All streaks must eventually end. As happens, Unai Emery’s Arsenal was not yet ready to topple George Graham’s 1987 team from atop the list of the club’s longest winning streaks in their storied history, falling three short of the mark after drawing 2-2 at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace on Sunday. However, the point earned during their London Derby sees them waking up on Monday morning still in the top 4 of the Premier League table, a point clear of Tottenham, who will face off with Manchester City on Monday Night Football. Playing their third match in seven days, a slightly weary Arsenal side withstood a surprising challenge from Roy Hodgson’s relegation fighting Palace and managed to stay within touching distance of the top of the table with even tougher challenges on the horizon.
Sluggish Start Finally Bites Again
In another year, the slow first halves that have marred the majority of the Gunners’ start to the season might have been dissected ad nausea. However, up until Sunday, Unai Emery’s men had been able to stave off such criticisms by being perhaps the best second half team in all of football. Whether it was to do with their excellent early season conditioning or Emery’s inspired halftime tactical adjustments, the players have routinely closed out matches better than they had begun, aided by the fact that until Sunday, poor play had not translated into Arsenal entering the break trailing since the opening day defeat to Manchester City.
The first body blow didn’t land until the halftime whistle was in sight, as Shkodran Mustafi undid an otherwise solid half of play with a hot-headed lunge to the feet of Cheikhou Kouyate following a Palace corner, leading to the first Palace goal from the penalty spot. However, Palace arguably deserved to score earlier in the half as they played through the Arsenal defence with conviction that mimicked some of the Gunners’ finest team goals this season, right down to the high speed combinations that left defenders flummoxed in their wake. Arsenal had done well to take the sting out of the energetic opening 25 minutes of the hosts, but the goal sent them into the break with a deserved deficit.
As the second half got underway, it initially looked like business as usual for Emery’s Gunners, as the intensity and movement was much improved from the poor first half. The confidence only grew in the travelling supporters when a 51’ Granit Xhaka free kick sailed masterfully into the top corner, brushing the outstretched gloves of Palace keeper Wayne Hennessey on the way by. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang then gave Arsenal the lead as his try from a tipped corner just cleared the line. After 2 goals in 5 minutes, it looked as though they would cruise to the victory once again, but Crystal Palace responded forcefully, stealing back the initiative and putting repeated stress on the Arsenal fullbacks with their pace on the flanks. This culminated, as many had feared at the start of the match, with a heavily disputed penalty being awarded to Wilfried Zaha from a 1 on 1 with the displaced Granit Xhaka, and another Luka Milivojevic goal from the spot. The draw ended Arsenal’s win streak (but extended their unbeaten run to 12 games), but it could have been avoided had they escaped the first half without conceding.
New Injury Woes Strike Defence
Crystal Palace’s goal may have put a damper on proceedings just before the half, but perhaps an even bigger price was paid for the opening 45 minutes with the news that Hector Bellerin’s halftime substitution was in fact injury related. Though Unai Emery was light on details in his post match press conference, the news is hardly welcome to a stable of fullbacks that has already been decimated by injuries. With Nacho Monreal, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac all out nursing ailments, and Granit Xhaka already being forced into playing at left back, the Gunners are running out of options to find adequate cover at the back in time for the Premier League showdown with Liverpool next weekend.
Mercifully, it appears that both Monreal and Kolasinac should be ready to face Juergen Klopp’s high octane Liverpool attack, but Bellerin being out for any length of time could be cause for concern at the Emirates. Stephan Lichtsteiner is a wily and experienced as they come, but he has looked a step slow in his appearances thus far in an Arsenal shirt, and he could have his hands full dealing with one of Europe’s quickest forward lines. However, Lichtsteiner demonstrated the value of his hot-headed style as he frustrated Sporting with his persistent antics during the midweek clash in Lisbon, and he will compete for 90 minutes if called upon to do so at the Emirates Stadium next weekend. Still, given how important Bellerin has been to the Arsenal attack, providing the lion’s share of their width on the right flank, fans will perhaps be hoping the Spaniard makes a rapid recovery most of all.
Xhaka’s Value To Midfield On Display
It has taken a long time for some supporters to warm up to Granit Xhaka. The mature-beyond-his-years Swiss international divides opinion with his heavy footed, at times clumsy, style of defending, but he has begun to win fans over ever since Lucas Torreira slotted into the base of the midfield next to him, freeing up the former Gladbach man to focus on what he does best: organise and distribute while adding a physical bite to the heart of the team.
In a way, Unai Emery’s decision to play him at left back can be interpreted as a sure sign of the regard in which he holds his deep lying playmaker, despite Xhaka’s obviously limited pace and athleticism. His turn at left back started during the tail end of the Fulham match, where Emery’s aggressive substitutions spurred the team on to an easy victory. He featured again at the back against Sporting, where he was largely solid despite some tense moments. Against Crystal Palace however, he faced his biggest challenge yet, with Andros Townsend and Wilf Zaha both able to run at defenders with pace and strength. In truth, he wasn’t horrible, fighting doggedly to contain a surprisingly crisp Palace attack while being offered decent support by a retreating Aubameyang and an active Matteo Guendouzi. However, the Gunners’ lack of precision in the middle phases and in the final third lead to one chance too many for the hosts, and Zaha finally succeeded in drawing Martin Atkinson’s attention by making the most of a challenge from Xhaka in the Arsenal box.
It goes without saying that starting the midfielder at left back is hardly the preferred idea of both player and manager, but the second half did demonstrate just how important Xhaka is to the Arsenal midfield in his absence from his preferred role. Matteo Guendouzi was phenomenal in the opening few minutes, his gangly frame seemingly everywhere, making tackles, interceptions, and picking out intelligent passes, but as the match went on, the unerring physicality of the Palace midfield took its toll on the 19 year old and stymied his effectiveness. The Gunners struggled to knit the defence to the attack when building up play in the second half (Xhaka’s finest attribute as a midfielder), something that was only exacerbated when Mesut Ozil was subbed for Danny Welbeck. The Bellerin injury prevented Unai Emery from using Lichtsteiner on the left and slotting Xhaka back into the midfield, and Arsenal lost their grip on the match. Aaron Ramsey’s late introduction did little to help, and the match ended with Emery out of viable options to change the course of proceedings.
An Atkinson Blinder?
As is to be expected following a tightly contested match involving two awarded penalties, Arsenal supporters were livid with match referee Martin Atkinson following the draw. Chief among grievances is the controversial penalty decision awarded to Palace after Zaha appeared to go down following Xhaka’s challenge with less than 10 minutes to play. Atkinson had little doubt in his decision as he saw Xhaka stick a leg out and Zaha tumble to the pitch, but replays appear to show Zaha tripping himself up before diving over Xhaka and throwing his arms in the air rather theatrically.
It is tempting to point a finger at the Palace star man for his perceived dive, and Atkinson for duly taking the bait, but there have been far more dubious penalties awarded in the past. A full-speed review of the incident suggests it would have been difficult for many referees to resist pointing to the spot in the same situation, and indeed Xhaka might still have committed the foul had Zaha not kicked his own leg first. However, it is entirely fair to point to Palace’s tactics from corners and free kicks and question whether Atkinson had already let the match get away from him. It was a clear prerogative of the Palace defence to impede Arsenal players through any means they could in such moments. What had some of the home support crying for a Lacazette handball immediately before Aubameyang’s goal was actually the result of the Frenchman being mauled by his marker in the box. At one point, Rob Holding even tried to draw Atkinson’s attention to his shirt, which had a fist-sized tear in it from another obvious impediment by a Palace player.
To his credit, Unai Emery dealt no blame to the match officials, saying he respected their decisions and pointed to the need to play better and avoid those kinds of dangerous situations, but that is of little consolation to many Arsenal supporters. The anger at Palace players, Atkinson, and his crew has continued well on into the following day, with some even calling for Wilfried Zaha to face a ban for his alleged dive.
Avoiding A Collapse
Realistically, Arsenal’s incredible winning run was bound to end sooner or later. As everyone from pundits on television to Unai Emery and club Head of Football Operations Raul Sanllehi have said, the positive results sometimes flattered the underlying performances. The draw offers Emery a teaching moment from which the team can look to rectify their slow starts, and what should be a relatively straightforward affair against Blackpool in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday will give them a chance to return to winning ways before Liverpool make the journey to North London for their top 4 showdown next weekend.
One of the biggest problems last season was how quickly this very talented squad seemed to lose belief in itself following a poor result, or even after conceding early in some matches. The heightened pressure the players felt from a frustrated and divided fanbase manifested itself in snowballing doubt and negativity. Players have mentioned this season how the atmosphere almost paralysed them for fear of making a mistake. The 11 match run of consecutive victories, a renewed focus on each individual match, and a slowly healing divide should offer the players a little more freedom to work through their first setback in 2 months, but it is ultimately up to Emery and the players to ensure the poor outing was just a blip on the radar, not the beginning of a downward trend. With such a positive energy coursing through the team and the supporters of late, there are plenty who believe that is just what they will do.