It’s been a while since Arsenal have put as drastic of a “tale of two halves” performance as they did in today’s 3-1 win over Crystal Palace. The Gunners were quite good in the first half and utterly abject for 45 minutes of the second. Fortunately, there were four minutes added time, and Arsenal made the most of it — Gabriel Martinelli scored and Nicolas Pépé bagged his second. The full points keeps a faint hope alive that Arsenal might finish in a European place for next season and also the possibility of the first St. Totteringham’s Day in five years.
Arsenal’s goal in the first half was a thing of beauty. Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka combined neatly on a one-two, with a particularly nice backheeled pass from Saka. Tierney picked out Pépé with his cross, and the Ivorian volleyed home with his weaker right foot. It was the only cross of the half on which the Gunners connected, but they had a fair few other ones whipped across invitingly that didn’t find a teammate.
The Gunners easily could have been up a man or two in the first half. Jeffrey Schlupp only saw yellow for a nasty stamp on Calum Chambers’ ankle that looked remarkably similar to a challenge that got Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sent off in this same fixture last season. And Christian Benteke was inexplicably only cautioned for a forearm shot to the neck / chin of Mohamed Elneny. Somehow, Elneny was cautioned on the same play, for as far as I can tell, being in the way of Benteke’s arm. Oh and all of that happened after Benteke threw a blindside shoulder up high on Saka that would have been penalized (and probably merited a suspension) in the NHL.
Arsenal went in at the break up 1-0, and if you’d told me they stayed in the locker room for the second half, I’d have believed you. The Gunners were awful in the second 45, failing to register a shot until well beyond the 80th minute, with Pépé’s 35th minute goal as the only shot until Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s leaping volley that went well wide. That’s flat-out not good enough.
Fortunately, the Gunners were able to undo Benteke’s 62nd minute equalizer (because of course it was the man who could have been sent off who scored) through Gabriel Martinelli. The Brazilian made a great slashing run across the six and was picked out with an even better ball from Martin Ødegaard, who had been mostly invisible since coming on in the 65th minute. The move for the goal stood in stark opposition to an attacking possession a few minutes earlier. Mohamed Elneny got the ball in a similar to position to where Ødegaard did, looked up, and saw four Arsenal men standing still next to their markers on the edge of the area. Funny what happens when players move and make runs.
Nicolas Pépé got his brace with virtually the last kick of the game on a lovely individual effort. He got the ball on the right wing, beat a man, cut between two other defenders, and curled it in at the far post. It was one of those quintessential Pépé flashes of sheer brilliance that leaves you wondering why he doesn’t or can’t do it all the time. Fair play to him, he has been doing it more often and has been among Arsenal’s better players in the second half of the season.
Gabriel Magalhaes, Rob Holding, and Calum Chambers all had strong games defensively. The centerback pair showed good strength against Christian Benteke, and Calum Chambers contained Wilfried Zaha well. Right before the Arsenal equalizer, Gabriel ran down and dispossessed Zaha who looked to be through on goal. Perhaps Zaha would have been more effective on that move and in the match overall if he wasn’t throwing himself to the ground so frequently. Anthony Taylor waved him up after he’d gone over theatrically two or three times.
Bernd Leno also had a solid match. He made a couple very good saves but also might have been able to do more on Palace’s goal, which was headed right at him. But it’s tough to fault a keeper for not stopping a free header from inside the penalty spot when he’s moving laterally to track a free kick cross.
On the flip side of things, Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny were both poor today, mostly because of how loose they were with the ball. Far too many cheap giveaways and misplaced passes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also had a quiet match, but it’s tough to say whether that’s on to him or his teammates for not getting him involved. And I’m not going to get too deep into the analysis of the energy and effort of a guy who is working back from malaria. Aubameyang has had a tough season both on and off the pitch. Hopefully some time off in the summer will sort it out.
Arsenal’s current four-match Premier League winning streak is their best of the season, their first under Mikel Arteta, and a first for the club since October 2018. Since Boxing Day, they’ve collected the third-most points, behind only Manchester City and Manchester United. If you bump that out to the last 23 matches, Arsenal trail only City. The team is headed in the right direction results-wise even if the football, especially the lack of shots, is still a cause for concern.
The Gunners host Brighton on Sunday. The supporters, in the Emirates for the first time in more than 14 months, will have plenty to cheer for — with a bit of help, Arsenal would finish 7th, which would get them into the Europa Conference League.