It’s easy to say Arsenal were only playing Crystal Palace, so a 2-0 win on Saturday might not look significant or overly impressive. However it was clear that the team Arsenal faced on Saturday were different to the one Ian Holloway left during the week.
I was disappointed to see him leave Palace because he does advocate an exciting style of play. He’s great value in the media and isn’t afraid to say what he thinks. The problem was that his style of play would win plenty of friends but wouldn’t necessarily win plenty of points. Unsurprisingly, Crystal Palace set up very defensively on Saturday, so unless Arsenal scored an early goal, the team would always have to be patient to win the match.
Having lost in midweek to Borussia Dortmund, the match also took on extra importance for the Gunners. With the run of fixtures coming up, not winning for a second game in a row could have caused an unwanted momentum shift. With that in mind, it was reassuring to see Arsene Wenger select a full strength team. The temptation to rotate could have been strong, but Arsenal had to take this match seriously to get back on track. That strong team was disrupted when Mathieu Flamini went off with a muscle strain early in the match, but it was positive to see Arsene Wenger not make a like-for-like change, but bring on the more attacking Serge Gnabry.
Arsenal had a lot of possession, but weren’t overly fluent in the first half. That was mainly down to the lack of space they had in front of the Crystal Palace area to create good chances. An improvement was needed in the second half, and it came as the hosts shot themselves in the foot.
Gnabry worked well with Ramsey to create space in the penalty area, but the sliding tackle from Guedioura was daft. Mikel Arteta’s resulting penalty was perfectly dispatched.
The period of the game that followed could have brought more goals as Palace looked shocked by conceding so early in the half. That was the chance for Arsenal to kill the game off before fans became nervous with 25 minutes to go.
That was due to an unfortunately refereeing decision, but an understandable one. The red card for Mikel Arteta was harsh, but I can see why the referee gave the decision. Breaking from an Arsenal corner, Marouane Chamakh was fouled by Arteta. The striker’s touch wasn’t great though and he was going away from goal. Aaron Ramsey was getting back to cover but from the referee’s angle, Arteta looked like the last man. In other circumstances, it might be worth appealing the decision to the FA, but given Arteta will only miss the Capital One Cup game with Chelsea, it’s not worth the fuss.
The bigger problem was Arsenal being without their two holding midfielders when they needed to see the game out. Having brought on Gnabry in the first half, I think Arsene Wenger got his substitutions right again by bringing on Jack Wilshere to play alongside Ramsey and Monreal to play on the left. Both calmed the team down and helped keep the team shape and retain possession when they could have creaked under pressure without their two normal midfield metronomes.
Even though Arsenal did well with ten men, the last part of the game wasn’t without some serious alarms. Wojciech Szczesny produced a couple of stunning saves to keep the one goal lead in tact. We’ve always known that the Pole was a good shot stopper, but his confidence from doing the other aspects of goalkeeping well in recent weeks meant he was able to produce those game saving stops.
In the back four, Bacary Sagna was also excellent. When faced with a quick substitute on the left wing, the Frenchman saw him off without a problem and then won some excellent headers when Palace threw the ball into the box.
Even with ten men, Arsenal kept looking dangerous on the break as the players on the field were able to exploit the space left by the hosts as they attacked. Olivier Giroud occupied the centre-backs and held the ball up well to relieve pressure. He was involved in the build-up to the clinching goal before charging forward to nod the ball in from Ramsey’s perfect chipped cross. Even against a newly promoted team, with some of the situations that went against Arsenal in the game and the week before it, the relief when Giroud scored was palpable.
Arsenal saw the game out without a hitch to remain at the top of the table before the visit of Liverpool next weekend. The Gunners weren’t great, but once again the indications are that this Arsenal team are made of much more than recent Arsene Wenger teams. They can deal with backs-to-the-wall situations and bounce back from set-backs. The win at Selhurst Park was just the boost Arsenal needed before the run of games with Chelsea, Liverpool, Dortmund and Manchester United, and a useful match to sharpen the minds as the tougher challenges are about to start.