Saturday, February 21, 2015

Three Things: Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal

Arsenal lined up against Crystal Palace today knowing they had lost only once at Selhurst Park in their entire history, way back in 1977. On the other side, Palace has been in impressive form since former star Alan Pardew’s return, good enough to be in seventh place counting only the games of his short tenure. Right from the whistle, Pardew had Crystal pressing high and playing down the wings and it was working better than he could have dreamed, with Wilfred Zaha flashing the ball wickedly across goal after beating Monreal on the right side in the fourth minute (and then almost endlessly throughout the game). Arsenal were getting through the Palace defense in stops and starts, but were without a shot or touch in the box until Danny Welbeck charged toward a wayward pass from Giroud in the sixth minute, beat the defender to the ball and then was tripped just as he crossed over the line to collect a great first touch in the box. Mark Clattenburg immediately pointed to the spot and Cazorla coolly stepped up and finished low and to the right while Speroni went the other way (making it six of six penalties this season and 8 goals in total in this renaissance season for the Spaniard).

Crystal immediately pushed for the equalizer and had several dangerous crosses in the box in quick succession, including a corner that led to a free header for Frazier Campbell on 12 minutes, though he fluffed it harmlessly toward the middle of goal and a pool of Arsenal defenders. The Gunners were sloppy with the ball, losing it time and time again to the tight press and defending too much in their own box, with Monreal in particular having trouble dealing with the once hot prospect Zaha. Koscielny had a free header in the 21st minute after a lovely back header pass from Giroud from a corner, but got it horribly wrong. Sanchez then almost made Dann pay for too casual a back pass.

In the 28th minute, a reckless challenge on Campbell earned Crystal another free kick and Coquelin a yellow card. Crystal were beating Arsenal to most balls, getting in crosses with regularity and playing with more hunger than the Gunners. Then Zaha fouled Monreal right on the byline in the 38th minute, leading to a Gunners free kick and, though Cazorla’s delivery was dealt with by the Palace defenders, Arsenal seemed to settle from here and improved their passing and possession, though Ospina had to deal with two dangerous balls in the last four minutes of the half. Then, just as the clock passed 45 minutes, Ozil got the ball forward to Sanchez, who sent Welbeck in on goal from the left (though he might have been marginally offsides). His shot was blocked by Speroni but right into the path of the charging Giroud, who finish easily to make it 2-0. Arsenal had been outplayed for large parts of the first half, but as has been the case of late, were economical with their chances and stout enough defensively to keep Crystal out.

Yet Arsenal have dropped 10 points from winning positions on the road this season, with only Swansea worse, and Crystal started the second half brightly, creating three chances in the first three minutes, though they were unable to get a shot on goal. Zaha, in particularly, was impressive, though his crosses and shot were blocked for corners more often than not. Zaha laid off to Puncheon in the 51st minute, but the shot was blocked and Arsenal dealt with yet another corner. Arsenal were again having trouble stringing more than two or three passes together, but were dealing with the pressure in their box well, even as Zaha continued to be a nightmare down the right. In the 56th minute, Giroud came in for a rough challenge on Gayle, earning himself a yellow in the process. On the counter a moment later, Ozil easily beat his defender and then laid it off to Sanchez, who shot it just wide with a gaping hole across goal. In the 62nd minute, Zaha had the ball a few yards from goal, but failed to get his shot off and in the 69th Soauare sent in a pitch perfect cross that Gayle met, sending it just over the crossbar. Five minutes later, a questionable foul call on Monreal after Sanchez should have earned one himself, led to a Puncheon free kick that went just wide while Ospina stayed cemented to his spot. Wenger had seen enough, with Crystal bossing 69 percent of possession in the 2nd half, and sent Rosicky on for Ozil and Gibbs for Welbeck (76’). Pardew responded positively sending in two tall strikers in the 79th minute (Ameobi for Lindley and Murray for Gayle). In the 83rd minute, Sanchez was dispossessed for the not the first time and Bolosie went on a thundering run through to shoot on goal, though right at Ospina. Chambers grabbed at his shirt ineffectively along the way and received a retrospective yellow, adding to a rather large pile he has garnered in his debut season. Ospina saved finely in the 87th, after a glancing header from a corner was goal bound. Paulista came on in the 89th minute for Sanchez, who had a less than impressive game except for the pass to Welbeck that led to the second goal. After the season he’s had, he can be forgive for a below par effort in a winning game, but one hopes he soon returns to his imperious form. Ospina was again called into action in the 92nd minute as a wayward cross almost snuck in the near post, but two minutes later Murray pulled one back with a toe poke from close in on a rebounded Zaha shot. With time running out, Ospina clung on to a great Bolosie cross headed off the post by Murray, saving the three points. Arsenal were really overrun through much of the game and luck to win, but three points are three points. And while we’re at it, three points on the game …

1. Don’t Press Me On: Arsenal have had trouble for a few years now when playing against the high press. The lack of a physical presence in the middle is one of the reasons, but the other appears to be a lack of poise when the time available to pass shrinks. Ozil, Cazorla and, to a lesser extent, Sanchez have the skill to cut through that press and provide quality chances in front of them, but that happened too infrequently today and might alert other teams that this is a winning strategy against the team. Ozil has returned from his long injury layoff well though, looking consistently impressive and hungry for goals after improving the biggest weakness in his game with some quality finishes and shots in recent weeks. And Coquelin, of course, has helped with his more physical play, though the Gunners offered Crystal far too many chances and probably miss the box-to-box work rate of a still injured Ramsey.

2. Chambers of Secrets: after a bright start with the club, slotting in at centreback when Koscielny or Mertesacker were injured and then on the right after Debuchy suffered his first injury, Chambers has found time a little harder to come by of late. But he has taken Bellerin’s place in recent games on the right, even as it is clearly his weakest position. Chambers has all the tools to be a top quality defender or even defensive midfielder, but on the right, his lack of pace and tendency to go too hard into challenges is a real liability for Arsenal. That was most clear in the loss to Swansea, where he was beaten by the winger time and time again as the Swans came back for a 2-1 win. While Arsenal held on to win today, Chambers was as overrun on the right as Monreal was on the left, failing to challenge crosses or stop players from cutting around him with ease. Bellerin should be back on the right for the next game, if he recovers from his injury sufficiently.

3. Giroud Purple Patch: Giroud has now scored 8 in his last 11 (and 11 overall) and really does appear to be the “different striker” Wenger has been hailing since his FA Cup brace. He is increasingly comfortable on the ball and around the box, can shoot with power or well-placed grace and has one of the better headers in the English game. While Welbeck was responsible for the two goals, it was Giroud who was there to give the Gunners a little breathing room after a tough first half – breathing room they needed after the second half assault. If he keeps up this scoring rate, Welbeck will again find himself cast out to the wing, a fate he left United to escape.

Watching Crystal Palace throughout the game, it is clear Pardew has brought a new style and hunger to the team and I believe he will now keep them up. But they will need better finishing if they are to do much more than that going forward. For Arsenal, it was another win on a day where they were really outplayed. Yet more good news followed as Chelsea dropped two points (to Burnley at home!) and Manchester United ceded a 1-0 lead Herrera had earned them and actually lost at Swansea City 2-1, with RVP limping off on crutches after the game. Arsenal thus find themselves in third place with Southampton playing Liverpool tomorrow. And City already 2-0 up on Newcastle after a mere 15 minutes, poised to scrape back to within five points of slightly floundering Chelsea. The title race and top four chase are hotting up toward equatorial temperatures as the final third of the season commences!

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