Arsenal’s winning streak came to an end after the physically stronger Crystal Palace’s side made the Gunners struggle defensively. After 11 consecutive wins, The Eagles turned to be the ones to point out the weaknesses in the squad and exploit them properly enough to get at least a draw (2-2).
Palace’s players relied on their strength and proved that despite the latest results they could be dangerous and outplay their opponents. There were a few talking points after the game but the most sensible one was Arsenal’s back-four struggles and how Wilfried Zaha’s experience was enough to keep both flanks busy throughout the game.
The Gunners lack stability and balance at the back and having no left-backs available made it almost impossible to defend the goal. A few substitutions didn’t seem quite enough so the team can feel more comfortable and react properly to the press. The two conceded penalty kicks are a proof of that.
But what happened in the game and what was crucial for Arsenal to stay unbeaten in 12 games?
Although Lucas Torreira didn’t have the best day of it all, he still managed to bring control and balance to the team’s performance which proved crucial when out of possession. He became truly important for all safety actions and is actually the unsung hero when it comes to the defensive transition. Talking about it, it’s been a pain in the arse for the team when their opponent attacked on speed. As we could see in the previous fixtures the Gunners are deadly dangerous on counter-attacks but when it comes to receiving the pressure to their own half it takes them a huge effort which often ends up with conceding a goal. It takes a huge effort not only by the back-four but by Torreira too. He adds more efficiency with his interceptions, clearances and recoveries and is a great example of an appropriate support to the defensive line.
Torreira wanted to deliver the ball further but noticed that all of his teammates are covered. That’s why he decided to send a long ball to Granit Xhaka who was waiting on the left flank and was able to eventually go deeper to the free space.
Torreira received the ball from Bellerin and showed great movements in danger. He was pressured by three of the Palace’s players but he stayed in control.
To escape the pressing duels he sent the ball to Lacazette and immediately started his off the ball movement so he could be able to receive the ball and help with the transition.
His 91% passing accuracy, 4/5 accurate long balls and his successful dribble attempts show his impact to the team’s performance. But winning 10/14 duels and making four clearances, three interceptions and one successful tackle is proof of his contribution to the back line.
Unbelievably, it seems that Granit Xhaka’s absence from the centre and presence to the back-line is a double trouble. Although Matteo Guendouzi has put some good performance during the week, the chaos against Palace proved that Torreira – Xhaka is the better midfield duo. When both play alongside each other the Uruguayan is there to do the dirty job and get the ball back in possession, so he can send it to Xhaka who is there to receive it and deliver it upfront. Torreira and Matteo don’t have this kind of connection.
With Guendouzi in the middle, the team lacked the physicality that Palace’s midfield has. He sometimes struggles with his positioning, mostly when he has to cover the left area, because he always drifts out to the right. These actions somehow break the team’s structure and cause disorganization.
Positional changes proved crucial
To add to Guendouzi’s confusion, this time Unai Emery couldn’t find the right positioning for Iwobi too. In favour of Lacazette staying upfront, Aubameyang had to play on the left, and Alex had to switch to the right and we should admit that it didn’t turn out very well. Actually, I think that this was his worst performance since the start of the season. He didn’t feel comfortable out there and it all ended up with a low passing accuracy percentage and just a few accurate actions by him. He won only two out of his nine duels and this time he couldn’t deliver an accurate cross to the box. It affected the whole attacking performance as Aubameyang’s perfect position isn’t on the left too.
Anyway, he managed to score during the second half. Cheikhou Kouyate was responsible for covering Aubameyang on his own. He had no support and after Xhaka’s corner kick and a ricochet, Auba managed to reach the ball before Kouyate and score.
Xhaka being on the left side of the defence and Bellerin getting injured on the halfway line was an alert that The Gunners are going to get in trouble. The Spaniard couldn’t stop Zaha anyway but bringing Lichtsteiner on, didn’t have the wanted outcome. Even the experienced Swiss international couldn’t counter-press to Zaha’s outstanding job supported from Townsend on the other side of the pitch. This all resulted in two shots off target, two blocked shots, 4/5 successful dribble attempts, three key passes and 13/20 duels won. And to show how desperately the Arsenal players were trying to stop him – he was fouled seven times.
Great team actions by Palace’s players. Mustafi and Bellerin couldn’t manage to press their opponents effectively and Van Aanholt had the opportunity to pass to Zaha, who with a great one-touch pass past Shkodran sent it deep into the box, whilst Patrick managed to free himself from the Spaniard and reach the ball. In that split second Holding and Xhaka failed to stop Townsend and he reached the edge of the goal area to receive the ball from Van Aanholt. Arsenal’s defenders often leave too much space between each other and their opponents take advantage of that.
Zaha contributed defensively well enough too. During this counter-attack, he started his run from the box and managed to reach and outrun Iwobi who was able to do a speed run on the left due to a highly positioned defensive line.
Crystal Palace managed to send 16 shots towards the goal, although only three of them were on target. And it wasn’t because of the Arsenal’s back-four, The Gunners managed to block only two of them, and the only reason for The Eagles not scoring was the lack of a good finish.
Mustafi made the first penalty and Luca Milivojevic didn’t fail to score it. The German was often out of position and unable to chase back his opponents during a defensive transition. His movements are occasionally not perfectly timed and it either ends up with a foul or with him letting the Palace players run too far. Emery’s respond to the lack of shots up front and receiving too many at the back was bringing Welbeck in. His idea was to use the Englishman for an easier transition but also to give some support to the sloppy back line, but it didn’t work out.
There is no structure in the back-line. Bellerin is out of position, Mustafi made a late intervention and Iwobi didn’t provide the needed support on the left. There was enough space for the dangerous Zaha to operate in.
Both teams experience some difficulties defending set-pieces. Palace’s defence is often highly positioned which causes some trouble on counter-attacks and it was the reason for them to concede some goalscoring opportunities against Arsenal too.
The Arsenal has some notes to take after this draw. The game was a reminder that the defensive issues are still on the agenda and The Gunners should not fly so high after all these consecutive wins. With their busy schedule and the upcoming game against Liverpool should be a motivating enough so the team could work hard and fill the gaps. Once the injured players get back there won’t be any excuse for performances like this.