The Gunners managed to eke out their third away win of the season yesterday, ending Palace’s unbeaten run streak in the process. I never expected the game to be easy, we have been culpable of complicating our lives unnecessarily away from home, so I’m grateful for the win.
However I cannot quite grasp the words from the boss about this being a dominant, controlled performance. This sentiment is echoed throughout certain sections of the fanbase and I can’t honestly describe it as anything but wishful thinking.
Did we deserve to win on the overall balance? Yes. We have created more chances than Palace and I don’t need xG maps to prove we were better going forward. At times we have been wasteful, at some Speroni put in inspired saves, but the chances were there aplenty.
Does this make our performance dominant and flawless? No it does not. We have conceded 2 from Palace’s 2 shots on target. We are extremely fragile at the back, no personnel or formation seems able to change that.
But I’d rather start with the positive bits.
This season Alexis has been undoubtedly below par. Despite playing regularly, the Chilean failed to reach the heights of last year’s goalscoring form. I think we can safely say Wenger’s decision to keep him has backfired.
There’s another side to this coin though. As Tim Stillman argues in one of his recent columns, Sanchez is a player who can do what no one else does in this team, even in poor form. The quality that I like about Alexis the most is that he is a fighter. He fights against his own poor form as if it was a physical opponent.
Yesterday he appears to have finally got on top of it. A cracker of a finish from a Lacazette lay-off and an amazing touch-and-shot past Speroni for the brace. Massive credit goes to Jacky Wilshere for a sublime chip over the top from halfway, but it shouldn’t distract us too much from Alexis’ ability to control the pass.
The Chilean’s decisiveness in front of goal was the difference yesterday, however his overall ability to finish those chances is unmatched in this squad. I cannot imagine anyone doing what he did, which is why I’m sad the Chilean hit form only in late December. Odds are he won’t be an Arsenal player in a month’s time.
Jack and Xhaka showing signs of a blossoming understanding
I’ve stopped on the proximity of our central midfielders to one another during the draw with Liverpool, yesterday it was even more pronounced in a two-player base. Iwobi was basically dropped for Chambers as the Gunners returned to a back three, meaning Xhaka and Wilshere were the only central midfielders.
Both were impressive yesterday, clocking 90+ passing percentages, but it was their operating as one that stood out. Xhaka was never left isolated on the ball, neither was Wilshere. This of course creates a dilemma for Arsene to solve when Aaron Ramsey returns.
Ramsey, for all his output, is not known for positional discipline and rarely demonstrates the awareness to stick close to his midfield partner. How will Arsene integrate him? Wilshere doesn’t merit dropping on current form, but playing him and Ramsey, without Xhaka, is too attack-heavy.
Perhaps Wenger will revisit a flat trio in midfield, which I think is his current preference, coupled with a back four. The problem is Iwobi’s form and end product, hence the return to 3 at the back last night. But it’s only a guess from me.
We need to sort out that defence
We continue to be fragile at the back. The return of Sead Kolasinac and the first league appearance for Calum Chambers did little to change that. Palace’s only two shots on target ended in the back of the net, and both gave me nightmares.
For the first Zaha was allowed too much space and time to cross the ball into the box. Bellerin was caught upfield, Chambers didn’t get tight enough to the winger, and Zaha’s cutback was measured and picked. However the ball-watching from THREE of our defenders made me apoplectic with rage. Koscielny, Mustafi and Kolasinac were all in the box, but all happily marked space while watching Townsend’s low strike power past the wrong-footed Cech.
The second goal was as simple as a cross into the box from a corner, with the ensuing header. Tomkins, not the highest person on the pitch, managed to properly connect with the ball on the edge of our 6-yard box despite two defenders in front of him. That led to a few nervous minutes before the final whistle.
The only bright spots were Mustafi’s performance and Koscielny’s partial atonement. The German made a couple of crucial blocks and tackles, on top of scoring the opener, while Koscielny stayed in position much more, timing his rare intercepting runs to perfection. His lack of pace is still visible, at some point he lost a footrace to Benteke, but at least Kos managed to avoid any costly mistakes.
Wenger still has much to think about. It’s clear going between a back three and a back four doesn’t help. The trick worked once in March, but now the response from the team is weaker and weaker, non-existent almost. I see no obvious solutions, because the latest defensive fiascos seem more down to individual mistakes than a flaw in the set-up. Case in point: Townsend’s goal yesterday. Even with Bellerin caught high up, we still had four defenders of the five in and around the box, with midfield support. It’s just that no one did anything.
The last word
The win allows us to stay close to the top 4 pack, even gaining some ground on United. It is vitally important to hang in there, because the Chelsea game is looming large and because we have already dropped way too many points in December. Not to mention we will be a tough sell in the summer to new players if we don’t make the Champions League again.
There are larger reservations about our set-up, defense, quality of individual players, potential departures, defense, chance creation and conversion, form away from home, defense, top-6 record, an ageing goalkeeper and, finally, defense. For now though we will have to make do with what we have, while waiting for Monreal, Ramsey and Giroud to return to at least reinforce a draining squad.
Hopefully we will address some of our problem via the January transfer window, then again, knowing Wenger, we probably won’t. Right now the focus should be on beating Pardew’s West Brom because not much can happen before then.