Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal: An off day but still a win

The Gunners did not have their best stuff on Saturday but they managed to grind out a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace to keep a two-point lead over Liverpool in the Premier League. The main concern before the match was not about the kind of performance Arsenal could produce at Selhurst Park. It was about the team’s ability to bounce back after the 2-1 loss to Borussia Dortmund, which snapped a 12-game unbeaten run.

Arsenal’s first half was far from convincing. Crystal Palace had lost its five previous matches and decided to sit back and wait for counterattacking opportunities. The Gunners outrageously dominated possession but were let down by their final ball. Either Ozil, Ramsey and Cazorla were guilty of sloppy passes. Or the decision-making was simply poor.

Ozil played a one-two with Gnabry in the 17th minute and then made a difficult cross for Giroud instead of taking his chance. That was the opposite with Cazorla in the 35th. Ramsey found Cazorla on the right side of the area and the Spaniard dragged his shot wide from a tight angle while a better option was to play the ball back to an unmarked Ramsey. Arsenal looked very predictable, often attempting short passes in the heart of the Eagles’ defense just like when Wilshere scored the opening goal against Norwich.

Flamini’s groin injury was somehow a blessing in disguise. Wenger sent on Gnabry to replace the French midfielder after seven minutes. Gnabry is our only player able to run at defenders right now since Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain are still recovering from injuries while Cazorla is not sharp yet.

The German forward tortured the Crystal Palace defense in a 10-minute span. Delaney gave away a free kick by shoving Gnabry on the edge of the box in the 40th. Shortly after halftime, Gnabry cut inside Guedioura and got tripped by the Algeria midfielder. Arteta opened the scoring by converting the subsequent penalty with a powerful strike to the right of Speroni. Gnabry came close to doubling the lead in the 49th when Giroud played him in with a flick-on. Delaney’s interception bounced off Gnabry’s leg and inches wide of the post.

To a certain extent, the Eagles were unlucky to concede a goal after creating the better chances in the first half. Bannan failed to capitalize on a good cross from Thomas in the 14th and sent his header over the bar. Chamakh was in a much better position in the 41st to connect with a cross from Jedinak. However, the unmarked Morocco forward poorly timed his jump and could not head the ball from six yards.

Szczesny had to make two saves in the first 30 minutes, stopping long-range efforts from Chamakh and Guedioura. A free kick in the 33rd exposed again Arsenal’s poor marking on set pieces. Bannan pounced on a second ball but his curling shot from 17 yards sailed wide. It took 38 minutes before Speroni was finally tested. Gnabry fed Ramsey, who fired from a tight angle, forcing a leg save from the Crystal Palace goalkeeper.

Arsenal kept a clean sheet on Saturday, but what the scoreline doesn’t tell you is that it could have gone either way between the 65th and the 80th. The Gunners failed to smother a counterattack in the 56th but Szczesny denied Guedioura. Another counterattack in the 65th had more damaging consequences. Arteta collided with Chamakh and was red-carded for what the referee considered a professional foul from the last defender on that play.

Wenger replaced Gnabry with Wilshere in the 69th and Monreal with Cazorla in the 72nd. Those moves made sense. Ramsey needed some help in midfield while the counterattack that led to Arteta’s ejection came from Gibbs’ flank. Cazorla also completely faded away in the second half, so he was of no use anymore to press high up the pitch.

Arsenal was under siege for a few minutes. Ward played a one-two with Bolasie in the 74th before unleashing a powerful drive that rattled the bar. A few seconds later, an unmarked Jedinak pounced on a second ball for a volley that Szczesny tipped over the bar.

As Crystal Palace pushed for an equalizer, the hosts also gave Arsenal more space for counterattacks. Monreal dribbled past two Eagles in the 82nd before having his shot blocked by Delaney. The Spaniard then made a cross for Ozil in the 87th. Unmarked at the far post, Ozil miscued his volley. Giroud ended that frustration by scoring from a counterattack in the 87th. Ramsey made a run on the left flank, held off a challenge from Gabbidon and bough time for Giroud to reach the area. When Ramsey saw the Frenchman, he made a pinpoint cross and Giroud headed home from seven yards to put the game away.

Ramsey and Giroud are the main reason why Arsenal is leading the Premier League. If you take out their goals and assists, Arsenal is pretty much a mid-table team. But then Arsenal is not the only side that relies heavily on two players. Liverpool wouldn’t be in contention without Sturridge and Suarez. And Manchester United would be fighting relegation without Van Persie and Rooney.

Giroud can be a frustrating player at times. The French striker is not as clinical as Van Persie. He outjumped his marker to meet a cross from Sagna in the third minute but headed over the bar. He then chested down an offering from Ozil in the 44th but could only produce a tame half-volley. In the 54th, Giroud was unmarked at the far post but failed to catch the frame from five yards. He even killed a counterattack by not releasing the ball quickly enough in the 60th. The Frenchman kept carrying the ball despite having two unmarked teammates and eventually lost possession.

It’s easy to understand why Wenger was looking to hire another striker in the summer. Giroud is strong in the air and his hold-up play is very good. He also contributes defensively by pressing high up the pitch and tracking back. But he lacks pace. He’s not an all-around striker like Van Persie or Henry in his prime. Yet, what Saturday’s match tells you is that he has improved his game and his work ethic can’t be questioned.

Arsenal has regained a bit of confidence ahead of a tough string of fixtures. The Gunners will host Chelsea in the League Cup on Tuesday, then face Liverpool in the Premiership on Saturday before visiting Dortmund in the Champions League on Nov. 6. Injuries have limited Wenger’s rotation options. For the manager, it’s all about getting the priorities right. First, the club must stay in contention for the Premiership title, then it must qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions League, and finally it should have a shot at the League Cup.

Basically, it’d be wise to rest Sagna, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Ramsey, Ozil and Giroud on Tuesday and give some playing time to Jenkinson, Vermaelen, Monreal, Rosicky, Frimpong, Gnabry and Bendtner. A soft schedule helps explain why Liverpool is in contention this season. The Reds have no mid-week matches this month and in November because they failed to qualify for the Europa League and were knocked out of the League Cup by Manchester United.


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