Post Match Review
Three Things We Learned from Arsenal v Crystal Palace
Arsenal began 2017 in some style, with a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace highlighted by the adjective-defying goal from Olivier Giroud in the 17th minute.
At the culmination of a free-flowing Arsenal move—more on that anon–the French striker, at full speed, stretched his left leg behind himself to connect his heel with Alexis Sanchez’s slightly imperfect cross. The contact was impeccable. The shot rattled the underside of the bar and caromed in.
Alex Iwobi’s header after halftime and a controlled performance overall delivered the result that the Gunners needed to match their top rivals’ wins earlier in the weekend.
Here are three things we learned from the match.
Giroud is more than capable on the counterattack
Artful descriptions of Giroud’s goal abound. Have a look at Arseblog’s account and Barney Ronay’s encomium in The Guardian. Or watch it again here and find your own words of praise.
In addition to the audacity and skill of the goal itself, what stood out to me was how it defied the consensus about Giroud. That he’s an immobile, classic center forward adept only at hold-up play and headed goals.
Here, he scored at the end of a blistering counterattack. The move involved six Arsenal players—Lucas Perez, who tracked back to intercept a Palace pass just outside the Arsenal penalty area, Hector Bellerin, Giroud, Granit Xhaka, Iwobi, Alexis, and Giroud again.
As manager Arsène Wenger put it, “I think it was an exceptional goal because it was at the end of a fantastic collective moment, which is what our game is about.”
Giroud was essential, not just for the final blow, but for the flick near the halfway line. This deft play opened space and lines of vision for his teammates. Then Giroud took off, reaching the Palace area just as Alexis readied his cross. Perhaps Giroud actually got there too quickly: Alexis’s pass went just behind him.
But that was just what Giroud’s genius needed in that moment.
Arsenal’s fullbacks had a fiesta
New Year’s Day was a festive occasion for Arsenal’s Spanish fullbacks. Bellerin and Nacho Monreal were especially effective in attack.
Bellerin was everywhere along Arsenal’s right flank, making 96 touches, third-most on the team behind Xhaka and Alexis. He also completed the second highest number of passes (57) and succeeded on all his attempted dribbles, tackles, and clearances. Bellerin led the Gunners with 14 ball recoveries and put in five crosses (Stats from Arsenal.com and FourFourTwo Stats Zone).
The young Spaniard exercised his defensive responsibilities well, to boot. He nullified the sometimes troublesome winger Wilifred Zaha and coped decently with the aerial threat of Christian Benteke.
Meanwhile, Monreal made a real impact on the left. Returned to the starting lineup, he was frequently dangerous going forward. He participated in the team’s second most frequent passing combination, with Alexis. And his early first-time cross deserved a better finish by either Giroud or Perez.
It was another pass Monreal fizzed across the Palace area that created the chaos that ended with Iwobi’s headed goal.
In all, Sunday’s fullback play was reminiscent of what we saw in the 2015-16 campaign, when the Arsenal pair was tops in the league.
Petr Cech deserved this clean sheet
In relative and absolute terms, Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech was not busy in this match. While his counterpart Wayne Hennessey faced 22 Arsenal shots, seven on target, the Czech veteran had to cope with just seven shots, none before the 37th minute. Four of Palace’s attempts ended up on target.
Three of those came in a sequence soon after Iwobi’s goal. Cech saved a strong Benteke header, then backpedaled to push aside Yohann Cabaye’s effort from distance. The ensuing corner created a disturbance in Arsenal’s area, and Cech had to be ready again for Andros Townsend’s drive to the goalkeeper’s right.
Those three saves and some other commanding interventions were instrumental in Arsenal’s second shutout in as many matches. As were the solid performances of center halves Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel.
The deputies did their duty admirably.
Iwobi was influential in the playmaker role, creating five chances for teammates and completing a game-high 27 passes in the attacking third.
Perez buzzed around Arsenal’s right flank and got himself into some dangerous areas. He was a little imprecise once he reached those positions, but he responded to Gabriel’s criticism of his defensive laxness after the previous game against West Brom. His interception commenced the sequence leading to Giroud’s goal.
And Mohammed Elneny was a steady presence in midfield. The Egyptian worked well with Xhaka—they were the team’s top passing combination—and helped establish the foundation for Arsenal’s attack to thrive.
With the Gunners’ next outing only a day away, such contributions from the squad could prove important.