One way or another, this was a homecoming that was going to end badly for someone. Unfortunately for Patrick Vieira, it would be in the most agonising way possible.
Having brought his well-drilled Crystal Palace to face Arsenal, the club where he built his name as a player and theirs, he was within seconds of chipping away at their legacy and pumping up his own as a manager. Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang had given Arsenal an early lead, but second-half goals from Christian Benteke and Odsonne Edouard gave Palace a deserved 2-1 lead right into the very dregs of this match.
Having dominated for long periods, they had one last corner to defend for just a second win that would have lifted them over their opponents in the table. Alas, a bit of pinball saw the ball fall to Ben White to volley. Vincente Guaita kept it out, but Alexandre Lacazette, looming large at the back post, swung his right foot as he fell to find the back of the net with the rebound.
It was a fitting end to an all-action affair that arguably should have also featured a red card on 42 minutes. James McArthur received a yellow card for volleying Bukayo Saka in the calf. For a moment, it simply looked like an honest continuation of a volley that never came to be as Saka put himself between man and ball. Replays, however, did McArthur no favours. Referee Mike Dean, who a few feet away, and VAR, saw no reason to take the matter further. Saka, on the other hand, was unable to return for the second half and was replaced by Sambi Lokonga.
Anticipation for the first sight of Vieira was palpable before it all kicked off. The bridge adjoining the outside of Arsenal underground station to the inner concourse featured many a fan stopping at a banner of their former captain to take photos with the Emirates glistening in the background. His name was cheered when read out as part of the Palace teamsheet, which did not bear the name of Wilfried Zaha, before a subdued entrance after the players had lined up. It was only when he stood to shake Mikel Arteta’s hand that the chants got going. Even then, he took them with little more than a wave before returning to his seat.
Vieira never played here, of course, but the three Premier League titles and four FA Cups across his nine years at the club are part of the reason it exists. A structure of grand ambition and standards that his teams set. The tree he sowed all those years ago whose shade he would never sit in. Though he came close when he almost dropped to the floor after Lacazette’s 95th-minute equaliser.
The seeds the Frenchman has already sown at Selhurst Park are certainly growing. This was a performance to give him great heart, of the squad he has and how much they want to bring his vision to life. It is just a shame this is the second time in three games that three points have turned into one with more or less the last kick of the game. First Brighton, now this.
But they started uncharacteristically limp under the lights, lacking the dynamism shown before the international break. The contrast was stark at the beginning, exacerbated by the rain-sprinkled carpet underfoot that gave Arsenal’s passing an extra zip. And for the opening 25 minutes, this had the feel of a very one-sided affair.
Aubameyang’s goal eight minutes in was an example of Arsenal’s willingness to run that little bit harder. First when Nicolas Pepe chased to the byline to recover an overhit cross, playing a one-two with Takehiro Tomiyasu before making room for a shot. Then when Aubameyang steamed in for a potential rebound and was rewarded with the ball falling perfectly on his left foot after Guaita had clawed away Pepe’s curling effort.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly why the match seemed to switch midway through the first half. But all of a sudden, the pockets of space on the halfway line that Emile Smith-Rowe was receiving and turning out from were being occupied by Marc Guehi and Joachim Andersen. Palace had started to get a grip on the match and were stepping up into the areas that had caused them so much discomfort. In turn, they were starting to cause Arsenal some problems.
Most instructive of all was how high they were winning the ball. And when half-time was called right after Aaron Ramsdale had made a fine save from Connor Gallagher’s dipping 20-yard volley, everyone within the ground, and enough watching at home, knew the next goal in this contest was going to be Palace’s.
It duly came five minutes into the second half, in the manner it had threatened to arrive. Thomas Partey was unaware fellow Ghanaian Jordan Ayew’s presence as he turned to spread play across his backline. The loose ball was picked by Benteke, who utilised the space he had between him and Gabriel Magalhães to shift and shoot into the far corner.
The visitors’ confidence was now sky-high, as were the spirits of their supporters who were now in full voice. Arsenal fans tried to rustle up noise of their own by way of a rebuttal. But there came a moment when you realised the inability for those in the stands to match Palace’s intensity was starting to play out on the pitch.
Yellow shirts piled forward in waves, pushing back those in red. In a bid to give a bit back, Arteta brought on Alexandre Lacazette, a move that almost paid immediate dividends when his curling effort looked destined for the far post before Guaita pulled off fine save.
Unlike the opener, though, the save would lead to good things for Guaita’s side. The resulting corner was cleared, and as Lokonga tried to recycle, Gallagher nipped in to win the ball and carry it forward in a three on two. An offload to Michael Olise was then played on to Edouard, who used Olise’s subsequent overlapping run to bend a shot around the defender and in off the underside of the bar.
More woodwork action followed, again in Palace’s favour. A cross from the right was missed by all, finding it’d way to Kieran Tierney free at the back post. A touch and a deep breath was followed by a strike so hard that the ball more or less bounced to safety when it cannoned back off the bar.
Many Arsenal fans had given up hope, and a large number watched Lacazette bundled in the equaliser from the steps leading to the exits. Their departure delayed in the best way possible, though their mood only slightly improved.
There had been genuine cause for optimism in these parts with 10 points in Arsenal’s last four league matches. But this performance, if not the result, will prey on their worries. The one thing that should be taken away is as questionable as Arsenal were, Palace were a well-coached outfit who, not for the first time, were desperately unlucky not to win.