26 October 2013

Arsenal 2-0 Crystal Palace: harder than it had to be

Despite my hopes that we would see a side much-changed from Tuesday's match, we saw an essentially unchanged lineup to start things off, with a backline of Gibbs, Koscielny, Mertesacker and Gibbs in front of Szczesny, Flamini and Arteta in the pivot, Cazorla, Özil, and Ramsey in the midfield,
and Giroud up top. I would have liked to see some rotation ahead of Tuesday's league-cup clash with Chelsea; instead, we seemed to have seen almost the opposite as all three of our defensive midfielders were squeezed on. As it stands, we'll now go into Tuesday without Arteta, who drew an trivial red card, and we may also be without Flamini, who limped off in the eighth minute with a groin pull. The squad-selection seemed to indicate that we'd see some Academy players feature on Tuesday; the absences of Arteta and Flamini (potentially) all but guarantee it. So it goes.

Back to the match itself. This was not a pretty one to watch, and for long stretches, it looked like Crystal Palace could come away with a point, if not all three, had their finishing been stronger. Then again, Chamakh. He had a number of golden chances, as did a number of others. But for a number of brilliant saves from Szczesny, we might have had an even tougher time. By the time full-time was called, we found ourselves on the positive end of a scoreline that flatters us more than a bit. Ironically, we looked livelier and more-intent, if more a bit more ragged, after Arteta got sent off in the 65th minute. He and Chamakh bumped into each other, and Arteta was sent off for denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity. Apparently, the referee didn't notice that it was Chamakh (who leaned into Arteta just as much as Arteta bumped into him), nor did he care that the incident happened 50 yards from goal. Nonetheless, we pulled together.

Even as Crystal Palace pressed for an equalizer and after Cazorla and Gnabry had been replaced for defensive purposes by Monreal and Wilshere, respectively, we continued to look for a second goal. Monreal made two nifty runs into the box and almost struck. Finally, it came in the 87th minute after a nice run from Ramsey, who pulled up short, saw Giroud coming through the box, and lofted it in. Giroud made no mistake, heading home forcefully. Giroud had an off-day, truth be told, but he never stopped moving and working. It's a tribute to him that he found a way to score instead of letting frustration sap his will. Without dubbing him as one—yet—that's what great players do. He may have been off his game, but he never gave up and earned a goal to quiet his critics and settle the match.

The real story to me, though, is keeping a clean sheet for the first time in four matches, our fifth in fifteen overall. Credit goes to Szczesny who made a number of world-class saves to earn that clean sheet, prompting this tweet from @Orbinho. That clean sheet, pretty as it is, hides the unfortunate fact that we're still conceding too many shots, not to mention goals, that make our job a bit more difficult. After all, for as powerful as we've been on the offensive end with 20 goals in the league (tied with Man City) and with a +11 goal-differential, we will have to clamp down even more on defense, or we will find ourselves dropping points. Absent so far are the howlers from last year, such as Koscielny's tackle against Man City, Jenkinson getting dispossessed against Swansea, or Sagna's scything against Man U, but the goals we've conceded have come from mental lapses such as those against Dortmund or West Brom. There will come a time when we find it harder to score, and we'll have to rely on a steelier defense to get us the result we want.

Before this sounds too nit-picky, consider that Palace out-shot us 13-10 despite having only 37% possession. Were it not for Szczesny's saves or Sagna's fine performance, for example, or poor finishing from Palace, this could very well have ended as a draw or worse. This is hardly "back to the drawing board" kind of stuff, but we shouldn't let good results mask flaws or weaknesses.

I'm sure we went into this match feeling a bit of a let-down, both from having lost on Tuesday and from the difference in the stakes. Dortmund sits atop the Bundesliga and are Champions League runners-up; Crystal Palace are newly-promoted to the Prem and struggling for any kind of a foothold. However, no team in the Prem is going to just roll over, and we met a team desperate for a result. Fortunately, we held them off long enough to find an opening or two and secured three points. We'll stay atop the Prem for another week, four points ahead of Liverpool, and five ahead of Chelsea (who host Man City on Sunday). Not bad. Not bad at all.

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