The Gunners had a narrow escape at Selhurst Park on Saturday, overcoming poor performances from their fullbacks and goalkeeper to edge Crystal Palace 2-1 and leapfrog Manchester United into third place in the Premier League.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
The Eagles played the match on their own terms with a lot of running and challenges while the Gunners never had any fluidity in their passing game on a shabby pitch. The 2-0 lead at halftime was flattering for Arsenal, which created only two scoring chances. Crystal Palace had as many shots as the visitors but couldn’t test Ospina because of poor final balls. Clinical in the first half, the Gunners became wasteful in the second as they failed to convert four chances. I guess some players started thinking about the Champions League match against Monaco and switched off in the last 10 minutes, allowing Crystal Palace to have a shot at earning a point.
Wenger made three changes to the side that beat Leicester 2-1 with Chambers, Welbeck and Giroud replacing Bellerin, Rosicky and Walcott in the starting lineup. The manager opted for hard-working wingers and rested Bellerin, who was recovering from an ankle injury.
The opening goal came from Welbeck’s defensive work in the seventh minute. Giroud made an inaccurate pass for Welbeck but the England striker won the ball back by pressuring Souare, who tripped him on the 18-yard line. Cazorla converted the subsequent penalty by sending Speroni the wrong way.
Arsenal added a second goal on the stroke of halftime when Sanchez played Welbeck in. Speroni denied Welbeck but Giroud followed up to score into an empty net. Pardew complained after the match that Welbeck was offside. It was a tough call with the naked eye. However, the Eagles also had a wrong call in their favor when Ozil, clean through on goal, was flagged offside in the third minute although Delaney clearly played him onside.
Giroud and Welbeck are competing for the starting spot at centerforward. The chemistry in the squad must be good when two rivals develop a good understanding on the pitch. Giroud notched his 50th Arsenal goal on Saturday and made a laudable effort to hold the ball up and contribute defensively, receiving a yellow card for a poor challenge on Gayle in the 56th.
The Frenchman created a scoring chance in the 21st by redirecting Cazorla’s corner toward the far post, where Koscielny missed the target with a free header. In the second half, Giroud could have made it 3-0 but his two efforts both lacked power to beat Speroni. He pounced on a poor clearance from Ledley to volley goalward in the 61st and outjumped Dann to head Cazorla’s corner in the 86th.
After a mediocre performance against Leicester, Sanchez is not far from getting back to his best level. In the 57th, he came close to scoring his first goal since the 3-0 win over Stoke on Jan. 11. Ozil collected a clearance from Chambers and lifted the ball over Ward to then feed Sanchez, who sent the ball inches wide with the outside of his boot.
The Chile forward has such a strong reputation in the league that opponents don’t hesitate to make cynical fouls at the start of a counterattack, like Mutch and Ledley both did in the 19th. Sanchez displayed again his incredible work rate by stealing the ball from Dann in the 24th and forcing Speroni to make a desperate clearance.
The flaw of a low defensive line
Ozil had a decent game before fading in the last 30 minutes. He outjumped Delaney to meet a cross from Sanchez in the 51st but his header bounced off the bar. The Germany playmaker also showed a bit of steel in the 54th by outmuscling Zaha to let the ball roll out of bounds. That’s definitely an improvement in his attitude because English referees have had enough to see him fall to the ground in the hope of getting a free kick. My only criticism about Saturday’s game is that both Ozil and Cazorla couldn’t help the team keep the game under control when Crystal Palace mounted a late charge. Rosicky, who replaced Ozil in the 76th, proved as inefficient in confiscating the ball.
Cazorla had a few turnovers and seemed to hit the wall physically after shining in the past two months. The Eagles fielded pacy forwards but were able to hit Arsenal on the fast break just once because the visitors played a low defensive line. There’s more ground to cover for the midfielders with that kind of approach because of the gap between defense and attack. You kind of wonder whether all that running makes them more exhausted in the long run. It’s no surprise that Coquelin is better suited than Arteta and Flamini to that demanding defensive system.
Monreal given a hard time
Coquelin won many tackles and made quite a few interceptions. His generosity on the pitch reminds me of a younger Flamini. However, his silly fouls could have proven costly for the team. Coquelin was lucky not to get booked for a stamp on Campbell’s stomach in the fourth minute. He still received a yellow card in the 28th for a mistimed challenge on the Crystal Palace striker and showed naivety in the 42nd by not playing to the whistle and letting Gayle run past him.
Pardew gave the Eagles more penetration in the 58th when he sent on Bolasie for Campbell. He then shifted from a 4-3-3 system to a 4-4-2 formation by replacing Ledley and Gayle with Ameobi and Murray in the 79th. In hindsight, the Crystal Palace manager must have had regrets about not starting Bolasie.
Zaha caused a lot of trouble in the first half by torturing Monreal on our left flank. His pace and dribbling skills are the main reasons why Manchester United signed him two years ago. Monreal fouled Zaha in the 11th to give away a free kick that Ospina punched away. The Spanish defender adjusted in the second half by anticipating passes for Zaha and preventing him from gaining speed. However, Monreal gifted another set piece by tripping Ledley in the 74th. Puncheon curled the subsequent free kick inches wide as Ospina was beaten.
Ospina’s poor game
Things turned ugly for Monreal in the closing minutes. Ameobi outjumped Monreal and Paulista at the far post to head a corner across goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time. The ball bounced off Rosicky and Mertesacker before falling to Zaha, whose effort hit Murray. The ball bounced off Koscielny and back into the path of Murray, who bundled the rebound into the net. That may sound unlucky but defending set pieces is about winning duels and both Ameobi and Murray did a better job than Monreal, Paulista, Rosicky and Mertesacker on that play. The Eagles could have also scored from a corner in the 10th but Campbell aimed his free header straight at Chambers.
With just a minute left, you would think that the Gunners would move the ball toward Crystal Palace’s corner flag to run out the clock. But they lost possession and invited pressure again. Chambers failed to close down Bolasie, who crossed for Murray at the far post. The English forward beat Monreal and Ospina to the ball but his header struck the base of the post.
The Gunners were very lucky to come away with the victory. I thought that was Ospina’s first poor game at the club. The Colombia goalkeeper had very little to do until the last 20 minutes. He showed poor decision-making in the 62nd when he rushed outside the area to head a long ball away. Mertesacker was in a good position to win the ball against Gayle and Ospina still had Koscielny to cover him. Szczesny has been crucified in the past for that kind of showboating and rightly so. When Bolasie crossed the ball in stoppage time, I thought Ospina should have made the catch because the ball was in the six-yard box. What’s the point of picking Ospina if he becomes as gaffe-prone as Szczesny?
Shying away from duels
Monreal struggled on Saturday but you can’t blame him for not trying his best. It’s a different story with Chambers, who pulled Bolasie’s jersey in the 83rd to receive a yellow card. Scared of letting Bolasie skip past him again, Chambers did not even try to stop his crosses. Even if fullback is not his best position, shying away from duels is not a good sign for Chambers’ future at the club.
Wenger switched to a 5-4-1 formation in the 89th by sending on Paulista for Sanchez. In his Premier League debut, the Brazilian centerback was far from convincing. Bolasie easily rounded Paulista in the third minute of stoppage time for a cross-shot that Ospina palmed away. Paulista also lost his duel against Ameobi when Murray scored the following minute. I’m ready to give Paulista the benefit of the doubt, but whatever language a defender speaks, his job is to win duels.
The match at Selhurst Park was the first of five games in a 17-day span. Basically, the Gunners will play every three or four days. That means the manager will need to rotate in order to avoid injuries. We’re a bit short in midfield with Arteta, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain still sidelined by injuries. So Wilshere’s return to the squad is definitely a positive news for the team.