Sunday, December 10, 2023

Crystal Palace 0-1 Arsenal: 10 man Gunners scrap it out well

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It’s never easy going to Selhurst Park, and playing more or less half an hour with ten men makes it even less so, so to come away with all three points last night was very pleasing indeed.

The only change from the side that beat Nottingham Forest was Takehiro Tomiyasu coming in to replace the injured Jurrien Timber. That meant Thomas Partey starting again at right back, and Gabriel staying on the bench. I’m not really convinced that this is 100% a tactical decision by Mikel Arteta, continued chatter about the Brazilian and interest from Saudi Arabia may be a factor, and I certainly don’t see it as a long-term thing. However, last night it was all right, if not brilliant.

When you move Partey there, play Tomi at left back, and add both Declan Rice and Kai Havertz to proceedings, it’s a lot of change from last season, so I don’t suppose it’s a big surprise that we weren’t quite as fluent as we might like. For me it’s most evident in the wide areas: the Ben White + Bukayo Saka connection is gone for the most part, even though he does make the occasional raid forward, and on the other side Martinelli and Tomiyasu have barely played together. In wide areas in particular, I think we miss those relationships, and neither of our wingers got a lot of joy last night.

In part that’s because Palace defended very well. Like Forest last week they sat off in a compact, well organised block, and it was hard to break down. That said, we probably should have been leading at the break. Eddie Nketiah’s game last night was impressive everywhere but in front of goal. He hit the post after smart movement following a Palace mistake, and then scooped over from close range after a great pass from Declan Rice.  At the other end, their most dangerous moment came when William Saliba made a bit of a mistake, but made up for it with an immaculate sliding challenge.

In the second half, Ayew – already on a yellow – committed the most cynical foul/drag on Saka you will ever see, and escaped a second booking. Minutes later we had a penalty when Martinelli’s quick free kick found Eddie in the box, the keeper came charging out, didn’t get the ball and we had a penalty. In all honesty, it’s one of those I find difficult as the player falls into the onrushing goalkeeper, but it stood.

Martin Odegaard took it and dispatched it into the bottom corner. It was a decision which surprised Mikel Arteta but he said:

if they felt it was the right thing to do, for me I’m fine. They have to make those decisions on the pitch. I was surprised like everybody else, but he scored the goal which is the important thing and we won the game.

Maybe Saka wasn’t feeling that confident, in which case he handed responsibility to the skipper who stepped up. So, 1-0 and you thought the game might open up a bit. However, Tomiyasu got booked for time-wasting taking a throw, and I think that first yellow was a bit harsh as he seemed to get punished for Havertz holding onto the ball for ages. As the ref was flashing the card, he’d actually taken the throw.

As for the second yellow, I think this is a genuine disgrace. There’s barely any contact with Ayew who, lucky to be still on the pitch if this is the threshold to reduce a team to ten men, threw himself to the ground. Honestly, it’s a terrible decision – and I’d say the same thing if an opposition player was sent off for that. I really think football has to rethink the red card. A sending off should be almost a last resort, unless it’s for something like a dreadful tackle or violent conduct. To change a game that significantly over something so soft just isn’t right – the bar should be higher than that.

I also found the post-game analysis of this on Sky quite baffling, where they spoke about it as if Tomiyasu was some kind of villain whose red card was obvious. Much like the commentary on ITV during the Community Shield, it felt like it should have come with a ‘Promoted by PGMOL’ sticker. I can’t imagine Neville or Carragher accepting that nonsense if it had been a United or Liverpool player.

Anyway, it left us with 10 men for 25 minutes plus injury time or thereabouts. Gabriel was sent on for Martinelli, and Palace took control. Sometimes that happens when it’s 10 v 11, it’s almost subconscious and the roles were reversed. We sat deep in a compact, low block and I have to say despite how nervous I was, I thought we defended really well. Their most dangerous moment was when Ebere Eze dribbled into the box, and when Partey dangled out a leg I feared the worst as the Palace man went down. If that had been given, I’m not sure we could have complained too much. Even if he was looking for it, it’s no different really to Eddie up the other end.

It felt a bit relentless at times, but we were basically equal to everything. Saliba seemed to be everywhere, and I think the manager’s subs definitely helped. Jorginho’s experience was really important in the final stages, and bringing on Oleksandr Zinchenko helped take the sting out of the 7 minutes of injury time as we enjoyed a couple of spells of possession which halted their momentum.

In the end, a classic of the ‘hard-fought’ genre, but three points away at Crystal Palace is not to be sneezed at however you get them. Afterwards, Arteta said:

I loved it, absolutely loved it. It’s a really difficult place to come. We played how we wanted to play 11 against 11, we dominated the game, we created enough chances, we missed two very, very huge chances that normally we put away, but we never gave up. We continued the way we wanted to continue. Eddie earned us the right to go ahead with his action, we scored the penalty and then we had to play half an hour with 10 men, which is obviously a conflict that we didn’t prepare.

We had to adapt and I think the players worked fantastically because I don’t think we gave anything away. The subs were great, the way they came out, the concentration, the focus on how they helped the team and changed the team’s momentum in many occasions of the game, so I’m really happy.

And he can be rightly pleased with the outcome. I have to mention Declan Rice who had a storming game in midfield while we had 11, but showed how important he can be to this team defensively when we were down to 10. He has a lot of presence and it’s coming to the fore very quickly here.

I also think Arteta has a bit to do before our next game when he considers the line-up. As I said above, I’m not particularly fond of Partey at right-back, and while this might be him trying something out tactically, I don’t know that it helps get the best out of the players we have on the pitch. Perhaps the return of Zinchenko at left-back, which seems inevitable now, necessitates the return of Gabriel at centre-half, so let’s see.

Nevertheless, working out problems and tweaks when you’re two from two and have six points on the table is probably the best place to do that, so let’s see what happens.

Right, we’ll leave it there for now.

James and I will be recording an Arsecast Extra for you 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.

For now, have a good one.

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