Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: Oxlade-Chamberlain shows scoring instinct

   Oxlade-Chamberlain is not really known for his scoring prowess. Last season, he notched just one goal in 25 Premier League matches. But on Sunday, he found the net twice to fire Arsenal to a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace and back to the top spot after Chelsea beat Manchester City 1-0 on Monday.

   Wenger had limited options in midfield with Wilshere and Ramsey recovering from injuries and Flamini serving a three-match suspension. The most natural choice was to start Cazorla behind the striker and Chambo on the right wing. But the manager did the opposite. I guess Chambo gives more penetration to the team in midfield than Cazorla. Wenger probably remembered his performance in that position when the Gunners thrashed AC Milan 3-0 two years ago.

   In the end, the manager made two changes from the side that drew 2-2 with Southampton as Podolski replaced Gnabry on the wings. Gnabry is just 18 and it’s difficult at that age to perform consistently. While the German teenager was outstanding against Tottenham in the FA Cup, he went missing against the Saints a week ago.

A balanced midfield

   Our midfield looked very much like Barcelona’s with Arteta protecting the back four like Busquets, Ozil controlling the tempo and finding space like Xavi and Chambo accelerating the game and running at defenders like Iniesta. On paper, this is our most balanced midfield with a ballwinner (Arteta or Flamini), a traditional playmaker (Ozil or Rosicky) and an all-rounder (Wilshere, Ramsey or Chambo).

   Crystal Palace’s approach was pretty simple: park the bus and wait for counterattacking opportunities. Arsenal dominated possession but struggled to find space against some disciplined Eagles despite some quick passes in the final third. Podolski and Cazorla often cut inside instead of stretching the defense.

   Our fullbacks provided a bit more width by charging forward. Ozil sent a ball over the top for Monreal in the seventh minute but Speroni denied the Spanish leftback. Then Arteta played Sagna in with a slightly overhit pass in the 36th. Speroni came off his line to collect the ball but collided with Sagna. For a minute, it looked like a serious injury requiring a substitution. But the Frenchman got back on his feet and showed no sign of pain in the second half.

Ozil and Cazorla pulling the strings

   Ozil created our best chances in the first half. Koscielny’s reverse header from an Ozil free kick in the 34th forced Speroni to make a diving save. Mertesacker met another free kick from the German playmaker in the 43rd but sent his header straight into Speroni’s arms. Ozil faded in the second half as Cazorla took over the playmaking duties.

   Cazorla found Arteta inside the area in the 54th. Arteta could have taken his chance but preferred to slip the ball to Podolski to his left. Podolski took a touch before firing into the side-netting. The German’s lack of spontaneity cost him a scoring chance as a first-time effort was the better option. Podolski’s performance on Sunday was average at best. He was replaced by Rosicky in the 72nd. Podolski really needs to show more on the pitch to deserve a start.

   Cazorla destabilized the Crystal Palace defense with his movement, passing game and quick turns. Delaney received a yellow card in the 68th for making a late tackle on the sharp Spaniard. An example of the great chemistry within the squad was how Cazorla tracked back in the 62nd to make a clean tackle on Bolasie inside the Arsenal area.

Chambo’s deep runs

   The former Malaga player set up the the opening goal by cutting inside Jedinak to feed Chambo with a clipped pass in the 48th. Chambo controlled the offering with his right foot before lifting the ball over Speroni with his left foot. The England midfielder showed quick feet on that play, first by making a run to escape marking and then by making two perfect touches in a tiny space to beat Speroni.

   To a certain extent, Chambo is similar to Wilshere and Ramsey in the sense that he can make deep runs that are difficult to track. Chamakh was marking Chambo in midfield, but when Chambo reached the edge of the box, the Eagles had no clue about zonal marking and no defender was smart enough to deal with the immediate threat. 

   Modern football is very much about the quick transition from defense to offense and the other way around. Jedinak made a professional foul on Chambo in the 20th to kill a play and give the Eagles enough time to regroup. Wenger and Bould have instilled defensive awareness in the younger players. It was therefore no surprise to see Chambo frequently drop back to help out the back four.

Lessons from the past

   Yet, fans should keep their expectations at a low level. Chambo is just 20 and consistency is still an issue at that age. Let’s remember what happened with Wilshere when he was put on a pedestal and knocked off it a year later. Chambo is definitely a talented player but he needs to work on his passing game. Some of his long balls went nowhere on Sunday. Chambo also needs to keep a low turnover rate. He recklessly lost possession in the 65th but at least he made the effort to win the ball back.

   The opening goal obviously boosted Chambo’s confidence. When he took a pass from Arteta in the 60th, he attempted a strike from 30 yards that sailed wide. Chambo initiated the second goal in the 73rd by diverting a pass from Rosicky into the path of Giroud with a backheel flick. The Frenchman played the ball back to Chambo, who outpaced Ward to fire a low strike into the bottom corner for a 2-0 lead.

   The Gunners kept a clean sheet but the left side of the back four was shaky. In the first half, Koscielny was outpaced by Chamakh, whose heavy touch allowed Szczesny to gather the ball in the 13th. Monreal improved a bit after his disastrous performance in the 2-2 draw with Southampton. He still lost a duel inside his own area in the 38th but the Eagles were only able to get a corner.

Koscielny’s poor performance

   Arsenal nearly conceded an equalizer after the opening goal because of a lapse of concentration. In the 51st, Bolasie redirected a cross from Puncheon toward the far post where Jerome ghosted past Monreal for a header that Szczesny parried with his legs. On that play, Sagna could only divert Puncheon’s cross. Mertesacker decided to give Sagna some help, which means that Koscielny had to mark Bolasie instead of running toward Szczesny. At the far post, Monreal attempted to play the offside trap and gave Jerome a free header. Sagna was late on that play while Mertesacker, Koscielny and Monreal made poor decisions.

   Koscielny’s poor decision-making was again exposed twice. He played Puncheon onside in the 68th. The Crystal Palace midfielder cut the ball back for Bannan, who fired over the bar. A side pass from Mertesacker in the 83rd led to a misunderstanding between Szczesny and Koscielny. The Frenchman thought Szczesny would come off the line to play the ball while he should have protected his goalkeeper from a risky situation by attacking the ball. In the end, Szczesny beat an Eagle to the ball for a difficult clearance.

   The Gunners have the second tightest defense in the league behind Chelsea. But you can’t take anything for granted this season. Monreal was the weak link against Southampton, Koscielny played below par on Sunday. There won’t be room for error against Liverpool and Manchester United.

Sharing goals around

   The obvious positive from Sunday’s game is the great team spirit at the club. Arsenal relied on the impressive form of Ramsey and Giroud in the first couple of months to rise to the top. When Ramsey picked up a thigh injury and Giroud’s form dipped, Walcott, Wilshere and Cazorla took over the scoring duties. On Sunday, it was Chambo’s turn to step up. As long as the Gunners show solidarity on the pitch, they will still have a shot at the title.

   But on paper, Manchester City and Chelsea are the overwhelming favorites. They have bigger squads to cope with injuries. On Sunday, we had Zelalem and Gnabry on the bench. In some matches this season, we also had Park, Sanogo, Akpom, Miyaichi and Hayden as substitutes. You would never see such inexperienced or weak players on the bench of the Blues or the Citizens.

   Wenger got Kallstrom on loan from Spartak Moscow, but that deal won’t really help Arsenal in the title race. We need him now because Flamini is still suspended for two games and Ramsey won’t come back before March. Unfortunately, Kallstrom is sidelined by a back injury for several weeks. In the most optimistic scenario, that deal could matter if the club is still competing in the FA Cup and the Champions League in the last three months of the season.

   Some strikers were mentioned during the winter transfer window, but in the end the manager did not sign anybody. I guess Wenger couldn’t find a quality forward who was available and who could improve the team’s chances. That leaves our offense very one-dimensional with Giroud and Bendtner who have the same profile.

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Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

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