An Arsenal game at home to Crystal Palace will always arouse my interest beyond normal because that was the last fixture I witnessed at The Emirates in April 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic put paid to my plans of treating myself to at least one live game annually before retirement.
Interestingly enough, in that game, 19 months ago, Arsenal was defeated 2-3 to a Palace that comprised much of the same cast of characters that were on show last evening. Benteke, Zaha and MacArthur were all scorers while Guaita, Kouyaté and Milivojevic also started for the south London side.
Easy to forget those were heady days for those fans who saw Unai Emery as the Savior from all the “sins” of Arsene Wenger. If Arsenal had won that game we would have been in the top-3; instead the club stumbled through the business-end of the season just making top-6. But Emery was redeemed by taking Arsenal to the finals of the Europa League and the promise of not only a major trophy but of entrance into the Champions League if he prevailed over Chelsea, just as he had done three times on the trot with Sevilla. We all know how that ended in tears.
The point of that little journey back in time is to establish that in yesterday’s fixture Arsenal is currently not even a top-10 club although it may have pretensions of excelling in the Europa League when that competition resumes in a couple of weeks. But readers should be mindful that the upcoming round of European football will be a far sterner test than the likes of Molde and Dundalk as it will involve quality teams who qualified for the champions league on merit but have dropped-down to this lower level having not made the cut in the league round of the bigger competition.
Decline in forwards and midfield
Furthermore in this latest fixture while Arsenal could still call on Leno, Aubameyang and Lacazette as starters, it must be noted that, like the equivalent stalwarts from Palace, our two forwards in particular are not the same threats they were when I last saw them. Aubameyang scored that day on his way to the golden boot. Today he looks a step slower and genuinely struggling for goals. According to statbunker.com he is currently 51st, yes 51st, in goalscorers (3-goals) and this is almost halfway through the season. Yet many Arsenal fans and pundits from mainstream media complacently suggest it’s just a matter of time before he starts scoring again. Nobody wants to admit it may have been a major error giving a striker over 30-years old a massive long-term contract. Is it because Wenger, that old miser, would rather have sold him than take the risk of a major commitment in a player so reliant on his speed to score goals?
But even more glaring, unlike two years ago, Arsenal no longer has experienced technical players that Emery could call on when facing difficult opponents. There was no Ozil yesterday, who two years ago scored the opening goal in what was for him a season of modest returns with 5 goals and two assists from 24 PL games. Yesterday we had young Smith-Rowe floating as a #10 behind three forwards with hardly the guile and experience of Ozil. He was in and out of the game as the Palace defenders made sure he hardly had any time on the ball.
Lets be honest here; Palace were not the easiest of opponents yesterday. Most of the starters were very experienced veterans under the wily leadership of 73 year-old Roy Hodgson. They sit deep with a counter attacking style, very reliant on their wingers, especially Zaha, to run at defenders on the break. When going up the middle they are not afraid to sling long balls in the direction of Benteke for him to knockdown or hold up and lay off to a posse of willing runners. They employed similar tactics against us three years ago and were far more successful in the goal-scoring department. Yesterday, they only had 2 shots on target from 11 shot attempts in contrast to 7 on target from 16 attempts two years ago.
The Arsenal flurry and decline
What of Arsenal today? Under Arteta, we had an initial flurry of attacking play at the start of both halves but eventually it petered out into a slog-fest with lots of sterile possession but little cutting edge. Clearly there is talent available to Arteta as evident in those spurts but for some reason it peters out into nothingness as players choose to make safe backwards and sideways passes after taking 2 or 3 touches. I have repeatedly stated my opinion that this is due Arteta’s inability to set up his team to play attacking football. I am open to alternative opinions.
At least one thing in favor of Arteta; despite all the moronic attacks and calls by fans and pundits for his exclusion, since he became manager he always selects Granit Xhaka to be his anchor in midfield. The player is consistently Arteta’s coach on the field barking out instructions to his teammates and leading by example in breaking up attacks and starting off moves. According to footballcritic.com he was the top-player from both sides with rating of 8.1. Yet there is a section of Arsenal fans who refuse to give Xhaka his due. Is it any wonder we are in our current state?
After our recent 4-game winning streak, am reluctant to count out Arsenal and declare the good times are over. In fact Hector Bellerin is quoted as saying “his side missed the speed and creativity Kieran Tierney brings to the team.” But when I look back over our experiences with Crystal Palace these past two years it seems to me there is a lot more pieces missing than Tierney. Time will tell.