat of Palace winger Wilfried Zaha and was a vital cog going forward, instigating the moves for the first two goals.
Bukayo Saka, FW, Arsenal: Great finish for Arsenal’s second goal and an all-round commanding performance on the right flank. On course to be a global star in the years to come.
Rob Holding, DF, Arsenal: Filling in for the injured William Saliba was a tall task, but the Arsenal centre-half did well alongside Gabriel.
Wilfried Zaha, FW, Crystal Palace: Showed glimpses of threat going forward, but his lack of concentration and poor marking led to Arsenal’s first two goals. Zaha can’t just attack and forget about defending.
Joel Ward, DF, Crystal Palace: Made it too easy for Martinelli to score Arsenal’s opening goal by failing to get tight enough to the Gunners’ winger.
Odsonne Edouard, FW, Crystal Palace: Failed to take advantage of the absence of William Saliba in the Arsenal defence by making life tough for Holding and Gabriel. Couldn’t hold the ball up to help his team.
Highlights and notable moments
Arsenal didn’t just score four times on Sunday; they also produced some finishes that were exceedingly pleasing to the eye. For example, the first goal, which was coolly dispatched by Gabriel Martinelli. Love the build-up and then how well he creates space to swing his left foot through the ball.
Gabriel Martinelli LOVES to score against Crystal Palace. 😤
📺: @USANetwork#MyPLMorning | #ARSCRY pic.twitter.com/Cm2ATUc3gA
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) March 19, 2023
And then there’s the first Bukayo Saka goal, in which the Gunners demoralized that Palace defense with a nifty give-and-go.
Saka adds a goal as Arsenal lead 2-0 at the half!
📺: @USANetwork#MyPLMorning | #ARSCRY pic.twitter.com/k8pWHPYyJQ
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) March 19, 2023
After the match: What the players/managers said
“Very happy, we needed that win and as I always say, we approach each game as a final and we did that today. It was a good goal, good pass from [Bukayo Saka]. I don’t know if it was to me or someone else, but it was a good finish with my weak foot, good goal.” — Arsenal forward Gabriel Martinelli
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
– Gabriel Martinelli scores his 24th career Premier League goal, breaking a tie with Nicolas Anelka for the second-most by an Arsenal player before turning 22. Bukayo Saka is first on that list with 29 goals
– Bukayo Saka is the youngest PL player with 10 goals and 10 assists in a season in at least the last 15 seasons
– Saka is also the first Arsenal player with 10 goals and 10 assists in a Premier League season since Alexis Sanchez in 2016-17
– Bukayo Saka’s 29 career Premier League goals are tied with Raheem Sterling for the 10th-most PL goals by a player before turning 22
Arsenal: The Gunners face a pair of winnable, but potentially tricky, matches after the international break. Leeds United visit the Emirates on April 1 in Premier League play before Arteta & Co. travel to Anfield for a big match against Liverpool on April 9.
Crystal Palace: Following the break, Palace get a pair of matches against teams also battling against the specter of relegation, with a home game vs. Leicester City (April 1) and away date at Leeds United (April 9).