Crystal Palace 2-2 Arsenal: Emery finally runs out of ideas in hard-fought draw

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For five minutes in the second half, it looked as if there would be a reassuring conclusion to this familiar storyline – except this time, Crystal Palace would equalise, and Arsenal would have to settle for their first draw under Unai Emery.

In the end, Arsenal could have no arguments with the 2-2 draw. If anything, Roy Hodgson argued, Crystal Palace were the better team. “Our offensive players were more noticeable than Arsenal’s, and that’s great credit to my team,” he said. “For…the amount of possession we had in the final third, two goals is a fairly scant reward.”

This was by no doubt Arsenal’s worst attacking display since their first game of the season. They were outshot 2:1 whilst their attacking forays, particularly in the first-half, were stiffled, and they rarely offered a threat in the second-half after scoring. Indeed, their final attack in the game even led to Palace’s equaliser, as Alexandre Lacazette gave the ball away outside the opposition box and they countered to win the penalty. Arsenal’s inability to find their fluency, to impose their “ideas” through “possession” and “positioning” – Emery’s usual buzzwords – were underlined by the fact that they attempted the lowest percentage of their total passes into the final third on Sunday – at 18%. Usually they average around 25%.

Their second-worst match for final third entries was in the 5-1 win over Fulham, but they turned that into a different type of encounter as they looked to attack directly and were effective on the counter. In that match, they entered the box 38 times – they most they have in any match this season. Here, Arsenal only entered the box (with a pass) 11 times.

“For us the first half was not easy,” said Emery. “When they scored it is the moment when we are on the pitch with the control, but not doing a lot of things in the attacking third. In the second half we scored two goals in two actions..[…]..I think we lost a little of our possession with the ball and the match was more about the transition..”

For the most part in the first-half, before they were hit by a late counter-punch, it was all about Arsenal finding a way through Palace’s defensive block. Crystal Palace chosed to start with a 4-4-2 that left the left-side slightly open (where Zaha could move into with freedom). That meant that there was acres of space for Hector Bellerin to bomb into initially, but due to the narrow positioning of James McArthur covering the flank, he was unable to play the usual ball inside. See below:

Arsenal didn’t really know how to prise open Palace’s defence. In the two real chances they had in the first-half, they got through via Bellerin’s determination when he had a shot that was blocked; and when Lacazette sliced wide. In that instance, it was one of the only times Arsenal able to draw Palace towards them and then zip a ball through to one of the attackers – here Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – dropping into the halfspaces.

In both of theses instances, Mesut Ozil was involved yet for the majority of the match, he struggled to influence. Arsenal weren’t able to find him regularly in the half-spaces. The German playmaker tends to thrive roaming laterally, often combining with a like-minded soul. Here, he often strayed to the right looking for Iwobi to bounce passes off, but of course, that avenue was often cut-off. The splitting pass between-the-lines was rarely on too as Crystal Palace defended deep with two banks of four.

Ahead of them, Zaha and Ayew, the two strikers effectively marked Torreira and Guendouzi respectively in the build-up. That meant that they, especially Guendouzi, would move wide to receive the ball. This was in part forced as Emery relies on a “2-2” shape to build, therefore, the double pivot are a little restricted in their movements. In the previous games, Xhaka, rather than stepping out into the space in front, tended to move wide left, and look to release the full-back. He spoke before the game how Torreira has released him to do that: “You can see that he’s important for us because he’s strong in defence and in duels,” the Switzerland midfielder said. “He can play easily from side to side and going forward, he helps with our balance. He lets me play my game with the ball and go a bit more in front. I am happy with him and the other guys playing in the midfield.”

Of course, with Xhaka himself playing out of position in full-back, that option really wasn’t on. All this led to a stifling first half.

Still, Arsenal scored two quick fire goals in the second-half through the only part of the their game that was working: attacking down the right. The only difference was that Bellerin was replaced with injury by Stephan Lichsteiner, and Iwobi, seemingly subconsciously, played a bit wider.

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In the second-half, in the period where Arsenal scored two goals, Iwobi seemed to get higher and wider

The two set-pieces that were won came from that side. It was a five minute spell that wasn’t to last. Crystal Palace piled on the pressure whilst Arsenal were unable to get out, and that eventually brought upon their first dropped points since August. At the end, Emery admitted some “mistakes”. What he’s done well, is game-by-game look to make subtle tweaks, learn from past games. Here, though, he suddenly brought Aubameyang back in to a wide left position though there was no pressing need to restore him to the line-up. That also meant shunting Iwobi to the other side, on the right, where he’s never really looked comfortable under Wenger.

Arsenal’s recent success has been through the use of attacking midfielders wide to aid the fluidity of their game. With the changes, however, it seemed to put Arsenal back closer to the system they used at the start of the season.

Emery: “We can make mistakes on the pitch. Every day I am making mistakes in my decisions. Mistakes are to learn from and not for us to lose our confidence or our belief on the pitch. For the second goal, Laca was maybe not thinking as much, and I was pushing him to think more. The second goal was an action where we had the ball in the opposition box and we did one bad pass. When we are in the box, in the opposition box, I want us to show aggression to find the last action to score or shoot, to win a corner or whatever action. But with this pass, we lost the ball and then they scored from the transition. For me, there are things that happen on the pitch when we continue in our process to learn, and the mentality we need to show when we are in the good moments to keep and hold the ball. We need to keep that mentality to continue to find our moments and our chances. In the last 10 minutes, I wanted to push for that, but that didn’t happen for us because it was not very easy for us on the pitch.”

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