Easter Sunday brought with it beautiful blue skies, setting a dazzling scene at the Emirates Stadium as Arsenal took on London rivals Crystal Palace with much still to play for in this Premier League season. Unfortunately for the many fans present, the atmosphere was spoiled by Palace’s stunning 3-2 victory that saw Arsenal fail to gain ground on the top teams in the table. The Gunners started off on the wrong foot by conceding the opener inside 20 minutes, never seeming to recover their composure en route to the aggravating defeat. The players won’t have long to feel sorry for themselves as a very competent Wolves side await on Wednesday night with top four hanging in the balance.
Rotation leads to a slow start
With Arsenal still competing in the Europa League at this stage of the season, some rotation is inevitable as the weeks fill up with one important match after another. Unai Emery’s physical demands on his players only make such changes to the squad even more necessary. This reality, however, did not prevent fans from having serious concerns about the starting XI on Sunday, with the inclusion of Carl Jenkinson and Mohammed Elneny particularly worrisome for many fans.
These concerns were quickly proved justified as the Gunners got off to a shaky start in a first half that saw them enter the dressing room at its conclusion down a goal to a team they should handle comfortably at home. The defence, a unit unused to playing together in this particular combination, held a ragged line for most of the afternoon, failing to keep Crystal Palace in check as they had done so successfully in two legs of action against Napoli in the Europa League.
The Palace goal came from a situation in which they have always thrived, a set piece deep in the Arsenal end after a poorly timed foul by Konstantinos Mavropanos. With the rest of the defence holding a high line to force the Palace attackers offside, Carl Jenkinson’s nerves got the better of him as he broke the line early to chase down his marker, playing Christian Benteke onside in the process and leaving him clear to nod home the first goal of the match.
The turgid first half was reminiscent of many in Unai Emery’s first season in charge, and while the manager would go on to make proactive substations at the half, getting his tactics right from the opening whistle is something he must do more often next season if we are to see this Arsenal team continue their climb back into Premier League contention.
Jon Moss proves VAR is a necessity
In a match where the home side should easily have the quality to secure a victory against the visitor, it can sometimes be disingenuous to place any blame at the feet of the referee when their efforts fail. However, with Jon Moss, it has become something of a pattern where his questionable decisions repeatedly damage Arsenal’s chances of victory in matches over which he presides.
The clearly out of shape referee was his typically inconsistent self, at times swallowing his whistle to let the players play, and in others needlessly halting play for questionable reasons. He waved off a clear handball in the first half that should have resulted in an Arsenal penalty, and was perhaps even worse in the second as he waved off a probable foul on Alexandre Lacazette in the penalty area before again ignoring a Crystal Palace player’s use of an arm to block a cross in from the right flank.
While it was far from the best match Moss has ever refereed, it must be said that the Arsenal players did little to overcome the inconsistencies. At one point, after Mattéo Guendouzi appeared to be fouled near the touchline but not awarded the call, Mohammed Elneny went so far as to stop defending a Crystal Palace scoring opportunity to protest the decision. It was simply unacceptable from the Egyptian midfielder, and his actions were indicative of the team’s inability to play through adversity throughout the match. Unai Emery is doing his best to keep his team focused and their intensity levels high, but moments like these clearly show that the Basque head coach still has his work cut out for him in that regard.
The good bits
Fans, coaches, executives and players alike will have left the Emirates Stadium with a bitter taste in their mouths after the crushing defeat put a damper on Arsenal’s top four hopes, but the match was not without some stunning moments of individual quality. Bernd Leno kept the score from spiralling out of control with some clutch saves, including a fantastic double save on a dangerous Palace attack that could have given Hodgson’s men a two-goal cushion going into the half. Konstantinos Mavropanos made a surprising scoring chance out of an uncharacteristic slaloming run through the Palace midfield that saw him earn a shot at goal, but it wasn’t until the second half that Arsenal showed some glimpses of urgency and class.
Mesut Özil struck first for the Gunners when his darting run into the box in the 47’ saw him latch onto a sneaky through ball from Lacazette to get through clear on goal. From there, it was almost predictable what he would do as he drove the ball hard into the turf, causing it to bounce up over goalkeeper Guaita and into the back of the net. It was his patented “böink” shot that has served him so well this season, and it gave the crowd an immediate injection of hope and excitement.
After Palace quickly responded with two goals of their own from costly errors in the Arsenal defence, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang halved the deficit with an urgent run to the top of the Palace penalty area, where he fired home to make the score 3-2. In a match that was far from his best in an Arsenal shirt, Aubameyang nevertheless came up big when the situation looked most dire.
The Gunners failed to capitalise on their newfound momentum for the rest of the match, as the two-goal deficit was simply too much to recover from in just a quarter of an hour, but the fight and urgency the players showed in the second half was a clear improvement over the resignation they sometimes display when the match gets away from them. Consolation, it was not, but positives must be taken from tough losses if the team is to maintain its focus on what needs to be done.
Increasingly hard to defend
On his day, Shkodran Mustafi has the potential to be the best Arsenal defender on the pitch. Unfortunately, and much to the anger of most supporters, those days are becoming too few and far between for the German defender. While he was not entirely at fault for the first goal, as his decision to let Benteke go would have come to nothing had Jenkinson held the high line with the rest of the defenders, there was simply no excuse to be made on Palace’s second goal of the match scored by Wilfried Zaha.
As the ball squirted into the Arsenal penalty area, Mustafi stopped moving his feet and elected to try and box out the pursuing Zaha, who deftly sidestepped his half-hearted attempt to pick up the ball with a free run at the Arsenal goal. Bernd Leno, who otherwise had an excellent game, hesitated to come off his line as the action played out in front of him, and he was left helpless as Zaha knocked the ball past him to reclaim the lead for Crystal Palace.
As if he wasn’t entirely sure he had turned the whole stadium against him yet with that crushing blunder, Mustafi added the cherry to the icing of the ugly cake he was baking and took a stupid dive in the Arsenal half after the ball had gotten away and out of his control. Jon Moss was unamused as he showed the defender a yellow card for simulation, and the verdict was no longer in doubt on his shocking performance.
It remains to be seen if Mustafi will eventually overcome his crippling lapses of concentration, and it is a real shame given the obvious ability he displays when in good form. He is an all-action defender capable of doing a little bit of everything the position requires, but unfortunately for him, he lacks is perhaps the most important aspect of all: a cool head under pressure. As far as most fans are concerned, the book on his Arsenal career has been written, and many would like nothing more than to see the back of him. For those of us that have held out hope that he would eliminate those errors to become the quality defender that still lives somewhere inside of him, Shkodran Mustafi has become almost impossible to defend.
Battle of the banter
Arsenal undoubtedly made hard work of their previous three league matches, with the lone win coming against a Watford side that nearly stole a point from the match despite playing most of it down to 10 men. However, the Gunners have benefitted from the recent sputtering form of Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham, who have all dropped points unexpectedly over the last month.
This has left Arsenal level with Chelsea in fourth place and only a point off Tottenham in third. Manchester United have slumped a bit since Ole Gunnar Solsjkær made his temporary appointment as manager permanent, and they now trail the pair of London clubs by two points in fifth.
With four matches to run in the league, this leaves Arsenal, perhaps surprisingly, still in control of their own destiny in the race for top four, but they cannot afford to drop many more points if they wish to stay there. After having advanced to the Europa League semifinals, both avenues remain open for a return to the Champions League for the 2019/20 season. However, a Europa League trophy would likely involve a date with Chelsea in the final, and despite the relative ease with which Emery’s men dispatched the Blues the last time the two teams met, Maurizio Sarri has his team playing better of late, and their talent and experience cannot be taken for granted.
Whatever happens over the last month of the season, drama is sure to be present. For their part, the Gunners need to focus on themselves and what they have to do to win as many matches as possible. If they do, there is little anyone else can do to stop their return to the Champions League at last.