The Palace game was an opportunity to see Arteta’s Arsenal in a more “settled” state. You can chalk up each of our previous games under him in a different light:
First game; no one’s expecting miracles overnight. Second game; an immediate challenge – as underdogs – where we fell at the final hurdle. Third game; walk in the park. Fourth game; a classic, dicey F.A. Cup game with the pressure of expectation on our shoulders.
This was the first time where we had an opportunity to see a “normal” Premier League game. As we all know though, nothing is truly normal in a league where newly-promoted Sheffield United sit comfortably (and deservedly) in 6th, Leicester City have recently won a Premier League title and Mourinho has somehow weaseled his way into the Spurs job.
It was the first time we started with an unchanged team in successive games since this time last year, and with two wins under our belt, there was an opportunity to carve out a route to get back into contention of something worth fighting for. With only one point adrift of Palace, it was all to play for.
I don’t think anyone was under the illusion that we were actually on par with Palace, despite the point deficit. The first half performance demonstrated that there is still a gulf in quality between the two teams and no amount of Arsenal falling on hard times will change that.
Palace struggled with our intensity for much of the first half; already an early hallmark of Arteta’s Arsenal, and one I’ll be glad to see more of given the early lead we took.
That early goal was a reward for our early domination, but it also felt like an Arsenal goal again. Crisp, one-touch passing to round off a period of domineering possession. Luiz, like a phoenix from the ashes under Arteta, served as the ignition. As Palace were insistent on sitting deep, Luiz waltzed on in to Palace’s half, and it took 3 of our front 4 to unlock the door. Ozil to Laca to Auba, 1-0.
For whatever reason, we eased off after the goal and Palace (both the home support and the players) seemed to become increasingly riled over various “grievances” across the pitch. That’s not to say the goal was especially a circumstance of our easing off – they really didn’t threaten Leno but pressure brings goals. On this occasion, they were polar opposites in quality but they all count.
Speaking of which, Lady Luck really wasn’t with us today. That being said, you can never bet on luck and Arteta is unlikely to bemoan the circumstances of the equaliser or the dismissal. On another day, Luiz successfully blocks that shot and it doesn’t hopelessly loop over Leno’s head. Auba is a fraction closer to the ball, a few inches lower on the player. The misfortune even continued as the clock ran down, with Pépé’s agonisingly close attempt brilliantly tipped onto the post, only to ever-so-kindly rebound back into the keeper’s arms rather than the ensuing Lacazette. Luiz’s wayward 45-yard free kick into row M might have even nestled itself into the top corner instead (okay, that might be reaching).
The turning point, and the decisive factor in the game petering out was the dismissal. Despite our efforts after going down to 10 men, Arteta said it felt like we “lost two points”, which I think is a fair assessment given the chances we created even after this point. For all our officiating woes this season, this is one occasion where VAR has done its job in my book. It was a typical “strikers challenge”; no real malice but it was late, it was high, and ultimately Meyer came off injured. If it was an Arsenal player, we’d all be feeling aggrieved if Palace got away scot-free and we’ll be without Aubameyang for the next 3 games now.
There’s a silver lining in and amongst that news because after Eddie Nketiah’s recall from his loan spell at Leeds United, a door has opened for an early return back into the first team squad. While it still appears to be up in the air, Arteta recently spoke admirably of him, saying
I think it was a great challenge for him to work in that environment in Leeds. I think he’s become a much better player, a much more competitive player.
With Martinelli also likely to link up with Brazil’s U23’s Olympic Qualification squad, our options up top are going to be limited in the coming weeks and sometimes, a bit of luck like that’s needed to work your way into the first team. We’ve seen it with Ainsley this season; as Hector has struggled for fitness since his horrific injury, Ainsley’s quietly gone about his business to the point where he’s now managed to keep the likes of Rashford and Zaha very, very quiet in a position he doesn’t even claim to like (he was one of our best players on the pitch again yesterday, in my book). While Eddie’s chances were limited at Leeds, he still managed to grab some goals and just playing in the Championship will have done him the world of good in getting to grips with the kind of physicality needed if he wants to lead from the front. The question is whether his problems with finishing that plagued him previously will persist. He’s never had an issue at youth level, but apart from the odd Cup goal, he’s yet to really make a mark. With any luck, the watchful stewardship of Ian Wright will go some ways in changing that.
It’s still not getting any easier for Arteta, as we host Sheffield United on Saturday. They’re going to be organised, they’re going to be dangerous and we’re without our goalscorer and captain. This would be a really ideal time for Lacazette to end his rut, but in fairness, there’s still been a lot to like about his play lately despite the lack of end product. With Pépé becoming more and more involved, we’re still hardly lacking in offensive potency and we might even see some incoming traffic to bolster Arteta’s options. I still think he’s going to have his work cut out for us to come away with a win, but it’s still going to be an interesting affair and another big test.
Small edit: forgot to mention the many, many red cardable challenges we’ve been on the receiving end of this season that have gone unnoticed. I don’t have any issues with Auba’s red but I have a really big issue with inconsistency, especially given how dangerous some of those challenges have been.