I wonder if Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang would even have attempted the challenge that saw a yellow card upgraded to red thanks to VAR under Unai Emery. Still, long term, such determination to win the ball can only be a good thing. It will win more matches than the occasional dismissal will lose. Overall, although VAR has been good and bad to Arsenal, I’d say without it, they’d have gleaned more points this season. And I think the whole phenomenon whereby fans in the stadium are left in limbo after what were previously definitive moments in a game means most would vote against its retention.
Yesterday though, you can’t argue with the final decision. Granted there was no intent to hurt. Aubameyang was going for the ball. But the reckless nature of his lunge could have caused a more serious injury than it did. Meyer had to be substituted due to the challenge, but fortunately nothing was broken. Arsenal fans would have been up in arms to see a similar challenge made on their captain.
The game was already at 1-1 by the time of the card, three quarters of the way into the 90 minutes. Mikel Arteta started the same eleven from the previous Premier League match at home to Manchester United. And for the majority of the first half, things looked good. The opening goal was the end of a multi-passing move that saw Luiz find Ozil, who found Lacazette, who teed up Aubameyang to slot home. It was good use of movement and space. However, Palace were not easy to break down. Before the match, their ten home games had seen nine goals scored and nine conceded. With hindsight, this was always going to be a 1-1.
As the first half wore on, Palace came out of their shell in search of parity, and Arsenal defended in numbers and doggedly. It was good to see them limiting chances, and notable that they played a high defensive line much of the time, and especially at free kicks. It all felt highly encouraging.
After the interval Roy Hodgson’s team came out with more zest and pressed Arsenal far more aggressively. The key moment though, saw Arteta’s team switch off at a free-kick. Expecting a cross into the middle, the ball was played down to a free man on the right of the penalty area with no Arsenal player anywhere near. The cross came in, and an element of pinball eventually saw Jordan Ayew’s shot deflected off David Luiz. I think Ayew’s original shot might have just gone the wrong side of the post, but never mind bemoaning bad luck, Arsenal should not have let the cross into the box happen in the first place. Arteta expressed his disappointment after the match stating his team switched off. At least you get the feeling that under him, the players will learn from this lesson. Let’s give credit here, the defensive side of things is unquestionably improving. There’s a way to go yet, but in the last three matches, a single goal has been conceded. That’s not the Arsenal we know and loathe in recent seasons.
Palace had one cleared off the line and Arsenal came so close to a winner with Pepe’s effort hitting the post and Lacazette firing at the keeper from the rebound. Gabriel Martinelli came on and impressed, replacing Mesut Ozil who had ceased to make a positive contribution once Palace got into the game in the first half. Let’s not mince words here. For 35 minutes, he might as well have been in the dressing room. Perhaps, physically, he’s not capable of doing what Arteta wants, although we can’t be certain what instructions he is under. Maybe he isn’t supposed to drop deeper to get more involved.
Anyway, it’s an ongoing process, and with every dropped point, the optimists out there who think fourth place is still achievable get a reality check. This is going to be a bumpy road, and moments such as the nature of the goals conceded against Chelsea and Palace will not be completely eradicated overnight. Arsenal hadn’t beaten Palace in their previous three meetings, but came close yesterday.
The season is about establishing good habits for the future, ensuring the club are in the Europa League next season because of the potential £40 million they could make from it, and seeing what happens in this season’s competition. Certainly, if they can continue improving defensively, it will give them a better chance of reaching Lodz and a chance to re-join the big boys earlier than expected.
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