Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
It took 30 harrowing minutes for Roy Hodgson to give up the 4-4-2 ghost here. Four goals down when the stable door was finally closed, the Arsenal horse had already bolted, lived a full life in the wild, and expired of natural causes.
Credit where it’s due: Hodgson’s tactical prescriptions have effected huge improvements to this once terminally lame Crystal Palace steed. One league defeat in the last 12, at home to the Gunners on December 28, speaks to that.
Extreme compactness, both from back-to-front and side-to-side, has been key to that impressive run. To guard against central-midfield overload, the 4-4-2’s Achilles heel, Hodgson asks both wide-midfielders to tuck in when possession is lost. A relatively high defensive-line further denies space to opposition attacking-midfielders.
Neither insurance policy was on display today, however. And, unfortunately for Palace fans, Arsenal were perfectly configured to take full advantage.
For Arsene Wenger, out went the 3-4-2-1 system that capitulated away to Bournemouth last weekend. A back-four was restored, as was Laurent Koscielny, meaning no place for the error-prone pair of Rob Holding and Calum Chambers.
Alex Iwobi, a dud on the south coast, assumed Alexis Sanchez’s left-wing duties in a 4-1-4-1. Both Iwobi, and Mesut Ozil, were given licence to drift inside from their nominal wide berths.
Meanwhile, the lesser-spotted Mohamed Elneny minded the house, freeing up both Granit Xhaka and Jack Wilshere for third-man running. Palace’s double-pivot, comprised of Luka Milivojevic and Yohan Cabaye, faced an unsolvable midfield conundrum.
And, although James McArthur tucked in assiduously from the left, Cabaye was given no protection whatsoever by Zaha. Positioned high on the right, with a view to leading the counterattacking charge, the 25-year-old left his side’s core ripe for overload.
With their spooked defence also pushed back by Alexandre Lacazette’s pacy presence, Palace were fully primed for between-the-lines exploitation. Arsenal, out of sight after 13 minutes, duly delivered.
First blood was drawn from a corner-kick, but its concession owed much to Palace’s chronic looseness. Wayne Hennessey conceded it, palming an Iwobi effort wide after Ozil popped up free to Cabaye’s right. Zaha generously allowed Monreal to co-occupy the German’s inside-left pocket, and tee up the game’s first shot on target.
Arsenal’s second, just 10 minutes in, saw Lacazette drop and get turned behind Milivojevic. Timothy Fosu-Mensah’s last-ditch intervention flew straight to Monreal, again unmarked. Iwobi, the man denied by Fosu-Mensah, swooped home the Spaniard’s square pass.
Hodgson responded by removing Zaha from the line-of-fire, enacting a futile swap with McArthur. Hector Bellerin reacted predictably, storming forward to help win the corner-kick that increased Arsenal’s advantage to three.
It took a fourth Gunners goal, on 22 minutes, for Hodgson to finally address his side’s 3-v-5 numerical disadvantage. James Tomkins neatly illustrated the problem, storming out to confront Jack Wilshere — Milivojevic’s job — leaving space for Ozil to feed Lacazette.
Bakary Sako, matchwinner against Burnley last week, duly left the front-line, and assumed the right-wing berth of a 4-1-4-1. And, as if by magic, the chances quickly dried up for the hosts. From the half-hour mark to half-time, Arsenal attempted only one shot; a long-range Xhaka free-kick.
So dominant were Arsenal, however, that Wenger even felt comfortable enough to wrap Monreal in cotton wool on 33 minutes. Hodgson sensed an opportunity, instructing Zaha to return to the right after the break. Substitute Ainsley Maitland-Niles was the target, but the midfielder-by-trade continued where Burnley’s Charlie Taylor left off last week. Zaha, in truth, looks in dire need of a rest.
Christian Benteke, such an aerial menace throughout April’s 3-0 win over the same opposition, was now isolated in attack. And, although Shkodhran Mustafi again looked dicey under the high ball, his out-of-sorts Belgian tormentor could not profit.
Benteke missed two glorious set-piece chances to put the Burnley game to bed last week. And, although the target-man teed up Milivojevic’s consolation goal here, his missed 60th-minute sitter was more telling. While xG (expected goals) suggests he should have seven goals already, the Belgian, in fact, is still marooned on one.
His side, meanwhile, remain marooned in the bottom-half, dropping one place to 13th after Bournemouth’s London Stadium point. Two defeats in 13 suggests no cause for alarm just yet. But Hodgson will surely not risk such an open configuration against a top-six foe again.
For Arsenal, in the wake of Sanchez’s departure, this system may represent a potential way forward for Wenger and co. We know that neither Xhaka nor Wilshere can safely man the deepest midfield role. Elneny offering insurance behind them, with Ozil and one other flitting freely ahead, looks a far better-balanced prospect. February’s impending North London derby will offer its first real litmus test.
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