Arsenal came into this critical away match in desperate need for three points. With their recent struggles away from home, Arsenal reverted to a back three to provide greater defensive stability against a Crystal Palace side that has played with greater ambition since Roy Hodgson took over. Arsenal’s attacking diversity proved too much for a Palace side that was far too passive for large stretches of the match. As it stands, Arsenal is only one point away from the Champions League spots and sit level with North London rivals Tottenham.
Arsenal (3-4-2-1): Cech // Koscielny – Mustafi – Chambers // Kolasinac – Xhaka (Maitland-Niles, 87’) – Wilshere – Bellerin // Sanchez – Ozil // Lacazette (Coquelin, 75’)
Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Speroni // Schlupp – Dann – Tomkins – Kelly (Fosu-Mensah, 80’) // Loftus-Cheek (Sako, 70’) – Milivojevic – Cabaye (McArthur, 53’) – Townsend // Zaha – Benteke
Crystal Palace Sit Deep, Arsenal Adapt
Wenger curiously returned to the back three formation away at Selhurst Park, with Chambers earning his first league start of the season. This was likely in response to the presence of Zaha as a roaming second forward. While can be a frustratingly inconsistent performer, he is the only option that has the ability to manipulate defences for a Crystal Palace side lacking creativity. By including Chambers in the back line, Wenger likely hoped to stifle Palace’s counterattacking opportunities while giving Bellerin free license to attack the wing knowing he has protection.
Crystal Palace chose a patient space-oriented pressing scheme that attempted to limit Arsenal’s effectiveness in central spaces. As the ball would move between players, the nearest defender would press aggressively without compromising the overall structure of the team. On some occasions, it worked well in forcing Arsenal to constantly recycle possession to the back line. Other times, however, their patience allowed Arsenal to exploit the natural gaps between two banks of four.
Arsenal utilized three different strategies to overcome Crystal Palace’s compact 4-4-2. The first approach was to aggressively occupy advanced positions in the half-space. The half-space has become a critical component for most modern teams as it naturally creates indecision among defenders regarding the proper pressing direction. Here, Ozil proved adept at seeking these spaces out in order to force multiple defenders to account for his movement. Ozil further complicated Palace’s defensive scheme by roaming between the lines and always providing a third-man option in passing sequences. The combination play between Sanchez and Ozil on the left side caused plenty of problems for a Palace side uncomfortable with vacating their positions. With two players in Cabaye and Townsend that lack proper defensive awareness, considerable pressure was put on Kelly to compensate for the regression.
Arsenal’s second approach used Wilshere as the central fulcrum to initiate their attacks. Surprisingly, Benteke and Zaha were blaise in pressing Arsenal’s initial buildup, preferring instead to maintain formational awareness. Wilshere dropping deep to receive the ball in the six space offered Arsenal multiple ways to attack Palace’s 4-4-2. He could rotate possession to either side of the pitch or be aggressive in attacking their midfield line by driving from a deeper position before playing a pass. Wilshere’s willingness to exploit the space between the central midfielders opened central access for others to occupy.
The third approach involved either Wilshere or Xhaka playing more direct balls to access the space behind the defensive line before they could transition into defence. This proved effective in the second half as Palace attempted to score the equalizer since their high defensive line left ample space for early channel runs. Sanchez and Lacazette, who has been making these types of runs for weeks, attracted significant pressure when they made these types of movements. Sanchez’s second goal came exactly from Arsenal playing a more direct style when the occasion warranted it. Wilshere received the ball in the six space and picked up on Sanchez’s diagonal run between Kelly and Tomkins. As both failed to notice Sanchez’s early run, they were unable to keep pace with the Chilean, who utilized a deft touch to slot away Arsenal’s third goal. This was only possible because Arsenal was willing to diversify their approach as they transitioned into the attack.