Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Only five Premier League sides have conceded more shots, on a per-game basis, than Arsenal. No Premier League club has outperformed their expected-goals tally more than the Gunners either. Nonetheless, Unai Emery’s side remain in fourth, having extended their unbeaten run to eight games with an extraordinarily fortunate draw at Selhurst Park.
It’s fair to say therefore that in the Spaniard, Arsenal may have found themselves a lucky general. Emery’s work-in-progress transformation holds great promise, but well-worn vulnerabilities still persist. Crystal Palace are just the latest side who failed to prevail upon them fully.
Not for the want of trying on Roy Hodgson’s part, of course. Without a league win in four, the Croydon native bravely stuck with the narrow 4-4-2 that fell (rather unfortunately) to Everton last Sunday. The 71-year-old even beefed up Palace’s attacking threat, negligible to date this season, by opting for a more conventional wide player on one flank. Andros Townsend, a striker last weekend, returned to his natural right-wing berth, while James McArthur continued to tuck into central midfield positions on the opposite side. That meant no place in the starting lineup for Jeffrey Schlupp, whose mantle was taken up by centre-forward Jordan Ayew.
Ayew has struggled to make an impact since arriving on loan from Swansea City, and the 27-year-old unsurprisingly looked out to prove a point. The striker led Palace’s concerted press from the front, inspiring a collective effort that completely nullified Arsenal’s insistent attempts at building from the back.
Emery’s side translated a 65% first-half possession share into just three shots, as Palace aggression denied them passage into the final-third. Pressing high at restarts, before dropping into an ultra-compact mid-block, Hodgson’s cohesive side were full value for their half-time lead.
With both Arsenal full-backs minded to assume exceedingly high starting positions, Palace’s front-two picked up where Leicester’s left off on Monday night. Both Ayew and Zaha continually scampered into the channels either side of Shkodhran Mustafi and Rob Holding. Mustafi fell foul of the referee inside two minutes for getting too tight to Zaha; in truth, the underprotected German looked rattled throughout.
Palace won the lion’s share of their five first-half corners down Mustafi’s side. But it was from Holding’s channel that the Eagles extracted their opening goal. With makeshift left-back Granit Xhaka caught upfield, Ayew beat Holding to a long ball played into the right-channel. Frazzled by the striker’s bustling presence, Holding duly conceded an avoidable corner-kick, from which the mentally-weak Mustafi did what Mustafi does.
Palace had earlier created two other decent chances from their regular forays down the flanks, against a gung-ho Arsenal side that always looks vulnerable to direct attacks. The shoddy transitions that saw the Gunners caned by both Manchester City and Chelsea recurred again, as Alex Iwobi continually failed to track the overlaps of Patrick van Aanholt. The Dutch left-back fashioned a big chance for Townsend, who himself prevailed upon Xhaka’s inexperience to facilitate Zaha’s brush with the woodwork.
Arsenal, therefore, were living dangerously. But there was much to admire about their collective reaction upon losing possession, which Emery has utterly transformed in his short time at the helm. Counterpressing, de rigeur in the modern game but apparently anathema to Arsene Wenger, appears to suit the players at Emery’s disposal very nicely. And, upon winning the ball back in their own-half, Palace were given next to no time to think about what to do with it.
Luka Milivojevic, the stoic sentinel at the base of Palace’s midfield, looked particularly discommoded by Arsenal’s determination to win the ball back quickly. Iwobi robbed the Palace captain on the edge of the Palace area to tee up Alexandre Lacazette’s first-half effort. And the Serbian was at fault again in the lead-up to Xhaka’s stunning free-kick equaliser, conceding it rashly after allowing Lucas Torreira to pick his pocket.
So intent were Arsenal on winning the ball back high up the pitch that Emery’s side attempted seven of their 10 first-half tackles in the Palace half. But, after Xhaka’s equaliser and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s disputed strike, the Gunners’ forward momentum ebbed away and the pendulum of momentum swung firmly in Palace’s favour.
The forward advances of Stephan Lichtsteiner, a half-time replacement for Hector Bellerin, won the corner that inspired Aubameyang’s lead goal. But, once Arsenal fell onto the back foot in defence of that lead, the ageing Swiss quickly swung from asset to liability.
The left-flank introduction of Max Meyer, bafflingly overlooked by Hodgson to date, didn’t help the right-back’s cause either. Underprotected by Iwobi, Lichtsteiner found himself overwhelmed in the inside-right pocket by both the German and Zaha. The latter crafted two chances for the former, one of which hit the woodwork; Lichtsteiner, for his part, finished the game with a Mustafi-equaling three fouls.
Meanwhile, on the opposite flank, the brilliant Aaron Wan-Bissaka jetted away from Aubameyang at every opportunity. A defensive revelation in the first-half, up against the Gabon international, Wan-Bissaka received licence to show what he could do further forward after Arsenal took the lead. Five second-half dribbles, a game-high, tells a story; this 20-year-old has pace to burn, to an absolutely frightening degree.
Ultimately, however, it was the influence of Zaha (who else?) that restored parity for Palace. No Premier League side is more reliant on one player than Palace, who have lost the last 13 games for which the Ivorian has been absent. With time ebbing away, Arsenal again committed too many men forward and Zaha pounced on the break, tempting Xhaka into hanging a fatal leg in his direction. Milivojevic duly scored his second spot-kick of the afternoon, making amends for last weekend’s costly miss at Everton.
Palace’s winless run therefore extends to five, but there is little to fear for weary Eagles fans. With the possible exception of the 2-1 defeat at Bournemouth, all five of those failures to win could easily have gone in Hodgson’s favour. All the old campaigner lacks is someone — anyone — to share Zaha’s goal burden.
Only Southampton have underperformed their expected-goals tally more than Hodgson’s unclinical side, for whom neither Alex Sorloth, nor Ayew, nor the perennial underachiever Christian Benteke looks the answer. A timely swoop in January looks this ill-starred side’s best bet of fulfilling their potential. And, by that point, perhaps Emery will have resolved his side’s vulnerability to the counterattack, too. Luck, after all, has a habit of running out eventually.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112