Well, I sure have my work cut out for me. For 20 years, I have set aside less than 15 minutes of my time each season to focus on the Europa League. Yes, that’s right, unless it is Borussia Dortmund winning a match, or it’s the Spurs losing theirs (both positives in my book), I just don’t think about the Europa League. Honestly. It is the participation trophy of European football.
However, it seems that karma has come to punish my apathy. After losing to Crystal Palace and its kickback loving manager, Sam Allardyce, Arsenal face an even tougher challenge than usual to stay in the top four of the Premier League. They didn’t just lose though, it was 3-0
That’s 3-0 people. To Crystal Palace. Even Big Sam was shocked. He celebrated the first goal as if he was about to lift a trophy, and after the second, he looked so dazed, I thought he was going to need some “coffee”…
In truth, Crystal Palace played very well, combining some smart pressing of Arsenal’s buildup in the midfield with a very organised bank of six at the back. Far from applying tactical innovation, Big Sam simply followed the script. Opponents who have been able to put pressure on Arsenal when building out from the back have successfully shut down the Gunners attack. Today was no different as Arsenal controlled the ball but, mostly in non-dangerous areas. After showing some fight in response to the first goal, it quickly became apparent which team wanted the match more. Oh, and here’s a hint: it wasn’t the team in yellow.
Mesut Ozil is at least back to fitness. The last couple matches have seen a much better defensive effort from the German. Perhaps someone has finally told him that in England, being seen chasing the ball is almost as good retaining it. Somehow I still don’t see him bringing a crowd to its feet, causing Martin Tyler to crow about his one-man press as Andros Townsend was able to.
After watching him net a brilliant first-time strike over a helpless Emiliano Martinez, one now wonders when we shall hear Wenger say he had a chance to sign Yohan Cabaye but refused, “because we already have Maitland-Niles”.
Alexis Sanchez continues to believe he is the only Arsenal player capable of bringing them back from behind. Every week sees yet more low percentage shot attempts, silly scoop lobbed passes that float to the opposition, and aimless dribbling into traps. Though often depended on to provide a lift when the team is reeling, Sanchez really struggled with his final ball and shooting accuracy last night. Of course it probably won’t do to get too bent about him, seeing as today he is almost certainly signing for Manchester City for £50 million. Yesterday it was PSG, and tomorrow, well, that’s for tomorrow, isn’t it?
Shkodran Mustafi continues to build his physical comedy CV. Whether it is he and Bellerin refusing to figure out who should go to the ball and who should stay home, or whether it is a colossally ill-advised flailing scissor tackle, the lustily welcomed summer signing has continued his rapid fall in form from the New Year onward. Once praised for his front footed aggression and vocal nature, most fans would probably say they would like to see a whole lot less of both.
Only five days on from a stabilising performance in the centre of the park, Mohammed Elneny’s run as fan favourite lasted even less time than last year. Having been praised as the key to unlocking fellow pivot Granit Xhaka’s best form, The Egyptian had an inconsistent day by his standards, often having so little time to turn up the field with the ball that he was forced into a couple mistakes inside his own half. Time will tell if the fans, or perhaps even Wenger, come back around to Oxlade-Chamberlain getting a run out in the centre, if Elneny will get another chance to prove himself, or if we are resigned to seeing Francis Coquelin again.
Perhaps nobody will care if Coquelin is out there as long as Nacho Monreal is still given a run in the side. He seems to get slower and forget how to defend a little more every single match. I now save a healthy chunk of my weekly to-do-list for those long minutes Alexis holds the ball waiting for Monreal’s overlap. This lack of forward dynamism could be tolerable if Monreal was a competent defender but, he is not. His positioning on the buildup to the first two Crystal Palace goals was atrocious.
“I’m not worried about Martinez in this match” -myself about 40 seconds before the first goal rocketed into the Arsenal net. Good call that.
I applaud Wenger’s attempt at a shake up double substitution, but I am not certain I agree with the subs made. Putting Giroud on against a team playing roughly six at the back makes sense on paper but, getting another aerial threat onto the pitch only helps if the team are able to provide service to him. Putting Ramsey on for Elneny would have made sense in 2013, but not this match. Ramsey has struggled with nearly every facet of his game this season, and he promptly disappeared out on the pitch shortly after coming on. I would have liked to have maybe seen the Ox at that point. Surely he belongs in the (little) mix again in central midfield.
Gabriel had a quiet night as well. No criminal negligence or spectacular fail today. Just a man quietly going about the business of redefining what should be acceptable in the starting XI at a club like Arsenal. He works hard for the team, be in no doubt, but he is equally as likely to help the opponent at times.
Finally, Danny Welbeck had a rather mediocre day up top. Much of his pace was neutralised in build up due to having to come back and present for the ball. Hard to be on the last shoulder of the defence when you’re needed to get through the midfield.
I must spare a moment out of my cynicism to say how happy I am for Danny to be getting consecutive matches again. Coming back from a long-term injury like the cartilage issue that saw him out for nearly a year can be tough, especially with multiple matches in a week. He appears no worse for the wear so far. Nearing his physical peak, it is imperative that he stay healthy for the foreseeable future if he is to ever realise his promise. It will also help the club immensely in their desire to never run too fast or reach too far: his name will be the first or second out of Wenger’s mouth this September as he explains that the team is already overflowing with striker talent.
Can’t you just picture it?