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article imageArsenal's stars shine yet falter against Palace's individualism

By Tyrrell Meertins     Apr 17, 2016 in Sports
Arsenal walking into half-time with 76 per-cent possession justifies their territorial ascendancy, but Arsene Wenger’s men encountered difficulty bypassing Crystal Palace’s deep defensive block at the Emirates.
Alan Pardew’s starting XI suggested Palace would congest the midfield zone, but the away side opted to field Yannick Bolasie to play off of Connor Wickham. Still, Palace adopted an incredibly low block near the box, while the midfielders remained narrow, which resulted in Pardew’s men lacking a legitimate counter-attacking ploy when they won possession.
The away side struggled to sustain possession when they regained the ball in their half, and their attempt to play balls into space for Bolasie in the channels was futile due to over-hit outlet passes. Essentially, Palace relied on set-pieces as their sole route to goal, but constant giveaways ensured Arsenal spent lengthy spells of the opening half in the away side’s third.
However, Palace’s reactive approach was partially responsible for Arsenal’s flat performance. Mesut Ozil floated into deeper positions due to limited space between the lines, whereas the pace of Alexis Sanchez, Alex Iwobi, and Danny Welbeck was thwarted. Nifty intricate passing between Ozil and Sanchez, combined with attempted balls over the defence for the latter troubled Palace’s defence, but Arsenal lacked a final ball around the edge of the box.
The other notable issue Arsenal have faced throughout the season when opposing teams adopt a low block is a genuine passer in deeper midfield zones. Santi Cazorla excelled in this role prior to injury, and his intent to constantly switch the route of attack would have proved crucial here. Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin provide strength and defensive cover in midfield zones, but prior to Wickham and Bolasie marking them out of the match in buildup sequences — forcing Laurent Koscielny to ignite attacking moves if Ozil didn’t drop deep — the hosts were deprived of creativity in Palace’s half.
Nonetheless, Arsenal’s best moves of the half involved the Gunners’ key men. First, Ozil located space to receive a pass from Koscielny, before playing a clever one-two with Alexis, and darting into the box to toe poke an effort at Wayne Hennessey. Then, Arsenal’s opener witnessed Welbeck and Elneny’s counter pressing lead to the former dispossessing Mile Jedinak, and quickly clipping a pass behind, Palace left-back, Papa Souare, for Sanchez to beyond the keeper.
Pardew’s initial system limited Arsenal’s threat in the final third, but Sanchez’s opener ensured the away side required change. Bakary Sako replaced Jedinak as Pardew reverted to a 4-2-3-1 with Puncheon playing slightly behind Wickham. Now, Palace retreated into a 4-5-1 out of possession which forced Arsenal to play more crosses into the box, but equally decreased Palace’s threat going forward.
"They [the players] deserve tremendous credit because it's tough to play here," Pardew said. "We had a game-plan that was to start slow and not let them have a fast start, and then build as the game went, and we did.
"I was a bit disappointed to concede the goal just before half-time, but we had not retained the ball well enough. Having said that, we made sure they didn't get into fourth or fifth gear.”
In truth, Palace’s attacking ploy was individualistic throughout, and their collective positioning left Wickham isolated upfront. Two incidents in the opening 10 minutes of the second half resulted in Sako and Wickham dispossessing right-back, Hector Bellerin, and charging forward into Arsenal’s half without support within close proximity. Arsenal, on the other hand, were heavily reliant on Ozil’s crosses into the box, and the German combining with Sanchez, but Hennessey was never truly tested over the final 45 minutes.
“Usually we have a high number of goal chances, but I agree with you today that despite the high level of possession we had, we did not create enough chances,” said Wenger.
“I think we lacked a bit of sharpness on the day and as well we had a bit of free confidence in our head after the result against West Ham where we felt we had absolutely to do a job today. In the end, we did not play with enough pace in the final third.”
Opposed to closing out the game through defensive solidity, and inviting Palace forward to quickly break on the counter, Wenger’s decision to introduce Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey indicated Arsenal sought a second goal. Although Bolasie’s goal stemmed from another hopeless counter-attack via substitute Emmanuel Adebayor’s individual slalom down the left channel, perhaps a more conservative approach would prevent the Palace striker from breaking into Arsenal’s half with relative ease.
At 1-1, Arsenal were now obligated to continue their search for a goal, yet another substitute, Wilfried Zaha, ran from his own box, evading three Arsenal challenges, only to be halted by a last-ditch Gabriel tackle. Frankly, Arsenal’s capitulating in the latter stages of matches have follow this trend over the past 5-10 years, as here, Wenger’s insistence to attain another goal backfired.
More about Ozil, bolasie, Premier League, Barclays Premier League, Alexis Sanchez
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