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Aug 16, 2014

Three Points: Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace

LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from Arsenal's 2-1 win over Crystal Palace at the Emirates.

1. Arsenal vulnerable but resolute

It has been a little more than 10 years since Arsenal last won the Premier League title, their efforts since betrayed by nerves, immaturity or the sort of luck with injuries that makes you wonder whether Arsene Wenger makes a point of stepping on all the cracks on the way to work in the morning. This late victory over Crystal Palace offered conflicting evidence as to what the new campaign holds.

On the one hand, Arsenal's defensive frailties were exposed. On the other, the resolve and determination that was so evident in the 2014 FA Cup final was on display, too. Arsenal tend to make their own problems, but at least this time they came up with a solution as well.

Broadly, it was the sort of performance that these supporters have grown accustomed to over the past decade. A promising start, an unexpected slip, a deserved equaliser and an increasingly frantic chase for a winner. Quite how so many Arsenal fans survive matches without keeling over through stress-induced seizures is one of the Premier League's enduring mysteries.

The Gunners were extremely ambitious from the start, making a concerted effort to release Alexis Sanchez with long balls into the flanks, and to support him with the running of Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey. This clash was typical of the test that Arsenal will face this year, a sustained assault on obdurate opposition. Only the centre-backs stayed back when Arsenal attacked; everyone else was either in or approaching the final third.

Arsenal rallied around Aaron Ramsey, who provided the winner over Crystal Palace in the first minute of stoppage time.

Unfortunately for Wenger, 34 minutes of territorial dominance came to nothing and Arsenal were punished for their profligacy after working themselves into a horrendous muddle in their own half. First a panicked clearance from Wojciech Szczesny gave Marouane Chamakh a sight on goal from range. Then, after Laurent Koscielny had so admirably blocked his former teammate's effort, he launched himself at the approaching Fraizer Campbell. He was fortunate to avoid giving away a penalty, but it mattered not. Crystal Palace swung in the resultant corner, Brede Hangeland hung in the air like an avenging Nordic angel, and Arsenal's vulnerability to set pieces was highlighted once again.

But Arsenal fought back and scored right on the stroke of half-time. Hangeland was, once again, responsible for the goal, but in a very different way. Perhaps buoyed by his debut goal, he completely lost Koscielny at a free kick, and the Arsenal defender deftly turned his header past Julian Speroni.

As ever, there was a sense of indecision about Arsenal on the attack. A typical example was a fine nutmeg by Alexis just shy of the half-hour mark that released Mathieu Debuchy, but he cut the ball back too square and momentum was lost. Yet their repeated failures did nothing to break their spirit. With time running out, Ramsey was on hand to finish what Debuchy had started, tapping home after Speroni had spilled the Frenchman's shot.

Three points, but how Arsenal fans must wish they could occasionally be secured with rather less fuss.

2. Pulis may have been wrong

It's not difficult to understand why Tony Pulis felt so frustrated at Crystal Palace that he felt the need to quit, but the spirit and fight he has cultivated in this team does make you wonder whether he might have been a little hasty. Even in defeat, there was much to admire about the way this team did its business. They are hard, they are ruthless and they bend the rules with wearying regularity, but against weaker sides than Arsenal, you'd usually back them to come away with at least a point.

Palace could have opened the scoring after just nine seconds when Yannick Bolasie unleashed Campbell only to be foiled by Szczesny, and although they offered very little after that, they refused to yield. Forced deeper and deeper by the persuasive Arsenal attack, they kept their hosts at bay with a degree of comfort until Koscielny breached their lines.

Joel Ward dealt with Alexis extremely effectively and Mile Jedinak was at his disruptive best. Speroni was jeered for time-wasting after just 20 minutes, which gave a sense of their wider game plan, but as blunt as Palace were in open play, they gave few indications of weaknesses worthy of a resignation.

The teamsheet served as Exhibit A in Pulis' case. Leading the line was new signing Campbell, a talented forward who has worked hard to overcome serious injury, but without the profile or goal-scoring record of others who must have been available. Pulis, of course, wanted Connor Wickham from Sunderland. He had also asked for Steven Caulker and Gylfi Sigurdsson, the latter in a particularly heroic mood at Old Trafford earlier in the day.

Crystal Palace, against all odds and expectations, had found themselves in a surprisingly advantageous position last summer. With more than 70 million pounds banked from their first season in the Premier League, and a similar amount guaranteed again, surely it would have been worth throwing more than 3 million at the summer transfer market. If any manager had earned a little faith it was Pulis.

But those quick to judge chairman Steve Parish should recall that he was one of four businessmen to save the club from extinction in 2010. They should also recall that Pulis' spending in his latter years at Stoke City brought ever-diminishing returns. Parish, a lifelong Palace supporter, will want success as much as any fan. But his first responsibility is to keep the club stable.

3. Keith Millen might have a chance

Undaunted by the loss of Pulis, the Crystal Palace fans made their feelings quite clear in the first minute of the game. "There's only one Keith Millen," they roared. And indeed there is. The question, however, is whether that one Keith Millen would like the job on a permanent -- or whatever passes for permanent in the Premier League -- basis. Millen himself has hinted that he would consider the role, even though he didn't fancy it last time. The bookies still consider Malky Mackay the favourite, especially given his relationship with sporting director Iain Moody.

But it's well known that Parish is a man who likes to be in control, and he might just balk at the idea of installing a two-man power base beneath him. The Cardiff City hierarchy, as unconventional as they are, would certainly have a word or two of warning about that.

Millen, stood confidently in shorts on the touchline, his exposed legs fearless of the late summer chill, would certainly be a popular choice with the supporters. He made shrewd substitutions and appears to have the respect of the players. Ramsey's late goal robbed him of an impressive bullet point for his CV, but you wonder whether Parish might just give him another game before he makes his choice.

Iain Macintosh

Iain Macintosh is a U.K. football correspondent for The New Paper in Singapore, writer for ESPN and co-author of "Football Manager Stole My Life" from @backpagepress. You can follow him on Twitter @iainmacintosh.

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