After 11 consecutive victories, many thought Unai Emery and Arsenal were reborn following this summer’s exit of Arsene Wenger – but there is much of the old routine about this evolving team.
On Sunday afternoon, Arsenal travelled to face a side who had not scored a goal at home, let alone won a game. The Gunners came into the match having not dropped a point in two months and, in theory, should have been on a high.
When a team is in such excellent form, you expect to see them set the tone against weaker opposition and make the most of their fragility, but Arsenal lacked the requisite arrogance. Crystal Palace had picked up just a single point in their previous four outings and should have feared what a team unbeaten since the second weekend of the season would do to them. They should have been cowed and then blown away.
The Gunners instead arrived on a cold October lunchtime in the mood to sit back and wait to pick off Palace. Even though they had not scored at home, Palace cannot be criticised for their defensive work; Roy Hodgson is known for keeping a side well-drilled and a weakness at the back is not the foundation of their issues. But Arsenal offered no serious examination.
Once again, there was a slow start as Arsenal allowed confidence to build in the Palace ranks. A weak opponent was strengthened by the Gunners’ dearth of urgency. Considering Arsenal were on their best run in 11 years, completely lacking impetus seems a cardinal sin.
Arsenal are yet to go into half-time leading a match, which strongly suggests they do not impose themselves in the opening 45 minutes; they were down at the break on Sunday due to a lack of ruthlessness. Superior opposition will take advantage of such lacklustre starts and be out of sight before Arsenal wake from their slumber. They face Liverpool on Saturday.
Where Arsenal would be if the first half only counted😯😯😯😯 pic.twitter.com/JOE08UmixP
— DK15FOOTBALLCOMPILATIONS (@Dkiller152) October 29, 2018
Permitting Palace to grow into the game was a sign of naivety, a trait that was a constant in the final Wenger years. Emery has brought greater edge and determination but physically they struggled to cope with more experienced opposition.
Relating pay to performance is not an ideal metric but Mesut Ozil’s efforts at Selhurst Park played into the hands of critics like Graeme Souness. The German was Arsenal captain but he spent his afternoon on the edge of the game, influencing little in particular. The highlight of his day was being subbed with 22 minutes to go, when he threw his gloves to the floor as he exited the pitch.
“Every player wants to continue playing,” said Emery. “I like the players who show character. He was not happy because the result was not good at the end.”
Ozil might not have played well, but at least he can see into the future; Arsenal were actually still ahead when he left the pitch.
In terms of attack and defence, Arsenal have similar issues when it comes to consistency. No one seems capable of maintaining the same level for 90 minutes. In attack there is still a tendency to wait for a moment of genius, while at the back each component regularly switches off.
The defensive issues are there for all to see. No one could cope with Wilfried Zaha throughout the game, causing Hector Bellerin a muscle injury with all that twisting and turning. That both goals were conceded from the penalty spot will hurt.
At the back Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka were both guilty of naivety. The German did not understand that blindly diving towards the ball in the box without having any idea of your surroundings is a bad idea and the Swiss was seemingly bewitched by the feet of the Ivorian. The same uncertainty and nervousness we saw under Wenger is still separating Arsenal from the Premier League’s elite.
Well there it is. Xhaka at LB is just not the smartest idea against a team like Palace with Zaha.
— MGH (@OfficialMgh) October 28, 2018
Further forward, teenager Mattéo Guendouzi struggled to cope with the more experienced midfield he faced at Selhurst Park. Such pragmatic, worldly opposition makes him look vulnerable.
Emery knows that consistent mistakes will cost his side eventually. When Alexandre Lacazette misplaced a pass, his manager grabbed his face and shook him to stress the importance of keeping the ball.
“We need continuity in our process, to learn when we are not in a good moment and to give and hold our mentality for continuing to find our moments and our chances,” Emery said of his intimate moment with Lacazette. He needs to quickly instil the discipline that Arsenal have lacked and make the players understand that errors have consequences.
Emery can look to this weekend’s opposition for tips on returning a team to being a consistent top four side. When Jurgen Klopp arrived he improved his side in stages, adjusting one area at a time: from sorting out his front three, to bringing in Virgil van Dijk, and now Alisson to give them the foundation they need to challenge for the title.
Football’s desire for immediate returns is a frustrating and stressful concept for new managers, but there are positive signs at the Emirates. Now it is just time to show they have learned from the mistakes at Palace – and those in the opening two fixtures against Manchester City and Chelsea – to prove that progress is being made after years of stagnation.