Arsenal 2-3 Crystal Palace: Gunners stutter to home defeat

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This was supposed to be Arsenal’s most winnable fixture, the only other home game between now and till the end of the season. Victory would have taken Arsenal third and given them a cushion – a buffer – against their poor away form in their bid to reach the Champions League. Except, The Gunners stumbled at the first hurdle and now have to rely on that scratchy away form to stay in the top four.

Beating Crystal Palace was never going to be a formality, yet it felt like it was a necessity in a season where Arsenal have been ruthless at home. That probably gave Unai Emery some leeway to rotate, though he argued that it was nothing to do with complacency; simply, the tight schedule meant that changes will have to be made throughout this run. “We changed because we are going to play a lot of matches,” he said. “We have had some injuries, like with Aaron Ramsey, Granit Xhaka, and we need to protect the players and use other players….we lost today but we could also have lost with other players on the pitch.”

The issue was that those replacements haven’t played that many matches. Carl Jenkinson, Kontantin Mavropanos and Mohamed Elneny all came in, giving the line-up a distinctive, League Cup feel. Emery said that he used these players because he wanted to continue with three central defenders as he felt that “we can be more consistent with that”. However, that meant having to leave out relatively fresh attacking players like Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, in the area where he probably has more potential to rotate. In the second-half, he was forced to switch to a 4-2-3-1 as Arsenal chased the three points, but in doing so, grew more open to transitions.

In the end, they were compounded by mistakes at the back, especially from Shkodran Mustafi, and an unfamiliarity at set-pieces due to the rotated team. Indeed, initially they seemed to be scared of challenging Wilfred Zaha, possibly because they were instructed not to give away free-kicks and fouls, but that’s exactly how they conceded the first goal and then the second. When the third went in, all three goals had come from set-pieces and all had involved Mustafi in some painstaking way.

Predictably, Arsenal’s attacked suffered due to the rotated line-up. Once Arsenal fell behind, they were in need of a spark, and momentarily, Mesut Ozil stepped up. Certainly, it was fascinating to see how he assumed the role of the technical leader as that no.10 in the middle because Crystal Palace made it tough for him to get on the ball. At the end of the game, Palace manager Roy Hodgson said they did this by using the strikers, with Zaha and Christian Benteke as the reference to allow them to move as a unit to deny Arsenal space. “Wilf today, he gave such a good performance,” said Hodgson. “Not only going forward, he did a good job defensively – both did – and our compact, narrow shape was also largely or certainly in part due to the fact that they dropped in so well and made it difficult for the Arsenal midfield players to get on the ball….The midfield four and the back four were excellent at staying compact, staying narrow and we were able to reduce the clear-cut chances they were able to create.” Goalscorer James McArthur also added. “It was brilliant. Not only on the ball but off the ball they were tremendous today. They made it so hard for them [Arsenal] and it gave us a great shape all the way through the team to counter with.”

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With the area between Crystal Palace’s midfield and defence blocked, there were two ways tried to influence the game; first by dropping deep, or by moving really wide. The latter was less productive than the former because Arsenal started with a 3-4-1-2 with wing-backs and that meant that either Ozil got in their way, or he couldn’t use their positioning effectively to overload the sides. Indeed, that’s one of the misunderstandings of Ozil’s games because it is expected that his main areas of influence is in the traditional number 10 position, when in fact, he likes to move away from the centre – because like here, it is often blocked – to the spaces just inside of the touchline, and use it to double-up and bounce passes off teammates. In this game, the first-half system didn’t help because the wing-backs, by nature or functionality, were quite static and one-dimensional. Once Iwobi came on,and Arsenal shifted to 4-2-3-1, he was more effective at using Kolasinac’s runs to free up space for himself with his dribbling in a way perhaps Ozil is not able to.

Ozil was more effective, instead, when he dropped deep, looking to draw out Palace’s defenders. Indeed, it was quite intriguing to watch him rather deliberately hold onto the ball for just a bit longer, looking to tempt the defenders towards before sidestepping away. It was clear too, he was getting frustrated at the lack of support he was getting from his teammates, and seemed to be most effective when either Alexandre Lacazette dropped off slightly, or Matteo Guendouzi pushed up into the number 10 space to get close to him.

At the start of the second-half, the formation change seemed to have the desired effect, with Ozil just playing ahead and to the right of Elneny and Guendouzi. Here, he started the move for the first goal, picking up the ball in the right-centre position, then driving across the pitch and then following his pass into the box where he was superbly found by Lacazette.

After that, it seemed as if he would take the game by the scruff of the neck, but he like the team, faded. Crystal Palace scored two more goals, and despite Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pulling one goal back, Arsenal only attempted one other shot in the last twenty minutes. That’s a pretty poor return for a team chasing the game, but it’s come to be expected from a team who are actually quite deliberate, often conscious of the process when they try to dominate a game. In fact, they spend so much of games trying to feel themselves into the match, to assert a foothold that they often actually, end up doing nothing for most parts of the match.  “I usually take two moments in the 90 minutes,” Emery said after Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Newcastle. “When I need to push and ask the players to take my energy to push a lot. Then in other moments, it’s about being calm to take the moments with the ball and have good combinations like we want. That’s how we create our identity.”

“I want to take the balance for when we need to push and when we need each player to have my energy to do more in the 90 minutes. Also sometimes, we need to show them or give them that calmness. Above all, we want to use the ball to create the best moments in the attacking third against the opposition.”

Arsenal only averages just less than nine shots a game this season in the Premier League – here against Crystal Palace, they improved that number by attempting 12. Still, it’s clear this figure is unsatisfactory for a team that is aiming to reach the top four, and may come to haunt them. Thankfully, they have two absolutely clinical strikers in Aubameyang and Lacazette, but it’s strange that Emery has been unable to better the team in this respects. It’s clear he’s done a great job in getting Arsenal up to this technical level where they can “play from the back, from the edge of our box” as Lacazette says, however, it will be interesting to see if he can get Arsenal to the next level, especially as he is not considered an attacking coach per se. Darren Burgess, Arsenal’s Director of High Performance, recently compated Emery’s approach compared to Arsene Wenger, saying that “Arsene would look at the totality whereas Unai breaks down a lot of different movements and aspects of the game. Arsene’s training sessions were more possession and game based.

“Unai has that but also breaks down different aspects, be they set plays, throws ins, moving the ball from this area to that, there’s a more defined outcome in the training sessions.”

As such, with this hands-on approach, perhaps it’s natural that when the team creates chances, they tend to be quite textbook, structured, and usually coming from the flanks. Perhaps, Emery believes this approach is necessary for this team who is quite idiosyncratic, who needs possession to protect the defence, and overall lacks the balance within the squad to create a really cohesive attacking outlet. The manager has set the foundations, now hopefully they can add a final flourish to end the season.

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