Monday, January 24, 2022

Crystal Palace 2-2 Arsenal: Poor performance, some stupidity and not enough cynicism

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So the winning run came to an end but we remain unbeaten since the Chelsea game after a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park yesterday. It wasn’t a particularly good day at the office, a performance that was undoubtedly our worst in recent weeks, but it’s got to be put in context.

This was our third game in six days, a London derby away from home after an away trip in the Europa League on Thursday, without a recognised left-back and a game in which we also lost our first choice right-back to injury at half-time. Fatigue had to be a factor, and this was exactly the kind of fixture from which we’ve taken nothing all too often in recent seasons so with all that in mind, and the way the game went, I don’t think we can complain too much about the draw.

Typically we played poorly in the first half, a recurring issue for which Unai Emery has yet to find a solution. At this point you wonder if it’s something the players are too aware of, banking on second half improvement to get the job done. Our best chance fell to Alexandre Lacazette who fluffed his lines in front of goal, and there was an opportunity for Hector Bellerin but a touch too many meant that his effort was blocked away for a corner.

These moments came after Palace had hit the post and then missed an absolute sitter having worked their way through tight spaces in our box with some lovely one-touch football. Yet another example of how we’ve been riding our luck and how the opposition have failed to make the most of the big chances they create/we allow them.

As the half drew to a close Palace were awarded a corner despite Holding’s shirt being ripped by a foul in the challenge that came before it, but you have to defend and we didn’t. The quality of their set-piece deliveries was very good all day, Leno’s attempt to punch was unconvincing, and Mustafi’s decision to scythe through the back of the back of Kouyate was just absurd. A dreadful decision from a player who, if they were making a scary movie about him they’d call it the Calamityville Horror, and one which would be compounded later on in the game when he chose not to make a foul when the situation was screaming out for it.

Milivojevic drilled home the penalty to give them the lead just before the break, but inside four second half minutes we were ahead. First, Granit Xhaka’s unerring free kick from outside their box hit the top corner with the help of a touch from the keeper (boo!), and then Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang snuck in around the back to poke home with his studs after a Xhaka corner looked to have been helped on by the hand of Lacazette. To be fair, he was having his shirt tugged but I do think his swipe at the ball was more deliberate than a consequence of him being fouled.

So, at 2-1 up and having done our usual thing of scoring a couple in quick succession, you’d have expected us to control the game a little more from this point, but instead Palace were allowed right back into it straight away and they put us under some real pressure. It’s hard to say exactly why we couldn’t dictate the tempo of the game. Tired legs, perhaps; an ineffectual front four; a midfield duo who both worked very hard but lacked the component that gives you some measure of composure because he was being played at left-back; and I don’t think the manager’s substitutions helped.

I guess he saw the way the game was going and the kind of threat Palace would pose, and kept his most physically robust and athletic players on the pitch. That meant Mesut Ozil was sacrificed, much to his displeasure, and I think this was almost a tacit admission from Emery that we were going to try and hang on to what we had rather than get on top of the game and look to do things with the ball. Ozil wasn’t great, but that was also true of Aubameyang, Iwobi and Lacazette, and I feel like having someone comfortable with the ball would have allowed us to eventually get some kind of hold on the game for a sustained period. As it was, that never happened.

That lack of composure was evident in the move that broke down for their second goal. We’d broken into their box, and maybe Lacazette didn’t have too many options with so many men ahead of the ball, but his pass infield left Torreira stranded and at this point it’s the Calamityville Horror Part 2 from Mustafi. He had pushed miles up the pitch, got turned by Sorloth but as poor as this was it shouldn’t have been fatal.

He had at least two opportunities to make the kind of cynical foul a really good defender would make:

It’s hard to know why a man who thinks it’s a good idea to slide through the back of an opponent in his six yard box doesn’t deem a situation like this worthy of the same treatment. It would have been deeply, deeply cynical but that’s the game. Make the foul, take a yellow card, stop the danger as high up the pitch as you can. What you don’t do is essentially nothing, allowing Zaha to get into the box and fool the referee with a dive over Xhaka’s leg.

I have to say in real time I thought it was a penalty, replays showed otherwise, but having just outlined why I think our player should have broken the rules to prevent the situation developing, maybe it’s a bit rich to go town on Zaha for doing what he did – and doing what I’ve seen Arsenal players do plenty of times down the years (and I hope to see again). He won his side a penalty.

Once again Milivojevic scored from the spot and that was 2-2. A goal we should never have conceded, and somebody needs to sit down with Mustafi and give him a good lesson on how and when to make tactical fouls. The other lesson he should be given is how to watch games from the bench for a while, because he’s making mistakes in almost every game this season. He’s had a couple of performances recently when he didn’t, but he’s set the bar so low for himself that these were considered by some to be the real measure of his quality when in fact it’s the ones where he slips and slides and gets turned inside out that defines him as a player. He makes my head hurt.

Afterwards, Unai Emery said:

It’s difficult away and I think the team can improve. I think today, the draw was not bad. We want to win but it’s not easy. We look at today and they are a good team. Playing here is not easy for every team, but our challenge is to continue our process of learning in every match. It’s about learning the defensive situations and improving.

Learning the defensive situations is crucial. Mustafi was deep in conversation with Sokratis coming off the pitch, hopefully the Greek international was the first person to tell him what’s what and we’ve seen him take yellow cards this season by making the exact kind of foul that should have been made yesterday. Maybe some people don’t like the idea of a player being that cynical, but I’m not one of them. Give me a healthy goblet of cynicism, washed down with a chaser of three points and other people’s outrage over dropping two points from a winning position.

Anyway, hopefully lessons will be learned by all who need to learn them. It’s clear that this is a team which remains a work in progress, and perhaps a little reality check before we face a team as good as Liverpool next weekend is no bad thing.

James and I recorded the Arsecast Extra yesterday afternoon, almost immediately after the final whistle, so check that out below, and we’ll have all the rest of the day’s news on Arseblog News.


This Arsecast Extra was recorded with ipDTL

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