Sunday, December 4, 2022

Crystal Palace 1-2 Arsenal: Three points, fine margins

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While I’m always happiest when we play well and win, I’m very much a fan of winning regardless of how we play. That’s not to say we were abject yesterday by any means, but I think we have to give credit to a Crystal Palace side who just didn’t give us a moment’s peace from first whistle to last.

Their performance was somewhat reminiscent of the way Sp*rs played against us, pressing us constantly, and the moments where we controlled the ball and passed it around the way we like were few and far between. Despite that pressure, however, the moments when they could have punished us were wasted. Chances were spurned, particularly by that Zaha chap who bravely played through a chronic inner-ear infection (I’m assuming that’s what made him fall over every time an Arsenal player was anywhere near him).

There was a header that whizzed over the bar, a free kick which flew just wide and a header which landed right in Ospina’s belly as they looked for an equaliser. Having brought on Gibbs and Rosicky for Ozil and Welbeck, the manager decided to shore things up completely by putting on Gabriel for Alexis in injury time, so it was kinda funny that in that short period we conceded one and they hit the post with almost the final ‘kick’ of the game.

I say funny in the sense that I can laugh about it this morning because we still have the three points, but at the time it wasn’t so much funny as nerve-shreddingly terrifying. Could anyone have denied Palace were worthy of a point if that had gone in? I certainly wouldn’t, but then what your performance merits and what you come away with are often two very different things.

We had Danny Welbeck to thank in large part for our goals. He’s somebody who, if you judge him on pure numbers in terms of goals and assists, doesn’t look that impressive, but I think he brings a lot to the table otherwise, and I can see why he’s picked for games like this ahead of Theo Walcott.

For the first he chased down a pass, harried the defender, won the ball and got tripped up to win us a penalty which Santi Cazorla converted. And it was his clever movement which saw him find space to shoot, and although it was saved Olivier Giroud was there to prod the ball for home for his 8th goal in 11 games. It won’t go down in any stats books, but he made a decisive contribution yesterday.

The second half remained more of the same with Arsenal struggling to get hold of the ball and Palace whipping in crosses galore, leading to this telling stat:

We probably should have put the game out of sight early in the second period when, on the break, Ozil’s fantastic control, pass to himself, and delivery to Alexis opened up a chance for the Chilean, but with the outside of his boot he put the ball just wide of the far post.

It meant that we were always going to run the risk of one goal loosening the bowels, but when it eventually came I thought it was much too late for them to get another. How wrong I was. Again they got a good cross in, Ospina came and missed, but thankfully Murray’s header cannoned back off the post and into the keeper’s arms. If ever there was an example of how fine the margins are in the Premier League, this was it.

Afterwards, Arsene Wenger said:

We came out in the second half much more to protect our advantage than to continue to play and put them under pressure. We missed goal number three and when they came back to 2-1 we were a bit lucky, a bit fortunate. Overall we did fight and it was in the end a very important win for us.

Bottom line is that we have the three points and at the moment sit in third place in the Premier League. There’s nobody going to be too upset about that this morning. However, while it’s hardly a huge issue at the moment, I do wonder if we need to think about a way of countering teams that play the way Palace did yesterday.

I’ve seen some complaints about the pitch and while I don’t think it did us any favours in terms of how we prefer to play, it was the same for both sides and they moved the ball about pretty well. Maybe they’re a bit more used to it, but I think the wider issue is being able to cope better with teams who look to put that much pressure on us high up the pitch. The centre-halves were given no time on the ball and the midfield struggled to retain possession in a meaningful way.

Much as I love Santi Cazorla and what he does, I’m not 100% convinced that him playing deeper is always the right way for certain games. If, for example, the manager deems Theo Walcott unsuitable for games this intense away from home, he can’t be blind to the fact that this is also an issue. At the moment I think he’s hamstrung a bit because of injury to more traditional central-midfielders like Flamini, Arteta, Ramsey and Wilshere (who is back but not risked yesterday), but on their return I think he’s got something to think about.

So, while the result was great and the three points absolutely delicious, there’s room to consider how we might improve in the future, because the width of a post is all that separates this very nice Sunday morning from one where we’re all a lot less contented.

Now, if today could bring about a 5-5 draw between Southampton and Liverpool in which every player pulls their hamstring, and a disgustingly offside Kevin Nolan goal takes the points for West Ham at White Hart Lane, that would make it a very nice weekend indeed.

Finally, this, from the Guardian, is a great read about Arsene Wenger at Monaco.

Till tomorrow.

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