In the 1970s the soft rock band Eagles had a hit with ‘One of These Nights,’ and that just about sums up our nil-nil draw with the Eagles of Crystal Palace last night.
From an Arsenal perspective it was one of those nights where things didn’t really gel. We weren’t bad the way we were a few weeks ago when our chance creation collapsed to almost zero, but nor were we good.
Our starting line-up saw a number of changes from the team that beat Newcastle in the cup, some forced by injury, others not.
Tierney was ruled out with ‘muscle tiredness’ (although it was later revealed he’s to have an MRI scan, which is a concern) and was replaced with Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Luiz was brought back in to central defence in place of Mari (and with Gabriel being given further recovery time, presumably).
In midfield Ceballos replaced Elneny (with Partey on the bench).
Up front, the recently successful ‘three amigos’ of Lacazette, Saka and Smith Rowe were reunited, which gave grounds for optimism given the slickness of some of their interplay of late.
Whether it was the changes, the dogged resistance of our opponents or just ‘one of those nights,’ we ended up huffing and puffing but failed to blow any houses down, let alone a palace. Although we were dominant overall there were periods when Palace were well on top and they had the best two chances of the game. So, all in all, a neutral observer would probably feel a draw was a fair result.
We started brightly, with Ceballos in particular looking to drive forward. Several promising team moves broke down with the final ball being executed poorly or intercepted. Any one of those chances could have put us in front with a bit more composure and quality.
Maitland-Niles had the unenviable task of trying to fill in for the outstanding Tierney and ended up having a poor night. He’s not a natural left back, of course, so we need to cut him some slack, but his crossing was wayward and many of our moves seemed to break down when the ball reached him. On the positive side he showed an electric turn of pace once or twice and he never hides.
Palace have a very dangerous forward line and in the last 15 minutes of the first half they began to play a bit, going into the break as the team looking most likely to score. We’d had one let-off when a header from centre half Tomkins came back off the crossbar.
The fact that Palace carried that attacking threat probably played a part in our struggle to get the ball forward into dangerous areas the way we had against Toon and West Brom. The Palace strikers closed us down from the back and that forced us to kick long or have our midfielders and attackers come too deep to collect the ball.
In the final half hour it was clear that the visitors were happy to hold out for a point (with an outside hope for a breakaway goal to bag all three), so we were in the ascendancy for long periods but we just could not get the vital breakthrough.
It didn’t help that our recent revolutionary idea of passing the ball forwards seemed to have been forgotten and we reverted to a lot of sideways and backwards passing at times when there were forward options available.
I’m not knocking the side-to-side approach per se. Sometimes it’s important to retain possession and probe for an opening, but in this game we were taking cautious options when better ones were available. The honourable exceptions to this were Smith Rowe and Saka. The latter also contributed a succession of outstanding crosses – from corners, free kicks and open play. Sadly we couldn’t get anyone to add a decisive finish, although Holding had two headers that went wide.
Palace almost grabbed a winner towards the end when a Benteke header looked to be heading goalwards until Leno – who’d had little to do in terms of shot-stopping – pulled off another outstanding save. He’s really earning his bacon.
Pepe replaced Maitland-Niles on 65 minutes, Partey came on for Ceballos four minutes later and Nketiah got nine minutes plus stoppage team, but none of those changes made much of a difference and the match ended in stalemate.
On the plus side we had 11 attempts on goal (four of them on target) and we completed 600 passes (to Palace’s 259).
Being harsh, I would say that we lacked quality at times in this one. Sometimes it was poor touches that let us down, sometimes poor decisions and failing to see better balls that were available. You can’t help but feel that with Tierney and Martinelli in the side and, perhaps, with Partey starting, the game might have turned out differently.
Leno – 7
Didn’t have too much to do but every time he was needed he was flawless and he pulled off one exceptional save towards the end.
Bellerin – 5
Defensively Hector was fine but he did not link up well with Saka and Smith Rowe ahead of him. I spotted many moments when he could have played a forward pass for a give-and-go and instead he turned backwards or sideways. He’s an experienced pro and we need more from him.
Holding – 7
Showed why he deserved his new contract. He was defensively rock solid, had a couple of attempts on goal and brought the ball out of defence really well at times.
Luiz – 6.5
A decent outing from David. He was always looking for those long forward balls as he moved out of defence but Palace left few of our players open so most didn’t come off or were abandoned for the sideways pass. His defence was strong.
Maitland-Niles – 4.5
I feel bad for AMN but it just didn’t happen last night. He wasn’t helped by having the lacklustre Aubameyang in front of him but his touch and decision-making were poor and he lost possession too often.
Ceballos – 6
I really don’t know what to make of Dani. He was our best player in the opening 20, driving forward from the centre of midfield. Then he mostly faded out. He also has a way of playing that looks as if the ball is always not quite under his control. He seems to get away with it a lot of the time so maybe it’s a talent rather than a flaw, but he always seems on the verge of losing possession. His touch is poor for someone from Real Madrid.
Xhaka – 7.5 MoTM
Granit’s run of good form continues. He was tidy, decisive and committed in defence, making a few excellent tackles and blocks. He gave away a couple of silly free kicks as is his wont, but overall it was a good outing.
Saka – 7
He earned an extra half point for the sheer quality of his crossing which, on another night, would probably have brought him an assist or two. He had good moments but was not able to have as much of an influence as he has in some recent games (partly because of the Bellerin issue mentioned above).
Smith Rowe – 6.5
Things didn’t quite come off for ESR but he always plays on the front foot and tries to break the lines with incisive passing and quick running off the ball. He almost created a winner for us when he got down the right and fired in a low cross for Lacazette, only for the late-arriving Bellerin to get in the way and slice the ball out of play.
Aubameyang – 5
The captain had a couple of OK attempts on goal and tried to get involved, but his form is poor at the moment. Our left side, with Maitland-Niles and Auba, just didn’t function well.
Lacazette – 6.5
There were few opportunities for Laca but his workrate was outstanding. The fact that his team mates were not gelling behind meant that he was more isolated than in recent games so it was harder to make any kind of decisive impact.
Pepe – 5
He didn’t really change anything. Nicolas has this busy way of running with the ball that looks kind-of exciting, but it always seems to go nowhere (or, more typically, straight into the nearest clump of opposition defenders).
Partey – 5
Didn’t make a difference but it was good to see him get pitch time again.
Nketiah – 6
Eddie got about 13 minutes in all and looked busy and energetic.
ALTERNATIVE RATINGS FROM RC78
Leno – 6
Bellerin – 5
Holding – 7
Luiz – 6
AMN – 5.5
Xhaka – 7.5
Ceba – 6
Saka – 6.5
ESR – 6
Auba – 6
Laca – 6