For what feels like the umpteenth time this season, we find ourselves returning from an extended break in play - this time, at a crucial and much-needed juncture. When the most recent break began, it was met with an unusual amount of relief. Arsenal’s form as 2023 ended and 2024 began left us all in need of some respite. Three losses from the last five matches have taken what had been a promising campaign and thrown a massive wet blanket over it.
The Gunners escaped the damp and dismal clim of London, having spent the better part of the last two weeks training in Dubai, soaking up the rays and keeping up their fitness. Now, they return to London as they host Crystal Palace on match day 21, searching for 3 crucial points as they look to right the ship.
Here are three talking points ahead of Saturday’s match.
Arsenal were the unrivaled kings of London last season, winning 10 of the 12 London Derbies they played in. This season has seen that success wane drastically, and with it, the Gunner’s chances of winning the league. Arsenal have taken part in 7 London Derbies so far, with a record of 2 wins, 3 draws, and 2 losses (both of which came back-to-back before the current break). Not to view it all through exceedingly-Arsenal tinted glasses, but the Gunners could have (and maybe should have) won all but perhaps the last Fulham match. In each of the other losses and draws, the Gunners discovered new and exciting ways of not winning despite controlling large chunks of the match.
Maybe the most depressing part of it is that neither of the two wins occurred at the Emirates. One of those two wins came away at Crystal Palace on match day 2, and even that one was not without an unnecessarily tense finish. Arsenal were forced to play with 10 men after Takehiro Tomiyasu was harshly sent off in the 2nd half, and the visitors managed to stave off the hosts for a 1-0 victory. Nearly 5 months later, the sides face off again, both eager for a timely win.
Living Up to Expectations
Arsenal have been absolute dynamos this season…statistically. In years past, particularly the Unai Emery years, Arsenal nicked a living by overachieving, often drastically, the underlying stats. Unfortunately for the Gunners this season, the matches are not played on paper.
Plenty of metrics across both the attack and the defense paint a promising picture - and yet, Arsenal have not consistently secured results that reflect the data-based domination. Teams that win titles often exceed the stats. Arsenal, on the other hand, have been consistently underperforming them. The good news is that there is a far better statistical likelihood that they will revert back to the mean rather than regress further from it. That, however, is entirely reliant on doing things like putting the ball in the back of the net. One goal can change all of that, and the Gunners certainly have the players to do it.
By the beginning of January, Arsenal looked like they had nothing left in the tank. Perhaps it was fueled by the mental toll of failing to win the matches they should, but they looked positively wiped against Fulham. The FA Cup loss against Liverpool a week later saw a far livelier Arsenal, but the continued inability to convert chances and an untimely own goal late in the 2nd half sucked all the air out of the players and the crowd at the Emirates.
Arsenal return from Dubai with a mostly-healthy squad following their sun-soaked sessions. Gabriel Jesus was back after a minor knee tweak, and Emile Smith Rowe reportedly had a great camp. Even Thomas Partey made the trip, though there’s nothing to indicate his hamstrings even exist at this point. The most promising news out of camp, though, was Jurrien Timber’s return to individual drills on grass. His recovery from his opening day ACL tear seems to be going superbly (touch wood) and an earlier-than-expected return could be a massive boost for the defense in the final month or two of the season. I’m not counting on it, but hey, anything is possible.
Despite giving them less-than complimentary grades in our mid-season assessment, we are no less eager to see the Gunners return to the pitch than the rest of the fanbase. The break was much needed, but I can’t say I didn’t miss seeing them take the pitch. Saturday is a fresh start of sorts, and as good a time as any for the Arsenal to remember how much fun it is to score goals and win.
WHAT: Arsenal vs Crystal Palace
WHEN: Saturday, January 20th, 7:30am EST/4:30am PST/12:30pm BST
WHERE: The Emirates Stadium, London
HOW TO WATCH: Broadcast live on The USA Network. Streaming on NBCSports.com
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