Crystal Palace Match Preview
1st of 4 in London–Can Arsenal win them all?
Obviously, matches must be taken one at a time, but to be a top club and meet the expectations of the modern supporter, just winning them isn’t enough. Points must be taken and they must be taken in a manner that allows fans to feel sufficiently confident about what’s coming down the line. After all, there’s enough anxiety in our lives as it is. It’s an inherently outlandish idea–this is sport after all–but such demands do seem to come with the territory.
As such, these next four matches–all featuring no more than coach travel for the squad, and contested against clubs we feel we should beat–are critical. In this period, which, in terms of playing matches in London also included the previous 4 matches as well, manager Arsene Wenger has a chance to test and tweak all elements of his squad. Winning the matches is necessary, of course, but so too is finding out which players are best suited to the tactical approaches we take into our biggest tests as the season reaches its climax. This means competition for starting positions but also noting combinations (of players) who can react to score-lines and mould their tactical play to our advantage. Before getting into the specifics of the match tomorrow in Croydon, let’s look at the London fixtures and those which lay ahead.
Aston Villa (home league win) 5-nil
Tottenham (away league loss) 1-2
Leicester City (home league win) 2-1
Middlesbrough (home FA Cup win) 2-0
Crystal Palace (away, league)
Monaco (home, CL)
Everton (home, league)
Queens Park Rangers (away, league)
Manchester United (away, FA cup)
West Ham (home, league)
Monaco (away, CL)
Newcastle (away, league)
It should be noted the games are coming thick and fast and these next eight will conclude (with an International break) on March 21–exactly 4 short weeks from tomorrow. Fasten your seatbelts. Right there in the middle is the big FA Cup quarterfinal showdown with Manchester United at Old Trafford. We can play for a draw and a home replay in that one, but we’ll be happier with such a result only if we’re confident we can complete the job in London. Our form leading into it, and the result up there, will be absolutely massive as the fixture list toughens.
Looked at in this manner the pressure on the team is too much. So, to quote a wise, old (well not so old) Dutch blog owner, “O-GAAT,” meaning, I think, “Please Lord” in his native tongue. Of course, it’s also an acronym for One Game at a Time, which is exactly how they must be played.
Tomorrow at Crystal Palace, home of the bird (the eagle) and the birds–the American Football styled cheerleaders who greet the players as they take the pitch–Arsenal will face their first hurdle. Since taking over as manager, Alan Pardew’s team has only lost one in eight matches. And, while Arsenal have taken nine points from nine since Palace came up a year and a half ago, it would be foolish to underestimate the challenge. We should also remember that Palace almost stole two points on our ground in the opening match of the season. An early set piece goal from Brede Hangeland was matched by one from Laurent Koscielny, but only an injury time winner from Aaron Ramsey prevented a real disappointment.
Palace will not be a pushover. If they were, they’d surely be lower in the table considering all they have endured this season. In the lead-up to our opening day match they were abandoned by manager Tony Pulis, who wanted a better contract after his manager-of-the-year winning work the previous season. This was followed by a period of uncertainty before Neil Warnock managed for a stint of less than twenty matches, and now the Pardew takeover. All told it’s amazing that the club has managed to avoid looking a favourite for the drop, and they have a resiliency which must be respected.
They also have some good players, including a very solid spine in the team. Keeper Julian Speroni can both command his area well for a smaller keeper and come up with impressive saves. Center backs Hangeland and Scott Dann are seasoned veterans in the league and deeper lying mids, James MacArthur and Mile Jedinak, if passed fit, are fighters with solid technique. The latter, whose leadership has helped his mates through this turbulent season, can curl a mean free kick, so Arsenal defenders will have to beware of giving away cheap fouls in bad positions. In attack, we all know Maroune Chamakh’s frustrating (but relentless and sometimes successful) approach to his craft as well as the pace in guys like Dwight Gayle, Frasier Campbell and Wilfried Zaha. Yannick Bollasie and Jason Puncheon bring both power and trickery and should not be overlooked as attacking threats.
Pardew (to be aided by his captain, Jedinak, just back from Asian Cup duties with Austrailia) has the group working together; so, assuming this will be a simple trip across the river to collect three points and an exhibition of our more pricey talent, would be foolish in the extreme. Instead Arsenal have to build upon the good work done last Sunday in advancing to the quarter finals of the FA Cup. In that one, sublime spacing and build-up play amongst attacking midfielders Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Alexi Sanchez showed Arsenal at its very best. Free interchanging all over the pitch with each other and line-leaders Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck–while also utilizing our very attack minded fullbacks, Calum Chambers and Kieran Gibbs–worked a real treat. Even though the score-line was modest and came in bang-bang fashion, Arsenal were able to keep Championship leaders Middlesbrough pinned in their own half and hanging on for dear life. It didn’t hurt that Mathieu Flamini, Laurent Kolscielny and debutante Gabriel Paulista were also working very hard to anticipate clearances and keep the pressure at very high levels. If not for great work from the Boro keeper and CBs to cut out and force more difficult chances in and near their 6 yard box, the score-line could’ve been far more flattering.
Noting that the starting group vs Boro included 7 changes to the squad which took the pitch vs Leicester, it was enough to suggest that competition for places seems to be keeping our players at their best up and down the line-up. So, despite the excellent display, I would expect a few changes from that line-up – especially at the back, where the first group seems far from set. Although Wojchiek Szcznesy was hardly troubled in keeping a clean sheet in the cup match, I would expect David Ospina to come back into the team. Per Mertesacker will also likely take back the arm-band and Nacho Monreal will most likely replace Gibbs at left back. Hector Bellerin faces a late fitness test so Calum Chambers may retain his place. Laurent Koscielny probably slides to the left side of central defence and may be the only other rearguard player to keep a starting spot.
Flamini, who likely would’ve been back on the bench in favour of Francis Coquelin, is reported to be struggling with a hamstring injury, but Jack Wilshere seems fully recovered from his longer term ankle problem and will likely feature. Suggestions are that it still might be too early for him to start a match. With all the rotation at the back, I think, especially on the strength of the display last Sunday, that the manager may not want to rotate much, if at all, amongst the attackers.
Here then is my best guess at our starting line-up.
(Subs: Szczesny, Gabriel, Gibbs, Wilshere, Rosicky, Walcott, Akpom)
In my opinion the squad is looking very strong and very, very deep. We still have players out injured, but only Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Debuchy are long term. Just getting into the first 18 would seem a real task for guys like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey who are back in training or not far from it. From a style and dominance perspective, the most recent match seemed a very positive advancement. It’s all about production, however, and Gooners will not tolerate the slightest hiccup. On this site, for example, that 2 nil result was seen as a very modest score-line by some, and only two players were singled out for genuine praise in a mid-week post. Hanging on for a 2-1 victory over Leicester City in our previous league match was widely considered abject. The less said about losing (after taking an early lead) in the most recent North London derby, the better.
Given this atmosphere I sometimes wonder if squad depth isn’t a bit of a double edged sword. Obviously, we need it if we wish to compete on multiple fronts, but expectations–amongst supporters at least–seem so high that when score-lines are not lopsided or any frailty is shown, managerial choices are scrutinized at a level that would please a laboratory scientist. Amongst Gooners–all of whom are would-be managers–there is no such thing as bad luck and fault can always be found. (On that note, the referee for this match is Mark Clattenburg, one of the better ones, in my opinion, but he’s working on only minimal rest after a midweek Champions League match. Strange call might play a role…) Excuses are not tolerated and 2nd chances are few and far between. Here in the Goonersphere, players are measured not only on recent performances and results but against legends from previous decades and names from around the world who we might buy as replacements. Others maintain a hair-trigger on a metaphorical weapon aimed at the manager’s head. Suggestions abound for players on the bench, or not even available in the squad, who are seen as superior options to any player who has done less than impeccable work on the pitch.
That’s the reality at any “big club,” I guess, but it works against building a sense of trust amongst players–the 11 on the pitch at any one time and the (proverbial) 12th man on the terraces. If any mistake will be punished–by our own supporters, no less–a very brittle confidence must be a consequence. This is the dreaded hand-brake Wenger talks about. Fear of mistakes inhibits our best play.
With his “little knocks” and keeping players “just short,” the manager clearly tries to keep the squad insulated from this atmosphere and collective confidence, we would hope, is high after the previous match. If circumstances were to cause that confidence to wane, however, a small tremor of anxiety might be enough to set off an avalanche of negativity, hence my belief that tomorrow’s match is for far more than the 3 points on offer. These matches in London have the potential to lift us up a level and prepare us for tougher travels yet to come.
Still, it only takes the slightest of missteps to sow the seeds of doubt; Crystal Palace tomorrow thus takes on added significance. Go on…