Selhurst Park is going to be one of the toughest grounds to visit this year. Crystal Palace’s combination of experience and pace will make them a threat at all times. So to walk away a 2-1 victor is all the matters for Arsenal today. Though it took a lot of grit, much luck, and a little guile, Arsenal got it done.
Crystal Palace made the mistake of sitting back in the opening minutes, hoping to catch Arsenal out on the counter. That then allowed Arsenal to get in a rhythm, and it was no surprise when man of the match Mesut Özil’s fizzed-in cross was brilliantly turned in by Olivier Giroud. Giroud will never please many in the Arsenal fan base. But it must be said that he gets goals in the end.
If Arsenal’s goal was expected, Crystal Palce’s equalizer was not. Joel Ward, who otherwise had a nightmare of a match defensively, was given space to strike from distance and curved his screamer around Petr Cech and into the corner. Arsenal not only left him uncovered, but didn’t attempt to close him down or even put a leg out to block his effort.
On the stroke of half, Arsenal were incredibly fortunate not to have Francis Coquelin sent off. Already on a yellow card, he halted a Palace counter by pulling someone to the ground. In everyone’s book but Lee Mason’s apparently, that would have been a second yellow, but thankfully for Arsenal, Coquelin stayed on. Had he gone off at that point, the match would have turned on its head. He also might have been sent off early in the second half. The fire in his eyes is normally beloved, but today could have proved disastrous had Arsene Wenger not taken him off immediately after.
After Arsenal got its second goal somewhat fortunately through Alexis Sanchez and an unlucky Damien Delaney, Palace began to attack in earnest, sending many men forward. Petr Cech did little to ease the nerves with many shaky punches. Connor Wickham hit the post at one point, and Delaney headed straight at Cech from close. The end of this match felt exactly like many in year’s past, with Arsenal clinging to a one goal lead with their life. They might have added a third, but poor finishing couldn’t ease the pressure.
In the end, Arsenal got their three points and now have their season back on track. At their best, Arsenal look a sure title-contender. Stretches like the beginning of the match show their potential, but to sustain a challenge, they’ll need the combination of grit and luck they had today.
Player Ratings (1-10)
Olivier Giroud – 7.5/10 – Giroud was given another start ahead of Theo Walcott and made an immediate impact with the goal of the week. Not many strikers would have been able to maneuver their body behind that cross. Apart from the goal, he did well holding up play, but wasn’t as involved as the game wore on. As screams for another striker louden, his goal should keep the critics off for another week.
Alexis Sanchez – 7.5/10 – On his full return to the team, Sanchez was heavily involved from the opening minutes. His pressing saw him take over possession in Palace’s half on a couple occasions, and other counter-attacks had him in on goal multiple times. Tidier finishing could have given him a hat-trick by halftime, but he ended up goalless at halftime. While those were chances we expect him to take, he made up for them by heading in Arsenal’s second via Damein Delaney, attacking the ball in the air with real vigor. On the other end, he didn’t track Joel Ward’s run on Palace’s equalizer, giving him acres of space to line up his screamer. However, it’s good to have him back.
Mesut Özil – 8.5/10 – After every loss, Özil takes lots of heat from fans and the media. It’s quite frustrating to read, as they overlook so much of what makes him great. Look at the stats from today and you’ll see an assist. But this performance was so much more than that, as he was at the heart of everything Arsenal created. Whether he was attacking the left flank on the counter or dropping deep to receive the ball up and pick out a runner, Özil was on his game. I know the haters will always have a voice, but Özil is invaluable to Arsenal.
Aaron Ramsey – 7/10 – Pushed out to the right once again, Ramsey might not have done his chances of playing in the midfield a favor by having such a strong performance. Freely interchanging with Sanchez and Özil, Ramsey was consistently making dangerous runs and opening space up behind him. Once Palace had to stick Yohan Cabaye on him, he was less effective, but still dangerous. He’ll want a goal soon, as his finishing has been poor. On the whole, he had a good game.
Santi Cazorla – 7/10 – Playing his now preferred deep-lying midfielder role, Cazorla showed why he and Coquelin were the regular pairing last year with a steadying performance. In the middle of the park, Cazorla kept the ball moving and helped eliminate all of the errant passes from a week ago. Gone were stray passes going out for throw-ins. And defensively, he was key in stopping players like Puncheon and Zaha by getting out to the flanks to help out Monreal. Cazorla might have had a goal in the final minutes but for a great save from McCarthy.
Francis Coquelin – 6/10 – After his worst performance since his revival, this week was a mixed bag. What killed his otherwise tidy performance was an early yellow card and the subsequent tight-rope walk avoiding the red, which should have been given at the end of the first half. Wenger wisely withdrew him at the hour mark when he looked seconds away from erupting. The anger in his eyes was scary. To that point, he had won many balls all over the park and kept his passing simpler next to Cazorla, eliminating many of the errors in distribution from a week ago.
Nacho Monreal – 7.5/10 – Monreal did a spectacular job dealing with pacy wingers on the left, but what was perhaps more impressive was how he was still able to get forward and supplement attacks without leaving himself susceptible to counter attacks. On the rare instances he was beat, help from Cazorla allowed him to get back in position quickly. At the moment, Monreal is Arsenal’s best defender in my eyes.
Laurent Koscielny – 6.5/10 – Koscielny won his aerial duels like usual, and dealt with Palace’s counter-attacks well despite being on his back foot. And despite all the chaos in the final minutes, his defense held firm. However, he could have done more to close out Joel Ward on his goal, and will be faulted for not even attempting to stick a foot out to block it.
Per Mertesacker – 7.5/10 – Mertesacker had a good game by all standards, proving vital to Arsenal’s defensive grind in the final half-hour. His ability to knock away anything lofted up made Palace seek other options. A particularly noteworthy play was his late sliding block of Puncheon’s shot. Aside from his defensive duties, Mertesacker’s best performance might have been keeping Coquelin from boiling over.
Hector Bellerin – 7/10 – Very clearly the first choice at right-back now, Bellerin had a composed performance. Defensively, this would have been one of his toughest tasks of the year, having to deal with Jason Puncheon and Yannick Bolasie. And while he got beat a time or two, he largely was up to the task; it was notable that Palce weren’t able to routinely attack his side. On the other end, he wasn’t as adventurous as usual given Palace’s threat, but he still managed to send in the decisive cross for the second goal.
Petr Cech – 6.5/10 – I think at this point, we need to temper our expectations for Cech. He could not have done much on the goal, but he didn’t inspire confidence today. He needs to find a better understanding with his defense on how to handle crosses, as these half-punches aren’t really working. However, he did come through in the end with a vital save – though on a header directed right towards him.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (64th) – 6/10 – I know everyone loves the Ox, but I’d really like to see him give more of an effort defensively, especially when Arsenal’s protecting a lead. Too many times, he loses the ball upfield and throws his arms up rather than getting back. That being said, his introduction did add another element to Arsenal’s counters. He’ll be disappointed not to have scored.
Mikel Arteta (75th) – 7.5/10 – The captain did terrifically in his short time on the field, halting attacks with strong tackles and even winning a header. His tackle on Lee in the box late on was vital. To be this composed having not played much in the last year is a testament to his talent. This performance should make Wenger more comfortable with throwing Arteta on for Coquelin late in games when he’s on a yellow card, which could be often.
Kieran Gibbs (83rd) – N/A – Gibbs is a great person to throw on late in games and he once again helped shore things up. However, he’ll have a hard time winning his job back from Monreal.