A look at Arsenal’s Shortcomings against Crystal Palace

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Another Arsenal season that started with massive promise has petered out. The team, as a whole, summarised this situation neatly in their recent performance against Crystal Palace, where all of the familiar ingredients for success were there but the success itself wasn’t.

The Gunners had plenty of the ball, led by the reliable circulation of Mohamed Elneny, and though they used it to good effect occasionally, there was never any real sense of urgency attached to their exertions in the final third. They moved the ball without the required punch to continually beat a packed Palace defensive structure, and they didn’t play with enough variety to do more than earn an eventual 1-1 draw, either.

This had a lot to do not only with their movement but also with their preference for short passing. With wingers Alex Iwobi and Alexis Sanchez almost invariably aiming to drift infield, Arsenal tended to try and find them in between the lines. This caused their possession play to become a little too centrally based, and despite the odd moment of supreme combination play, such as the move which put Mesut Ozil through on goal in the 43rd minute, Palace were set up to deal with this kind of approach.

After all, Alan Pardew had instructed his players to remain compact and narrow, as a means through which to limit the likes of Ozil in true No. 10 positions. Of course, the Gunners had the quality to get in between the lines at various times throughout the encounter, but even when they could harmonise in these kinds of positions, Palace generally had the numbers to snuff out the danger, even if at the very last minute.

Arsenal probably needed to stretch the play to a greater degree. They had the chance to do it regularly, too, as Iwobi’s central positioning regularly sucked the right-sided Palace defenders into very narrow locations, something which cleared the flank for Arsenal left-back Nacho Monreal. The ex-Malaga man had the room to make something happen and he made plenty of decent runs as well, but his teammates were often too focused on looking at the short passing options in front of them. They wanted to create something slick and intricate through the centre, even though the occasional switch of play, into space along the left, would’ve given the opposition more to think about.

In the end, they used Monreal so infrequently that he only curled in three crosses for the game. That figure seems a touch light for a side that controlled 68% of possession and recorded 900 touches of the ball, and while no one would ever suggest that the Spaniard act as a genuine prime mover for Arsenal in attack, he was nonetheless used far too sparingly.

In contrast, the right-sided Hector Bellerin crossed the ball on eight separate occasions. Certainly, it’s understandable that Arsenal attacked that side of the field more often, given that Bellerin, Alexis and right-sided central midfielder Elneny provide greater impetus than those on the left, but the option to switch the ball quickly to the other flank could have been valuable in the final third.

Then, of course, there was the sense that they were missing something in central midfield. That something was arguably Santi Cazorla, a player whose absence seems to be more keenly felt with every passing week. Without him, the Gunners lack a genuine creator in the centre of the park, and against teams like Crystal Palace, who come to the Emirates with a brief to blanket Arsenal’s offensive weapons, it can be a challenge to find the breakthrough.

Elneny still had an excellent game, completing 107 of his 116 passes with a great deal of composure and energy, but he offers “tactical stability,” as manager Arsene Wenger puts it, rather than outright invention. That’s not to say he doesn’t offer anything in attack, as he played quite a few impressive vertical balls against Palace, most noticeably a long diagonal to create a shooting opportunity for Alexis, but this isn’t his primary function for Arsenal.

Francis Coquelin, meanwhile, was fairly sloppy in possession. Elneny’s presence did allow the Frenchman to work his way towards the final third, something he did to good effect in the lead-up to Iwobi’s goal against Watford a few weeks ago, but his final ball against Palace was wasteful. He just couldn’t find enough finesse in possession, and on two occasions in particular, where he missed both Ozil and Welbeck running in behind, he had the chance to make a real difference.

It’s for this reason that Wenger has been linked with players such as Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Granit Xhaka, as there is a perception that Arsenal need a bit more in midfield. Granted Coquelin and Elneny have offered a solid platform since linking up together through the centre, but when Arsenal come up against a parked bus, some additional deep-lying creativity would be handy.

Of course, it’s worth recognising that Arsenal weren’t exactly poor against Crystal Palace. They did a lot of things right and generated a number of decent, if not spectacular, chances, and they didn’t really look troubled before Yannick Bolasie’s late equaliser. Despite that, they lacked a certain variation in their attacking play, and when combined with an absence of speed and urgency on the ball, they didn’t really look like a team who were still in with a shot at winning the title.

That wasn’t a great look for a club that is so often accused of disappearing at the business end of the season, and now that 2015/16 doesn’t look like it will end in overriding success, Wenger needs to think about how this Arsenal side can go beyond the Champions League qualification places and compete for the major trophies in the near future.