Premier League 2019/20: Arsenal vs Crystal Palace – tactical analysis
Crystal Palace visited the Emirates with the intention of repeating the same feat as they did back in April i.e. come home with all three points against Arsenal. Crystal Palace failed to claim all three points but troubled the fellow Londoners with all sort of problems. The Eagles were lucky to end the game with a draw. Sokratis Papastathopoulos’s decider was ruled out by VAR and thus helped the Eagles to add merry to the bright start they had this season. Crystal Palace sits comfortably at sixth just one point behind Arsenal in the Premier League table after the game.
Unai Emery tinkered with the formation as Alexandre Lacazette started the game after eight weeks due to injury. Emery started with 4-4-2 and Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were tasked with the duty to wreak havoc in the opponent’s defence. Keiran Tierney made his first start in Premier League for Arsenal as Emery tried to maintain the workload of both his left-backs. His debut in the PL seemed to have been perfect until the Eagles had other intentions. He worked hard, running up and down throughout the game and almost producing an assist from one of his dangerous crosses. Others were the usual suspects manning their usual positions.
Roy Hodgson started the game with his usual 4-1-4-1 formation and almost usual suspects. Andros Townsend was given the starting berth instead of Jeffrey Schlupp which prompted Wilfried Zaha to switch his flank from the previous game and start on the left. Jordan Ayew led the attack and produced a brilliant performance and equalizer for Crystal Palace. The midfield trio of James McArthur, Luka Milivojević and Cheikhou Kouyaté seem to have cemented their place under Roy Hodgson. Martin Kelly wasn’t fit enough to topple James Tomkins from the starting XI. Thus, the same suspects against Manchester City were tasked with producing stellar performances to keep Arsenal attackers at bay.
Arsenal have had a fair share of difficulties in playing out from the back this season. In recent weeks Xhaka was seen dropping down to give an extra option in successfully playing out from the back. This reduced their habit of being in a state of quandary more often but against Crystal Palace, they went back to their previous way of playing out from the back.
Crystal Palace hardly pressed the Arsenal defence and midfield which prompted Granit Xhaka to maintain a double pivot with Mattéo Guendouzi. Xhaka did not have to fall back to form a three man channel in the defence to carry on with the build-up since there was hardly any press from the opponent attackers. Crystal Palace allowed 33 passes per defensive action (PPDA) in the first 30 minutes which conveyed Hodgson’s tactics to sit back and hit Arsenal with a counter-attack.
Emery also tried to unsettle the Crystal Palace defence by instructing Lacazette to fall back to receive the ball. One such occasion saw Lacazette falling back and drawing out Cahill to disrupt the Eagles defence. When Lacazette fell back, Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé acted as the forward and ran the channel that’s been disrupted by Lacazette’s movement.
Crystal Palace sat deep and maintained their shape during Arsenal’s build-up. The Eagles had Jordan Ayew to do all the running in front and the midfield five saw that Arsenal were not able to break the Crystal Palace defence with key passes and smart passes. They let the Arsenal defenders and midfielders play within themselves and blocked the passing lanes into the final third especially in the middle region.
During an attack, Crystal Palace moved their midfielders higher up to overload the wings.
Kouyaté moved to the right-wing in order to let Townsend invert and Ward move higher up. Kouyaté formed a triangle with the right-winger and full-back throughout and tried to overload the wings and cause problems through the flanks.
This picture clearly depicts the idea of Hodgson overloading the wings with his midfielders. McArthur moved up and attacked the left channel to support Zaha and Patrick van Aanholt to unsettle the Arsenal defence. Guendouzi watching McArthur run the left channel focussed on marking him and left van Aanholt open for Zaha to make a simple back pass (which did not happen).
The second goal for the Eagles came from the combination of van Aanholt, Zaha and McArthur. It started with a Pépé turnover. James Tomkins passed the ball to van Aanholt. He made a forward pass to Zaha who in turn slid a pass to McArthur who made space for himself and ran the left channel. He was not marked closely and his cross was met by Ayew to give Crystal Palace the equalizer.
Crystal Palace also defended the wings in the defensive third by overloading it with the same set of midfielders. Patrik van Aanholt marked Pépé, Calum Chambers loses Zaha and makes a forward run but he is well marked by McArthur who shifts to the right-wing to block any pass to Chambers.
Crystal Palace’s ‘corners’ muddle
Crystal Palace struggled mostly through corners against Arsenal. Pépé’s delivery from corners was tremendous throughout the game. He put the ball constantly in the ‘golden zone’ i.e. near post area. It meant any flick or a slight touch on the way by an Arsenal player could disrupt Crystal Palace’s man-marking strategy.
Pépé used the concept of in-swingers which was brought to light by Manchester City analysts during 2011-12 which saw their change in fortune from corners during that season amalgamated with attacking the ‘golden zone’. Both the goals came from Pépé’s in-swingers from the right.
The second goal clearly depicts Crystal Palace’s man-marking strategy. Cameron Meighan analysed beautifully the problems behind the man-marking strategy in the October issue of Total Football Analysis Magazine. Crystal Palace seemed to get everything wrong that he pointed out.
Tomkins took the task of marking Sokratis, Ward kept tabs on Aubameyang, Ayew tussled with Calum Chambers and Cahill followed David Luiz’s run. It was attacking the ‘golden zone’ which did the trick for Arsenal.
McArthur was given the task of marking Lacazette. Lacazette used his physical stature to his advantage. He tussled with McArthur and forced him to lose sight of the ball for a second. His deft touch helped the ball to fall on Luiz’s path who bundled it past the goalkeeper. James Tomkins – who is ‘marking’ Luiz – reaction after the goal says it all. Cahill misjudged the flight of the ball and went to attack the ball rather than marking Luiz which cost Crystal Palace the goal.
The first goal was also of the similar fashion where Wayne Hennessey coming out from the goalpost to punch the ball disrupted the man-marking. Sokratis moved away from the shackles of his marker and scored the opener for Arsenal.
Tactics after Saka’s introduction
Roy Hodgson tinkered with his defensive setup. He went more defensive from his already defensive approach after Saka was substituted on by Emery. Saka’s position was little different from his usual position out wide on the left-wing. He occupied more of a central area against Crystal Palace.
Townsend fell back during Arsenal’s attack to neutralise the effect of Saka. When Saka positioned himself in the Arsenal box Ward marks him and Townsend goes wide to neutralise the effect of Arsenal’s left-back. Townsend continuously shifted from 5-4-1 during defence to 4-5-1 during attack.
Tierney, Chambers and later on the subbed in Kolašinac in place of Tierney moved up and most of the times positioned them in their final third. With Saka, Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pépé already lurking around the box, there were too many players forward. It meant Ceballos and Guendouzi had to carry the ball from their own half and play the killer pass which they failed to do.
Against Sheffield United, Emery tried to influence such situation by bringing on Gabriel Martinelli and Lacazette. Sheffield did not concede but faced two occasions where Arsenal could have scored using their full-backs and by overloading the box. Hodgson clearly read the game well and completely negated Kolašinac’s effect with Townsend.
Arsenal’s woes seem to increase every passing game-week. Poor results along with disappointed fans aren’t helping Emery. Emery’s tactics look stagnant and are easily read by the opponents. Poor defending and the star signing, Pépé’s goal drought from open play isn’t helping Emery’s cause either. Emery must look for alternatives to influence the game. He has enough firepower at his disposal in front of the goal to affect the results. Arsenal is finding difficulty in opening up free space in the final third and providing key passes which Mesut Özil does it brilliantly.
Crystal Palace continues their dream start to the season. They now sit just one point behind Arsenal in the sixth place. Hodgson’s defensive approach didn’t work against Manchester City but it seemed to have done the trick against Arsenal.