Oh Arsenal, where do I even begin? It seems I got a bit too hopeful after the last two results. I should have known better that following a win with another win was too much to ask. Now I just look silly for predicting a good performance and three points.
Well, it’s not about me. Amongst all the anger and songs about the Arsenal players not being fit to where the shirt (you actually have to be quite fit to wear those Puma skin-huggers), there were a number of technical and tactical reasons why Arsenal lost that game. No amount of passion or spirit is going to overcome a poor set-up.
The Teams
Martinez; Bellerin, Mustafi, Gabriel, Monreal; Elneny, Xhaka; Walcott, Ozil, Alexis; Welbeck
Subs: Macey, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Coquelin, Chamberlain, Ramsey, Giroud
Crystal Palace:
Hennessey; Ward, Kelly, Sakho, Schlupp; Milivojevic, Cabaye; Zaha, Puncheon, Townsend; Benteke
Subs: Speroni, Delaney, Freyrs, Flamini, McArthur, Sako, Kaikai
Palace’s direct approach exposes Mustafi and Gabriel
“They leave Mustafi and Gabriel exposed. You can get at them,” said Sam Allardyce in his post-match interview. Far be it for me to admit Allardyce was right about something but, he was very much correct. Arsenal did a horrendous job of protecting their backline. They demonstrated a complete lack of awareness of Palace’s threat and failed to respond to it as the game progressed.
Neither Mustafi or Gabriel were able to deal with Benteke. They were dominated aerially, more due to not even bothering than anything. Both seemed scared of the prospect of challenging and left him alone. Benteke won several “duals” and was able to initiate attacks for Palace in Arsenal’s final third. Arsenal’s centre-backs failed to win a single challenge all game; a damning statistic that summed up their performance.
Xhaka and Elneny had a strong game with the ball against West Ham but, the pair weren’t tested defensively. Tonight they received a thorough examination of their defensive skills. Both players were slow to react to loose balls in their area. Neither player won the second ball. This remained a problem all game and with the players on the pitch not adjusting, it was up to the manager to sort it. He replaced Elneny with Ramsey early in the second-half, presumably with Arsenal’s failing attack in mind but, perhaps introducing Coquelin may have been the wiser decision.
Palace’s opening goal showed the problem. A simple goal kick was nodded down by Benteke, who Gabriel attempted to challenge but ended up flat on the deck. Suddenly, Palace had attackers going up against Arsenal backline on the edge of their box. Monreal was overloaded. Zaha was slipped in behind and put the ball across goal to an unmarked Townsend. Mustafi decided it was best to mark the space between the attacker and the goal, and not the attacker himself. Such is the state of Arsenal’s defence.
Arsenal lack movement and ideas
In years gone by, Arsenal were able to cover defensive cracks with a dynamic and dangerous attack. Nowadays, it feels like any average team can bank up and keep Arsenal out.
It wasn’t that Arsenal didn’t make openings. Monreal and Bellerin were able to find space down the sides of Palace’s defence and put balls into the penalty area. However, it’s telling that Arsenal’s full-backs were their biggest threats on the night. That attacking midfield trio of Ozil, Alexis and Walcott, with over 50 goals between them this season, were anonymous. Arsenal’s attack lacked coordination and seemed to be waiting for Alexis to do something special.
Arsenal attacked with a huge left-side bias. Ozil and Alexis often favour that side but, the duo were unable to make an impact. Alexis often cut inside and attempted a lofted pass into the box or squandered possession by passing square or overdribbling. On the other side, Walcott was barely in the game. Welbeck, meanwhile, had a tough time finding space in the Palace penalty area. It all contributed to Arsenal not even working the keeper in the second half. It’s hard to believe that the same attack was so threatening against West Ham just four days ago.
It could get much, much worse
Sadly, it’s starting to get ugly for Arsenal. The travelling support singing for the manager to leave is not a new thing by any stretch, but the chants of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” came through loud and clear was a new and clear message. Anger that had previously be aimed at the board and manager is now being directed towards the players. Hector Bellerin, rather unfairly, felt the brunt of it when the ball went out for a throw-in and the Arsenal fans refused to throw back onto the pitch, despite the team’s urgency to get back into the game. Arsenal fans are now actively working against their own team.
It’s hard to see how this broken relationship gets any better. Perhaps the FA Cup semi-final and the North London Derby will unite the fans and players, even if it’s only temporary. Until then, Arsenal need to start winning quickly. They need to stop feeling sorry for themselves after games and actually do something about it on the pitch. Otherwise, we’ll be finishing 7th and playing Europa League qualifiers next season.