After a “2006 lasagna-esque” experience earlier in the week ruled me out of contention for the Southampton article I’m back with my thoughts on Sunday’s visit of reinvigorated South-West London strugglers, Crystal Palace. That day which I refer to, famous for Tottenham’s demise at the saucy hands of some dodgy pasta, we bid farewell to Highbury and Spurs said goodbye to 4th position and a place in the Champions League. That day also marked a send-off to the team as they prepared for an unsuccessful date with destiny in Paris.
A lot has changed since then; the new stadium has brought in huge commercial gains for the club, something which we’ve continued to build on with the recent Puma deal. We’re reaching a point where any success should be financially sustainable and so now is the time to begin a new spell of dominance at Arsenal.
Premier League titles and Champions League finals with more positive outcomes than from that night in Paris are on the horizon should today’s Arsenal side fulfill the potential that Wenger sees in them. Though, questions have been raised of the squad’s ability by many who see this January transfer window as a failure and another example of Wenger missing an opportunity to take that next step. However, if the team can navigate February’s fixtures favorably then things will suddenly be looking very hopeful again.
Palace arrive under the guidance of a man unpopular among Arsenal supporters, Tony Pulis. More importantly though, the visitors are a much improved outfit with Pulis at the helm and present more of an obstacle than they otherwise might have under former boss Ian Holloway.
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Crystal Palace have only conceded 10 goals in the 11 Premier League games that Pulis has been in charge. Previously they had conceded 21 in 12. Additionally, they’ve scored 9 goals in these 11 games compared to only 6 in 12 previous to Tony Pulis’ arrival. Palace have won all 5 games under Pulis in which they’ve scored first, showing that they are very good at protecting leads. A win should be expected of Arsenal but if we let them go in front then it’s going to be an unnecessarily long and frustrating afternoon.
Arsenal’s record against Pulis’ Stoke was largely poor away from home with the Welshman only tasting defeat once against Wenger’s Arsenal at the Britannia. On the other five occasions Stoke managed 3 victories over Arsenal and two draws in all competitions. At the Emirates though it has been a different story; Arsenal have triumphed in all five of the opposition manager’s trips to the Emirates.
What of the Palace fans? In the short term, Pulis is an efficient manager who can get the most out of players as far as effort at the very least. However following the previous managerial appointments of Dougie Freedman and Ian Holloway, the choice of Pulis is an indication that Palace may well be sacrificing an ambition they had of an offensively dynamic playing style for Premier League survival.
It would be interesting to hear the thoughts of Palace supporters on the matter if not only to see where their allegiances lie when it comes to aesthetic appeal versus (relative) Premier League success. My thoughts would be that their fans are more willing to concede style in place of substance than ours. Obviously, our targets are different and as such come along with higher expectations. Nevertheless, Arsenal fans shouldn’t forget just how good some of the football we play is and furthermore that we wouldn’t be the same great club if we played the occasion like other teams, and not our own game, something the manager encourages the players to do.
Having said that, Pulis himself does seem to be adapting. He’s a manager that plays to his team’s strengths and Palace and Stoke have different resources. New signings such as the industrious Joe Ledley from Celtic and the talented but unproven Tom Ince on loan from Blackpool suggest that Pulis isn’t attempting to build another Stoke City. And that may come as a relief for some Arsenal fans.
As far as individual threats go, the Eagles will be hoping that leading scorer Marouane Chamakh, with 4 goals in the Premier League so far this season, can prove a point against his former employers. The Moroccan forward has shown himself to be a useful part of Palace’s team and is the exact type of player that Pulis will trust with spearheading their survival push. Whereas his exertions paid off during the early stages of his Arsenal career the goals dried up and Chamakh soon fell out of favor at the Emirates. He’ll keep plugging away for Crystal Palace though and if he takes his chances he’ll score a few more goals between now and the end of the season.
Room for improvement
A tense enough 2-0 victory earlier in the campaign at Selhurst Park saw Arsenal score through a penalty midway into the first half but then fail to capitalize on this breakthrough. As has happened far too often in the past and is still occasionally an issue for the current side, the players took their foot off the gas after going ahead and instead of killing the game off allowed the opposition to regain a foothold in proceedings. After losing the goalscorer Arteta to a disputed last-man foul the team rallied to hang on and even add a second from a move in which a very much in form Aaron Ramsey fed Olivier Giroud to nod home and seal the victory.
With Palace’s recent improvement in defence and the addition of Scott Dann to their back line, once a reported transfer target of Mr. Wenger, Arsenal should avoid being wasteful in front of goal on Sunday at all costs. The players keeping cool heads and converting chances to goals will be vital in ensuring that we return to the table’s summit before Chelsea and Manchester City meet on Monday night. After an uncharacteristically weak defensive performance against Southampton, it would be especially nice if the team could keep a clean sheet to go along with three points.
There’s some much needed bouncing back to do from Tuesday’s draw at St. Mary’s, a performance in which the team lacked energy and passion for the majority of the game. We managed to turn it around in a very impressive 5 minute spell shortly after the break but then switched off again to relinquish the lead. Given the overall performance and Flamini’s idiotic dismissal a point was a decent result at the final whistle.
Limited dealings in the transfer window mean that there isn’t too much to analyse in the way of arrivals. More can be speculated upon and postulated about the deals that didn’t happen but only so much can be said of any real meaning. A Draxler deal sounded close for a while and may well be something that could still materialize in the summer but even that wouldn’t have met the squad’s need for a proven goalscorer to shoulder some of Giroud’s burden. If things hadn’t clicked instantly for Draxler it wouldn’t have been long before Wenger’s penchant for signing younger players came under attack by unsatisfied fans.
As it is, the window saw no significant departures from the club and the addition of experienced Swedish midfielder Kim Källström on loan from Spartak Moscow. Having showcased his talents at Rennes, Källström moved on to French giants Lyon and won 6 medals to add to the 3 from his earlier playing days in Sweden. He’s a left footed playmaker and set piece specialist and rather than providing something drastically new to the team should settle in quickly to the Arsenal midfield and carry out his manager’s orders capably.
An injury aggravated in his first training session with the club however will delay his debut until after this upcoming tough period. This will come as a disappointment to Wenger whose move for Källström was likely incentivised by the knowledge that he will already be without the suspended Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey who will now be out for a further six weeks or so.
With Wilshere also unfit for Sunday’s visit of Palace we’re likely to play a midfield two of Arteta and Chamberlain with Gnabry wide. Or, Wenger will make a decision between The Ox and Gnabry on the right and partner Arteta with Rosicky who returns to the squad after being an unused sub against Fulham and missing out altogether on Coventry and Southampton since breaking his nose 3 weeks ago. The only other notable change to the side may see Gibbs in for Monreal who despite being fouled for Southampton’s opener didn’t have his best game for the club.
Without new blood, players whose potential has so far outshone their actual performances like Chamberlain will have to step up. The likes of Özil and Podolski when called upon must perform more consistently and until they do Cazorla will have to take a lot of responsibility for our attacking efforts. More than ever the team owes it to the manager, the fans and themselves to come together and carry each other to victories in the many remaining games.
Heading into a succession of difficult games let’s hope that the team can do what’s expected of them and get a victory this Sunday. My old headmaster once advised me and my peers to make sure that we got the low hanging fruit in allusion to exams and picking up the easy points. Now he wasn’t a football man but I feel his message still prevails. Palace at home is low hanging fruit. Let’s pick the 3 points up off the ground and prepare for the much greater heights that we’ll have to scale for wins in our upcoming fixtures.