Arsenal returned to the top of the Premier League thanks to two superb second half finishes from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Arsenal meandered through the first half, aimless and listless with their passing; the highlight was Santi Cazorla’s marvellous control of a woefully overhit pass. The second half was the opposite; Arsenal were reinvigorated, determined to take the points and they duly did. Top of the table this morning, content that they have put pressure onto the shoulders of Manchester City and Chelsea this evening.
Before the match, Arsène had spoken of the need to “break down defensive sides“, a process which required patience on the part of the players. Palace were undeniably a Pulis side; well-organised, working hard for each other to frustrate Arsenal and hope for the elusive counter-attack to give them three undeserved points. It would be easy to characterise that in the moment Jedinak grasped Olivier Giroud tightly, perhaps fearful of the attacking avalanche which might cascade toward the visitors defence were he to let go. OK, so I just did characterise Crystal Palace with that moment, mainly through a sense of injustice that Per Mertesacker suffered a harsher penalty later in the game.
The star billing this morning rests with Oxlade-Chamberlain. Recovered from his injury suffered on the opening day of the season, he finished with aplomb from Cazorla’s lofted pass over the top of the defence. Timing his run to perfection and taking advantage of the full back’s slow retreat, Ox lifted his shot over the advancing Speroni and into an unguarded net. An early strike was exactly what Arsenal needed following what might be politely described as a tepid performance in the preceding forty-five minutes. Breaking the deadlock forced Palace to loosen their defensive straitjacket, leaving more space to be exploited.
Not that they were without threat. Almost immediately the visitors caused a moment of consternation and parity was only denied by the quick wits and quicker feet of Wojciech Szczesny, the Pole saving magnificently from Jerome’s far post header. I was going to observe that it was a moment from which the goalkeeper could draw confidence but that is something the youngster is not short of. Nonetheless he should enjoy the plaudits which are directed at him for an outstanding piece of footwork to get across the goal quickly and then to save the goalbound header in a Jennings-esque manner.
Oxlade-Chamberlain settled matters with a finely worked goal. Not content with his backheel to keep momentum going forward, he attacked the space which opened behind his marker. Receiving the ball, it was too late for the defence to recover and the finish was duly applied. The move highlighted a point made by Jon Walters when talking about Manchester City; a mistake was induced and the space created by that error was duly exploited with a fitting punishment.
Post-match, Arsène sought to push Oxlade-Chamberlain’s future as a central midfielder,
I always believed that he could play wide and central, I said that many times that his future will be central. He has proven me right today, by scoring the goals but also by the quality of his performance.
The media need some convincing but it is that versatility which is likely to see him push ahead of Sterling in the England queue. Each of the Arsenal midfield can adapt to whatever formation the manager chooses – within reason – and that benefits the national team as well. Whether Hodgson chooses to take notice is another matter and I am sure that a place in Arsenal’s starting line-up is the first target Oxlade-Chamberlain has set himself. Theo Walcott’s injury was the cloud over the season – it remains so – but cover for his goals has emerged with others stepping forward. A willingness to shoot from distance can only benefit club and country.
More than anything Arsène will have been pleased with the second half performance and the reaction to the first forty-five minutes. Concerned as well; it is the second consecutive game where the first half has been lacklustre. Repeat that at Anfield and defeat will most likely ensue. Unless Kolo Toure is willing to be as generous again, of course. Southampton, the manager reasoned, was a result they needed to get out of their system. Perhaps it took the whole game to do so; I hope that next Saturday sees the players refreshed and quickly attuned to the match. They need to be.
Defensively, Arsenal were relatively untroubled. Indeed, they were arguably architects of their own problems. Nacho Monreal was out of sorts once more, a hangover from St Mary’s. Only at Arsenal could a full back do with a goal to cure a dip in confidence. He nearly got it in the first twenty minutes yesterday; Speroni was too quick to close the space down. I understand that people believe he should have scored but Monreal is a left back, not left wing. Well, he may be left-wing, I have no idea of his politics. Anyway, criticising that miss strikes me as a touch harsh. He wasn’t the only one to switch off on occasion either. Mertesacker was culpable as well, simply more popular with the fans and cut more slack.
Inevitably attention turned to the question of Kim Kallstrom’s fitness. The details surrounding the player’s back problem were clarified and Spartak pay his wages during the rehabilitation. Glad that’s all cleared up. Well, aside from one point, really. The transfer window was open for thirty-one days and disturbingly, Arsenal ended up with a stark choice: a player with a back injury or no-one. To be left in that situation is baffling. I understand Wenger’s logic about the longer term picture, the need to ensure that cover is available when the season draws to a close and I have no issue as to whether or not Kallstrom plays for the club; that’s the manager’s choice. But to be left in the position where it’s an injured player or no-one is bizarre. How poorly planned was transfer activity this winter to be at 5pm on the final day of the Window and backed into such a corner. After the summer, it was hoped that the lessons would have been learned. It seems that they weren’t; poor planning in that sense is still evident.
The situation surrounding Kallstrom is nothing more than a storm in a teacup at the moment. It has to be pushed to one side whilst the squad moves on to its next challenge. It’s a step up from Crystal Palace but if the players show the same application at Anfield as was evident after the interval, they should be optimistic of returning home with a point at least.