Today’s nil-nil match between Arsenal and Crystal Palace was definitely a game of football. If neither team manages much of anything, I guess it technically qualifies as football, but man, that was a boring 90 minutes.
Palace sat back, well-organized, and looked to hit on the counter. They came closest to scoring today, going off the bar once and forcing a tremendous save from Bernd Leno on another. Those chances aside, they didn’t muster much threat.
Now, stop me if you’ve head this before — Arsenal were unable to break down a side that played compact in the final third. With Kieran Tierney held out as a precaution because of muscle soreness (he’s having an MRI tomorrow, which uh, yikes), the Gunners didn’t have the same attacking balance or threat from both sides of the pitch. Ainsley Maitland-Niles offers very little going forward, and he was particularly poor on the ball in the first half. The result was less space for Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka to create and that took a toll.
Mikel Arteta tried to shake things up in the second half, swapping Nicolas Pepe for Ainsley Maitland-Niles and moving Saka to left back, but it didn’t work. In fact, I think it made Arsenal worse going forward because it broke up the usual combinations. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bukayo Saka weren’t able to play off each other. Nicolas Pepe offered little beyond a bright few minutes immediately after taking the pitch.
I’m not sure how to apportion the blame between the player and the lineup changes, but Arsenal really need more from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. That’s been the story of the season at the club, really. He’s meant to be the primary goalscorer, and he hasn’t been scoring. He’d looked livelier and more involved during the four consecutive wins, but he took a step back today.
It’s a shame, really, because Palace keeper Vicente Guaita looked shaky. He was indecisive and didn’t command the area. And Arsenal never really challenged or tested him.
It’s also concerning that Arsenal are so heavily reliant on a handful of players — Saka, Tierney, Aubameyang — to create the entirety of the attack. If they’re not available or having an off night, the Gunners don’t really have a Plan B. It throws into sharp relief the lack of attacking depth at the club. If you’re Mikel Arteta and you’re looking down the bench to make a change to spark something for a goal, who do you bring on? Nicolas Pepe? That didn’t work. Willian? Yeah, right. Eddie Nketiah? Goal-poachers aren’t effective if you aren’t getting the ball into the box.
But a draw is better than a loss. The match wasn’t all negatives. Granit Xhaka had a fantastic game. His passing was exceptional, as usual, and his defending today was about as good as I’ve seen him manage for the club. He’s my Man of the Match for Arsenal. I thought Hector Bellerin was strong tonight, as well. One-on-one defending is usually the knock on him, and he tackled quite well. He should have won a penalty for Arsenal, but he fought to stay on his feet instead of going over. To be honest, you could have given the penalty anyway, but he could have cemented it by letting himself go down.
Rob Holding put in another solid defensive shift. He’s not flashy, but he has quietly become a reliable, strong defender. As previously mentioned, Bernd Leno made the one massive save he needed to make. Thomas Partey looked good in a 20-minute run-out and will reclaim his spot in the starting lineup without problem as soon as he’s match-fit.
The Gunners are next in action on Monday against Newcastle in the Premier League. That’s three points they’ve gotta have if they really want to challenge for a European place.