Crystal Palace 1 – 2 Arsenal
0 – 1 Cazorla (8 pen)
0 – 2 Giroud (45+1)
1 – 2 Murray (90+2)
In the end, it all worked out fine and that is what the history books will record, adding in that they leapfrogged Manchester United and Southampton into third place, until teatime today at least.
What shaped to be a straightforward win turned into a nervous last stand as a Crystal Palace side which should have been buried, fought back and were a coat of paint away from taking an undeserved point. They fought tigerishly for the last thirty minutes but for the previous hour were second best.
Arsenal could – and should – have been out of sight by the time Glen Murray scrambled home a late goal. Ahead after eight minutes when Santi Cazorla scored with a well-taken penalty after Welbeck was fouled on the edge of the area, Olivier Giroud’s half-century of Arsenal strikes doubled the lead as Mark Clattenburg’s lips pursed his whistle for the interval.
Overall, Wenger will be pleased with the defensive performance, particularly through the middle where the problems only really emerged when the flanks were overrun. Ospina in goal caused hearts to flutter when he missed the cross and saw Murray fail to capitalise as the ball rebounded back into the safety of the Colombian’s arms. It’s those moments which accumulate in the manager’s mind when he assesses his goalkeeping options.
At the moment, Ospina has luck on his side and Arsenal have yet to suffer at his hands. If that changes, I suspect Wojciech Szczesny may well regain his #1 place.
In midfield, Santi Cazorla continued in the deeper role which I think is more to do with the lack of options than the Spaniard’s influential season. Wenger has to fit a veritable attacking triumvirate into his XI, a decision made all the harder by Cazorla’s form. He was the one we expected to make way for Sanchez and Özil’s double-act but to his credit, he has refused to cower in the face of that challenge.
Even so, whilst the formation works in routine home wins, in scrappy away matches the flaws are there to see. That’s not to say Cazorla was the problem – that any individual was the problem – it’s the combination in these situations which leaves the side light. Matches such as this underline the value of having the likes of Wilshere or Ramsey alongside Coquelin.
Post-match, Arsène conceded that his team switched off off too early in the match, a coma induced just after Alexis skewed the sort of chance he has gobbled up this season, just wide. With half-an-hour remaining, a three-goal lead would have killed off the game.
To some extent, Arsène contributed to Arsenal being pushed onto the back foot. Concerned by the advances Palace were making down the left side, he pushed Kieran Gibbs on to provide support but in removing Welbeck, he reduced Arsenal’s attacking options and offered Palace more assurance in pushing forward. Putting on Walcott instead might have curbed some attacking instinct in their hosts, his pace preying on their mind. It certainly put Arsenal on a more defensive footing.
Both Arsenal goals were deemed contentious although it didn’t seem to be the case. Welbeck was fouled on the very edge of the area and his foot appeared to be on the line at least which makes it (a) a penalty and (b) a good spot by the officials, referee and linesman both giving the decision. For the second, he was certainly level with the last defender which makes him onside. In both cases, they were marginal decisions but ones where the forward played the rules of the game.
Welbeck had a productive forty-five minutes, working hard for the side. He certainly worked hard for the team and justified his inclusion ahead of Theo Walcott on that basis. You sense that if either of them could find a consistent scoring touch, it would be the decisive factor for Arsène but for the moment, it is work-rate that pitches the younger of the two England internationals into the fray.
The final thirty minutes has put a different slant onto the win this morning. What was a continuation of the good run of recent results has become a scrappy, fortunate victory. Ceding territory was a problem earlier in the season with Arsenal’s defensive shell more brittle than it appears to be with neutered attacking options.
The problem yesterday was not caused by a lack of confidence which was the hallmark of such victories pre-Christmas but quite the opposite. It seemed too easy, that the previous hour had been a true reflection of the two sides abilities. With Özil’s header clearing the bar and Sanchez dragging his shot wide, it seemed a matter of when not if Arsenal would score a third. With the passing minutes, Palace drew strength from Arsenal’s failures. Were minds on Monaco? I think so; this was after all, a routine win at that point.
Pardew’s men deserve credit for making it harder than it should have been but the denouement served to highlight the distance Arsenal have to reach the next level of being genuine title challengers. This type of last thirty minutes might have suited Gerry Anderson but for a team which wants to win trophies, it offers hope to future opponents, signalling a chink of weakness in their armour.
But three points is three points and another win pushed Arsenal into third place. The upcoming fixtures seem to work in their favour but we know from past experience how obdurate Everton and West Ham can be as opponents. In the next four weeks, Arsenal’s season will be shaped. A win at Old Trafford in the FA Cup could as easily be the basis of a canter into third as a loss becomes collapse into fifth or below.
We look forward now to the visit of Monaco to The Emirates in the Champions League. An opportunity to progress is at hand and if yesterday is treated as the wake-up call it was, there is a real prospect of Arsenal reaching the quarter-finals.