Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: Closer to a Top 4 dogfight than a title race after 19 games

Arsenal defeated Crystal Palace 2-0 on Sunday to reach the halfway stage with 40 points in the Premier League. That’s one more point than last season when the Gunners were topping the table after 19 games. The big difference is that the league has become more competitive this season as the Gunners only sit in third place, 9 points behind Chelsea and 3 behind Liverpool.

arsenal-vs-crystal-palace

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

The title is a distant dream for Arsenal right now because the Blues are on pace to finish the season with 98 points and break the record for the highest points total (95 points by the Chelsea team of 2004-05). There’s still a long way to go but the Blues seem to enjoy the luck that Leicester had last season. The Foxes did not need to rotate because they played no European game and suffered no big injury. Similar circumstances have enabled Conte to rely pretty much on the same 14 players.

The reality for the Gunners is that they should not take a Top 4 finish for granted. They are just one point clear of Tottenham and Manchester City and 4 points ahead of Manchester United after 19 games. Basically, it means that two big teams will bite the dust at the end of the season.

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that edged West Brom 1-0 a week ago with Monreal, Elneny and Perez replacing Gibbs, Coquelin and Ozil in the starting lineup. The manager had no choice with Ozil and Gibbs. The Germany playmaker was ill while Gibbs is recovering from a knee injury.

On the other hand, Wenger started Elneny to give Coquelin some rest. That move made sense since Elneny will join the Egypt squad for the African Cup of Nations and will therefore not be at the club for a couple of weeks at least. Tactically, there was also no need to have a ballwinner like Coquelin against a weak Palace side. The Gunners lost a bit of defensive security without Coquelin but gained a bit more fluency in their passing game with Elneny.

The forwards’ work-rate

What really struck me in Sunday’s game was the work-rate of the Arsenal forwards. You can see a major difference when Giroud and Perez take the spots occupied by Ozil and Walcott. The Gunners won more tackles than Palace, 19 out of 38 tackles for Arsenal compared to 12 out of 33 for the visitors, according to Squawka. The Gunners lost a bit of pace and fluency in their passing game without Ozil, but they gained more aggression and physicality with Giroud, who won 3 of 5 tackles and made 1 interception.

Giroud deservedly grabbed the headlines with his sensational scorpion kick in the 17th minute. Sanchez capitalized on a counterattack to make a poor cross for Giroud, who reacted quickly enough to attempt an acrobatic backheel flick. The ball hit the underside of the crossbar before bouncing behind the goal line. Sanchez tried again to set up Giroud in the 79th but the Frenchman couldn’t climb high enough to connect with the cross.

It’s positive for the club to see Sanchez improve his relationship on the pitch with Giroud. Last season, their poor understanding played an important role in Arsenal’s offensive problems: Sanchez and Giroud only interacted once to score a league goal. That was when Giroud set up Sanchez in the 2-2 draw with Manchester City. They have already interacted twice this season in the league with Giroud also making an assist for Sanchez against Bournemouth.

Can Arsenal be ruthless?

Some fans get frustrated with Giroud because he can score the most difficult goals and miss the easy ones. Giroud lived up to to his reputation in the sixth minute as he failed to connect with a bouncing cross from Monreal for a tap-in. Surprisingly, the stat sheet says Giroud scored with his only shot of the game. To some extent, that speaks volumes about the relative lack of service Giroud got.

That leads me to the second thing that caught my attention. The Gunners completely outplayed Palace, finishing the match with 15 chances compared to 5 for the visitors. The Eagles were so toothless in the first half that Arsenal should have reached halftime with a 3-goal lead. Unfortunately, the Gunners don’t have that capacity to kill off games. Sanchez should have doubled the lead on the stroke of halftime when some poor defending by Palace gifted Arsenal a golden opportunity. The Chile striker pounced on a loose ball but had his 10-yard effort saved by Hennessey.

Sanchez lacked his finishing touch on Sunday with only 2 of his 8 goal attempts on target. I thought he was also a bit selfish and could have released the ball more quickly instead of holding onto it. That’s the difference with Ozil, who’s a selfless player in the final third. Sanchez was dispossessed 6 times, tied with Zaha for the most by any player, according to whoscored.com.

Perez’s strong performance

When he plays on the left wing, Sanchez becomes a bit predictable because he often cuts inside to shoot with his right foot. That did not prevent him from having 4 successful dribbles out of 6. On the other hand, Sanchez’s limited ability to win headers becomes a problem when he plays in a central position. Giroud is a better option at centerforward to hold the ball up. The Frenchman won 4 of 5 aerial duels against Palace and 4 of those duels were in midfield.

Perez made a strong impression on Sunday. He made 2 key passes, 5 tackles, 1 block and 1 interception. With a better scoring record, Perez could take Walcott’s spot on the right wing. The Spaniard has scored in the Champions League and the League Cup, but not yet in the Premier League. His work-rate against Palace was outstanding. Perez initiated the first goal by making an interception on the edge of the Arsenal box. He then showed his stamina in the 24th by running the length of the pitch to lead a counterattack and tracking back 50 yards after losing possession. His best chance to score came in the 27th when Iwobi sent a ball over the top. Unfortunately, Perez missed his first touch and Hennessey was able to gather the ball. In the second half, Perez made a run in behind Flamini to take a pass from Sanchez for an angled strike that Dann deflected out.

Ozil’s illness meant that Wenger had the choice between starting Iwobi in the No. 10 role and playing Sanchez as a second striker. The manager opted for the first solution, which made sense since Iwobi is more spontaneous in his passing game than Sanchez. Iwobi made 5 key passes, tied with Sanchez for the most by any player.

Iwobi’s finishing

After the game, Wenger said that Iwobi had worked hard in training to improve his finishing and it showed as the Nigeria international caught the frame with 2 of his 3 shots. Iwobi did not really trouble Hennessey with a tame effort in the 16th. But he was much more clinical in the 56th when Dann deflected a cross from Monreal high into the air. Iwobi headed the loose ball past Hennessey and two Palace defenders. Ward tried to head the ball out but his clearance bounced off the bar and back into the net.

Iwobi had a poor run of form in October and November. He has rediscovered his form lately with 3 goals in all competitions since December. Expectations should be kept low for a player who’s only 20 years old. But if he wants to set the bar high, then he should try to match Alli’s performance level at Tottenham.

In his return from a hamstring injury, Oxlade-Chamberlain made an interesting cameo appearance with 1 key pass, 1 shot on target and 3 successful dribbles in the last 15 minutes. The Ox set up Ramsey, who missed the target in the 88th. He then controlled a pass from Sanchez for a low strike that Hennessey saved in stoppage time. As long as the Ox shows some end product, he’ll get his share of playing time.

In midfield, Elneny showed more aggression than usual, which is a good thing when you remember how he was brushed off the ball in his first Arsenal games. Elneny won 2 of 4 tackles and 75% of his duels, the highest percentage among the starting midfielders according to the club’s website. He made no key pass but his passing accuracy reached 90.6%.

Xhaka asserting himself

Elneny’s defensive contribution was enough to help Xhaka perform his playmaking duties. Xhaka made 111 passes, 49 more than any other player. He showed his passing range by hitting 13 accurate long balls out of 17, according to whoscored.com. Those long balls can be useful to switch play, evade a high press or start a fast break. Xhaka did not neglect his defensive duties as he won 3 of 5 tackles and 1 of 2 headers. Recent Arsenal teams have often been criticized for their lack of leadership and character, but I believe Xhaka could provide the steel and fight we’ve been missing in midfield since Vieira’s departure. I definitely look forward to Xhaka’s second season at the club when he’ll play with more confidence.

At the back, Koscielny and Paulista had very little work. They committed no foul, made one tackle each and were mostly tested in the air, with Koscielny winning 3 of 8 headers and Paulista 3 of 12, according to Squawka. In fact, the Eagles focused most of their efforts on the flanks to feed Benteke. But Bellerin and Monreal did a fine job, combining to win 6 of 9 tackles.

Palace proved more threatening in the second half, coming close to scoring on a fast break and a corner. With Monreal out of position in the 47th, Townsend was able to make a cross for Benteke at the far post. The Belgium striker outjumped Bellerin but his downward header sailed wide. I thought the Gunners made a decent retreat on that play and Bellerin did enough to prevent Benteke from having a free header.

Unprofessional league executives

The Arsenal defense looked more shaky in the 60th when the Eagles put pressure with corner kicks. Benteke outjumped Paulista near the penalty spot for a header that Cech palmed away. A few seconds later, the ball fell to Flamini, who hoisted the ball into the box. Cech punched the ball into the path of Cabaye, who forced Cech into another save with a long-range volley. The following corner led to a goalmouth scramble and a Townsend drive that Cech parried. The Eagles were unable to create a single chance after Wenger decided to shut up the shop by replacing Elneny and Perez with Coquelin and Ramsey in the 72nd and Iwobi with the Ox in the 77th.

The Gunners only have one full day of rest before visiting Bournemouth on Tuesday. That’s completely unprofessional from the Premier League executives to give so little rest between two games. The players don’t have enough time to recover physically, which means that they are unlikely to perform well and that there’s a high risk of injury. Such nonsensical scheduling doesn’t happen in the other top European leagues. Spain, Germany, Italy and France have broadcasting constraints too, but they always make sure that teams have at least two full days of rest. If a club plays on Sunday, then its next game will be on Wednesday and not Tuesday.

I assume key players like Sanchez and Koscielny won’t start against Bournemouth. On the other hand, Ramsey, Coquelin, Mustafi and the Ox were on the bench against Palace and might start against the Cherries. The Gunners desperately need three points after both Manchester clubs won on Monday.

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