Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Arsenal 2-2 Crystal Palace: Late goal rescues a point for the Premier League’s most passive team

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On a night when two former Arsenal captains took charge as managers, Patrick Vieira will feel worse about the result this morning, but when it comes to performance, he should be pretty pleased with his team.

Mikel Arteta, on the other hand, saw his side fail to capitalise on a bright start, and despite the fact we kept going to grab that late equaliser, there was a lot to be worried about from an Arsenal perspective. He chose to fill his team with attacking players, starting Martin Odegaard, Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka, Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. It’s a line-up I like on paper, but I’m not sure it’s one which actually works that well. We saw it against Burnley and that was a struggle at times, and it’s impossible to say it was a success last night.

To be fair, we did begin well, we came out of the blocks sharply, dominating possession and territory in the early stages, and the early goal really should have been a building block. It came after Pepe combined well with Tomiyasu, the Palace keeper made a good save from his curling shot, but a very sharp looking Aubemeyang was there to tuck home the rebound from a fairly tight angle.

It was exactly what you’d want, going ahead at home, shades of the Sp*rs game in terms of timing, and the goal should have settled us down. There was a chance for Smith Rowe to play in Pepe but he shot straight at the keeper, and it wasn’t long before Palace woke up to the fact we weren’t threatening much at all. You expect games to ebb and flow a bit, but under Arteta, when Arsenal aren’t flowing – which is a rare state – we don’t so much ebb as become the most passive team in the Premier League.

We sit off, allow the opposition possession, and look to get the ball back when it’s turned over via a misplaced pass, a mistake, a move breaking down, or some kind of intervention when they get near our penalty area. We seem to have no plan whatsoever to try and win the ball in a proactive way higher up the pitch. We don’t press – although Aubameyang tried hard last night but had sporadic support from his teammates; we don’t seem to make tackles in midfield or in their half; we don’t put pressure on the opposition; we just wait for it to come back to us, rather than go get it ourselves. It’s one thing to sit off then look to get the ball and counter, but we just sit and wait and wait and wait. It’s so listless and insipid, and we get into in-game ruts we seem unable to shake ourselves out of.

It took a second half substitution to do it, but then this was Alexandre Lacazette coming on in the 67th minute. The Frenchman did change the dynamic, with a couple of decent combinations with Aubameyang and some gesturing for the fans to make some noise which helped, but by then Palace were level and inside a few minutes they’d made it 2-1. For the first Partey was caught on the ball, not for the first time, and when it came to Benteke, he stepped inside Gabriel too easily to finish into the bottom corner.

The second came after we lost possession in their half, I don’t think there was a foul on Sambi, but there was still plenty to do. Ben White backed off Edouard too much, allowing him space to shoot straight at the goal from relatively close range, so while it looked a bit bad for Aaron Ramsdale, I have some sympathy for the keeper because it was a good hit to end a move we didn’t defend anywhere near well enough.

That period between our goal and Palace’s second was some of the most uninspired, unimaginative football I’ve seen under Arteta. It’s games like this where you want to see signs of progress, evidence that he can make this team click from an attacking perspective, and there was none of that. I wrote during the Interlull that unless he can get this team scoring more goals, there’s nowhere left for him to go, and while we did end up with two, the second came as a result of an end-of-game ‘Hail Mary’ approach rather than an over-arching style of play which generates lots of chances. It’s still a huge worry.

We did put some pressure on, and I wonder this morning if Vieira might regret his Wenger-esque decision when he decided to try and hold on to their lead by sticking on another defender. It handed some momentum to Arsenal, Tierney almost equalised with a shot that clattered off the crossbar, before a late corner resulted in a bit of a scramble, a Ben White shot which was cleared off the line into the path of Lacazette who swept it home to rescue a point.

Obviously one point is better than none, and a late goal generally always takes some of the sting out of a poor performance, but this was a disappointing night. Again, key players like Odegaard and Partey, who we need to be better than this to make this system work, just didn’t get anywhere near their level. Kieran Tierney looks a shadow of his best self, and when that’s coupled with our seemingly inherent passivity, it’s not a recipe for winning football.

I think it’s a bit too reductive to compare and contrast Vieira and Arteta, but Palace looked confident and comfortable on the ball, and Arsenal rarely do unless our porridge is just right. We have too many days when it’s not, and when it’s not, it’s a chore. Closing in on two years in charge, it’s not unreasonable to have doubts about Arteta’s ability to get the porridge right on a consistent basis.

I’ve left the Saka thing until last because I think it needs to be separate from the main discussion about how we play and how we played last night. I genuinely can’t believe that wasn’t a red card for McArthur. It should have been his second yellow anyway, but Mike Dean let him off with a booking but gave Saka a yellow for the exact same foul a couple of minutes later.

What McArthur does is verging on assault. You cannot look at that and think he’s making any genuine attempt to play the ball, he literally volleys Saka in the back of the leg, with the ball nowhere near, and it’s a red card all day long. If that was Xhaka etc etc. It’s a disgraceful oversight from Dean, compounded by the fact VAR had the chance to look at it and sided with the referee. Abysmal officiating, let’s hope Saka is not as badly hurt as I suspect he might be, and that was a moment which should have changed the dynamic of the game in our favour.

However, I think it feels even more egregious to us because we know we need things like that to go our way on nights like this. We’ve seen that kind of performance before, we know when the team is in that kind of funk, so the advantage we need has to come from an ‘external’ place. Don’t get me wrong, it was a huge mistake, a terrible decision, and Palace should have been down to 10 men, but that wasn’t why we struggled last night, and that’s why it has to be viewed somewhat separately from the main event.

We can feel hard done by because Mike Dean bottled the decision, but we have to acknowledge that overall this was a worrying performance, and one that was all too familiar when we were hoping we might just have turned a corner a little bit. We need to be a lot better on Friday night against Villa.

Right, I’ll leave it there for now. James and I will be recording the Arsecast Extra for you later this morning. Keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

Podcast should be out at lunchtime or thereabouts, so until then, take it easy .

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