Knowing you knowing me Zaha
Crystal Palace 2-2 Arsenal
The Sunday lunchtime K.O. saw Arsenal take on Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on the back of an eleven match winning streak, and looking confident for number twelve. After a good win in Europe midweek, all eyes were on what Unai Emery would do in terms of formation and selection - but second-guessing this coach is becoming akin to a trip to the Bingo hall.
The team news when it arrived saw Cech return to the bench, Aubameyang awarded a start after goals in previous matches, and the great 'Xhaka left back' experiment continuing. Now for me, the thought of our Granit lining up against either Zaha or Townsend and being made to look like Swiss cheese, made my stomach turn!
For some he can do a job - and yes he coped against Leicester and again in Europe against Sporting Lisbon; but Palace away? With the way Zaha seeks out full backs to run at and fall over behind? And with Granit's lack of pace and tendency to foul, surely this would be one experiment too far?!
Arsenal: Leno, Bellerin, Mustafi, Holding, Xhaka, Guendouzi, Torreira, Ozil, Iwobi, Aubameyang, Lacazette
I spent the first 10 minutes of this match reminiscing about the days of inflatables. Started by Manchester City with bananas there was a faze during the nineties when fans would bring inflatable toys to matches, and one particular match at Highbury sticks in my mind.
4-1 in 1991- but all I can remember from that day was the sight of an inflatable sex doll being chucked around the Clock End whilst the away end sang out "Eagles, Eagles". The North Bank responding with "Cheese Rolls, Cheese Rolls". Oh the japes! Would never happen these days!
You can tell by my segway that the start of this match was hardly a 'watcher'. Arsenal again with plenty of possession but without really threatening, Palace busily trying to force errors with some success, whilst the commentator on Sky did his best to inject some sense of drama with this classic on 12 mins...
"It's a team that can't score at home against a team that scores more than any other away from home....."
Whether that message got through to anyone on the pitch I don't know, but something seemed to spur Palace on. Townsend's first go at Xhaka saw a ball whipped across without much defending and Zaha hitting post, followed a few minutes later with Arsenal being caught trying to play the ball out, and Townsend this time fluffing his lines pulling his shot wide when he should have scored. The crowd were suddenly up for it, and the omens didn't look good.
At the other end Lacazette missed a good chance on 21 mins after a mistake forced by Iwobi; the Frenchman had time on his hands but snatched at the shot on the stretch. Then a couple of minutes later Bellerin combined with Lacazette, but took too long to get his shot away and was blocked. Chances at both ends - but Arsenal again were looking particularly vulnerable and pensive, like they were just trying to get to the break to find out from Unai what they had to do to win this match. Sadly they didn't make it!
On 44 minutes a corner conceded by Holding when he could have cleared for a throw-in, was whipped in. Leno seemed to be fouled as he attempted a punch, and the ball fell to Kouyate. Quite why Mustafi felt the need to dive in and go to ground is anyone's guess. It's a trait he has, and I thought it had gone from his game. A stonewall penalty and duly despatched by Milivojevic. 1-0 to Palace and a stupid bit of defending by Mustafi.
Much to do at half-time for Emery.
The change Unai made at the break was a forced one - Bellerin off and Lichtsteiner on; not a change to give hope to most Arsenal fans as it weakens the side, and a change brought about by injury to Hector. (Hopefully not too serious).
Could Arsenal do an Arsenal and turn this game around in the second half like so many others this season?
Well, so it would seem on 50 minutes. After Iwobi lost possession near the corner flag, Palace, egged on by their fans (Ole's FFS), tried to play the ball out of the defence. A loose ball was pounced on by Torriera, who just reads that kind of stuff and was predictably put to the floor by a foul. This left a free kick right on the corner of the Palace box, Xhaka standing over it.
BOOM, 1-1, a top corner blaster from Master Granit, nothing stopping that one.
One became two minutes later as Xhaka then turned provider, this time from a corner. A slight bit of controversy with this goal as the ball seemed to come off the hand of Lacazette when it came across (assist for Fantasy Football please), and Aubameyang forced it over the line at the back post - 9mm over in fact, according to goal line technology. Thankfully that other bit of technology, VAR, isn't quite in play yet, otherwise that one might have been chalked off!
The goal didn't hamper the home side too much - in fact the controversy surrounding it seemed to spark Crystal Palace into life. Most of the rest of the match saw Arsenal play on the break as Palace haunted down the equaliser. Ozil was hooked on 67 minutes and showed his anger, spurning the chance of a 'high five' with Emery and chucking his gloves to the floor. A bad game for Mesut, and one that adds fuel to the debate over his talent and consistency. It's a team game, and Emery was looking to go 4-4-2, not a time to throw you toys out.
So Welbeck on and then Ramsey on 77 minutes, replacing Aubameyang. As Palace became more desperate and the crowd more tense, the Arsenal defending became more erratic, with Lichtsteiner finally getting booked on 78 mins after yet another foul on Zaha. The threat of Zaha v Xhaka, which most Arsenal fans feared before the game, finally bit where it hurts a few minutes later. An Arsenal attack was wasted by Lacazette with a poor pass into midfield and the ball found itself at the feet of the Palace winger. Finally faced with a chance to run at the Swiss International, Zaha did a couple of step overs, and one Granit lunge later the ref was pointing to the spot.
Was it a penalty? God no, total dive!
Was Xhaka stupid and naive to get done like that? If you play a guy that openly confesses he can't tackle and has no pace at left back against Zaha, thems the breaks!
Milivojevic made no mistake from the spot, 2-2.
Xhaka had a chance to redeem himself with a free kick late on, but put it well over from quite far out, and that was that. A scrappy dogfight in South London and the run comes to an end. Before the match my fear was the left back area, and ultimately it was that area that cost Arsenal in the end. You can complain about the dive, but then there's that handball for Arsenal's second, a draw just about a fair result.
Positives: Torreira anticipating everything and not losing this match.
Negatives: Yet another first half display that irks!
Leno: No chance with either penalty, needs to learn to catch rather than punch. 6/10
Bellerin: Did ok for 45 minutes. 6/10
Mustafi: Stop it! Poor challenge for the penalty. 4/10
Holding: The better of the central defenders, would like to see him alongside Sokratis. 7/10
Xhaka: Mixed bag, rarely got forward with Auba, great goal but got done for the pen. 5/10
Guendouzi: Got bullied, but I think it was a positive display despite losing the ball a bit. 6/10
Torreira: Anticipated everything, got stuck in and looked to play in the forwards. MOM 7/10
Ozil: Who? 3/10
Iwobi: Not a lot came off for Alex, but he's trier. 6/10
Aubameyang: Got a goal but quiet, not helped by a rookie left back. 6/10
Lacazette: Ran around a lot and should have scored in the first half. 5/10
Lichtstenier: Brought a bit of beastliness to the backline and got booked. 6/10
Welbeck: Tried to lift the team. 7/10
Ramsey: One missed header could have changed things. 6/10
Next up it's Blackpool in the Cowabunga Cup, followed by a nightmare on Elm Street. Arsenal v Liverpool on Saturday evening. A considerable improvement needed to avoid a proper walloping!