Crystal Palace welcomed Arsenal at Selhurst Park on Saturday for a game that was a part of the 22nd round of the 2019/20 season in the Premier League.
The first encounter of these teams this season, played in October at the Emirates, was a rather eventful contest. It was the game in which Granit Xhaka’s behaviour led to the Swiss midfielder losing the Arsenal captaincy. It was also a game in which his teams saw a two-goal lead nullified by the Eagles and what would have probably been a winner by Sokratis Papastathopoulos ruled out by VAR.
Palace had quite a number of players missing from this game. Centre-backs Mamadou Sakho, fullbacks Joel Ward and Patrick van Aanholt, wingers Andros Townsend and Jeffrey Schlupp, as well as striker Christian Benteke, were all out through different injuries. Midfielder Luka Milivojevic was suspended due to a red card in the FA Cup clash with Derby County. Midfiedler Max Meyer was a doubt but he ended up starting the game, the same as Wilfried Zaha. Striker Cenk Tosun, newly signed on loan from Everton, was on the bench, as was centre-back Scott Dann, who recovered from injury.
Vicente Guaita was in goal. James Tomkins and Gary Cahill paired up in the heart of defence, with Martin Kelly and Jairo Riedewald covering their flanks. Manager Roy Hodgson opted for a very phyisical trio in the middle of the park consisting of Cheikhou Kouyate, James McCarthy and James McArthur. Meyer and Zaha played wide upfront, either side of striker Jordan Ayew.
Mikel Arteta in the away dugout was without defenders Calum Chambers (ruled out for the season), Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney.
Bernd Leno stood between the posts. David Luiz was joined by Sokratis in the middle of defence, with Sead Kolasinac on the left and Ainsley Maitland-Niles on the right. Xhaka and Lucas Torreira played as a double pivot in midfield. In front of them, Mesut Ozil played as a number 10, with Pierre-Emerick on his left, Nicolas Pepe on his right, and Alexandre Lacazette as the striker in front.
The First Half
The Gunners immediately showed their undoubted quality by taking the game into the Palace half, but with the home team obviously prepared to fight and work hard, they weren’t finding it easy to penetrate their lines.
But after 12 minutes they succeeded by going through the middle, and they made it count. David Luiz sent the ball from the back to Ozil just outside the box, the German controlled it well and Lacazette, who had dropped a bit deeper to help in the build up, saw the run of Aubameyang into his vacant space upfront and threaded a nice pass into the box for the Gabonese to latch onto. A typically cool finish from Aubameyang followed and Arsenal were up and running.
Five minutes later, Pepe broke into the box from the right and his skill threw Cahill on the ground, but he ended up losing control of the ball and Guaita pounced. It was a dazzling piece of dribbling and Pepe can be said to have been unlucky on that occasion, but there were options for him to pick out in the middle of the box which he seemed unwilling to even consider.
Nonetheless, Arsenal were looking a completely different team to the one that started the season under Unai Emery. There were clear ideas, team moves obviously rehearsed, players were changing positions in a manner clearly prearranged that gave the opposition a lot to worry about.
The Eagles occasionally managed to take the battle to the visitors through extremely hard holdup work from Ayew, with Meyer and Zaha quick to offer support, but the only tangible gain was giving their defenders sometime to breathe.
The first thing Arteta had to worry about happened in the 30th minute, when Zaha’s shove in the back of Pepe caused the Arsenal winger to clash with Torreira and both players required medical assistance to be able to continue. It wasn’t the first time Zaha showed frustration though, having previously mowed down Maitland-Niles from behind with very little reason.
But as time went on, Palace players’ aggression started producing results and they now kept the ball in Arsenal’s half for longer spells, and in the 35th minute they had a penalty shout as the ball appeared to have hit Luiz’s hand in the box, but there was no reaction from either referee Paul Tierney or VAR.
A fierce battle was unfolding at this point. Arsenal players responded to the change of energy level from the hosts, and even the likes of Lacazette, Aubameyang and Pepe worked very hard in defence of their goal. Palace had a chance on the stroke of 40 minutes when Kouyate managed to get himself into a shooting position inside the box and his effort gave Leno some trouble, but the defenders were the quicker to react.
Kouyate’s spirit helped his team a lot in turning the tide at the end of the half. Though he was often outnumbered, Torreira and Xhaka combined couldn’t get the better of him in a physical fight and he managed to keep the ball in Arsenal’s half against the odds on several occasions. It was certainly a strong ray of hope for Hodgson’s men for the second half.
The Second Half
Torreira obviously had some kind of a fitness problem which prevented him from playing on after the break, and Matteo Guendouzi was called upon to replace him.
Palace entered the second period exhibiting the same drive they did at the end of the first and the most of the opening minutes were spent with the ball close to Arsenal’s box, and it was now the visitors’ turn to defend resolutely. They did it well for a while, but in the 54th minute, a glimpse of the old Arsenal troubles appeared, and not without consequence.
A feeble cross by Meyer from the right wasn’t deal with. The defence wasn’t nearly decisive enough and Kouyate took advantage of their moment of sleepiness. He won the ball and eventually Ayew got a shot off from around 10 yards. Xhaka and Luiz dove into the path of the ball which grazed the Brazilian and changed direction, cheating Leno on its way in.
Having squandered their lead through poor defending again, the Gunners tried to hit Palace with the same intensity as at the start of the game, but it was more difficult now. The home team had got a whiff of their blood and saw that Arsenal can be hurt, and they weren’t prepared to sit back and allow the visitors to dominate that way again. Nonetheless, Arsenal had two good chances in quick succession, but first Lacazette was crowded out six yards from the goal, and then Luiz’s header from a corner went a few inches over the bar.
In the 65th minute, Aubameyang appeared lucky to get away with only a yellow card for a particularly nasty foul on Meyer as he put his studs into the opponent’s ankle. But as Meyer received treatment, VAR checked the situation, and eventually the referee’s decision was changed to a straight red, and Arsenal can hardly have any complaints.
Hodgson now saw an opportunity to add some firepower, and Tosun made his debut for Crystal Palace with Meyer off. Arteta responded by taking off Ozil and sending on young forward Gabriel Martinelli. Palace’s shape remained unchanged, but Ayew moved to the right flank and Tosun took his place as the centre-forward.
Martinelli took Aubameyang’s place on the left flank, and Arsenal’s formation was now 4-2-3 in possession and 4-4-1 when defending, with both Martinelli and Pepe dropping either side of Guendouzi and Xhaka in the middle. It wasn’t looking too bad considering they were playing with 10 men, and in the 76th minute they could have perhaps done more when Kelly slipped and allowed Kolasinac to go past, but the Bosnian messed it up.
Only two minutes later, however, they came even closer to going down as Tomkins headed on target, but Sokratis cleared it successfully off the line. It was certainly the most exciting period of the game as the next chance, in the 83rd minute, saw Arsenal’s Pepe smack a low shot against the post and Guaita reacted decisively to stop Lacazette from scoring on the rebound.
The final few minutes mostly belonged to Palace as they pushed forward in search of a late winner, but Arsenal still looked quite capable of biting back on the counter. Palace had another penalty claim right on the stroke of 90 as Zaha went down under contact from Martinelli, but once again it wasn’t given. Arteta gave young Reiss Nelson a run-out in the place of Lacazette in injury time, and the youngster was involved in Arsenal’s last attack, only for Pepe to ruin it by taking too much time on the ball.
The last shot of the game, however, came from Palace’s stand-in captain James Tomkins – a volley from just outside the box that went high into the stands.
This probably isn’t the result Arteta would have hoped ahead of the game, but the improvement in the Arsenal team that his appointment brought was still there to be seen. They were mostly the better team, especially while they had 11 men on the pitch, but in the end they had to settle with a single point to take to the north of the city.
As for Palace, it’s clear they were prepared for a defensive approach and aiming not to lose, and the sudden advantage in numbers seemed to have taken Hodgson by surprise. He did introduce Tosun, but with Meyer forced off the game screamed for another attacking player as the way to try and win all three; yet that was the only substitution he made all game despite having striker Connor Wickham on the bench too. A point gained or two points dropped? It depends on your point of view.
Be that as it may, Palace await the rest of the round to be played as the eighth team in the league, with 29 points from 22 games – one more than Arsenal in ninth.
CRYSTAL PALACE: Guaita 7.5, Tomkins 7, Cahill 7, Kelly 7.5, Riedewald 7.5, Kouyate 8, McCarthy 6.5, McArthur 6.5, Meyer 7 (67′ Tosun 6), Zaha 6.5, Ayew 7.5.
ARSENAL: Leno 7, Luiz 7, Sokratis 7, Maitland-Niles 6.5, Kolasinac 7, Torreira 7 (46′ Guendouzi 6), Xhaka 7, Ozil 7 (70′ Martinelli 6.5), Pepe 6.5, Aubameyang 7.5, Lacazette 7.5 (90′ Nelson N/A).
GOALS: Aubameyang 12′, Ayew 54′.
YELLOW CARDS: Pepe 45′, Maitland-Niles 51′, McCarthy 71′, Tomkins 85′, 90′ Lacazette.
RED CARD: Aubameyang 67′.
REFEREE: Paul Tierney.
DATE & VENUE: January 11, 2020, Selhurst Park, London.
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