Football Features

“First Half FC flail again” – Five things learned as 10-man Arsenal are held by Crystal Palace

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 14:44, 11 January 2020

In an even afternoon of football, Crystal Palace held on to draw 1-1 with 10-man Arsenal at Selhurst Park.

The Gunners started well as always, taking the lead with a superb goal. But in classic Arsenal fashion they fell apart in the second half. What did we learn?

1. The Arteta Way

Arsenal’s opening goal was a thing of beauty. The kind of thing that will have Arsenal fans salivating at their potential under Mikel Arteta. It came after a build-up of 19 passes that saw Arsenal recycle possession, calmly probing Palace for a weakness before David Luiz put his foot on the turbo with a sensational line-breaking ball forward to Mesut Ozil.

The German came off the flank and touched the ball to a dropping Alexandre Lacazette, the Frenchman paused a second and allowed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to stream in off the left-flank and curve his run to vertical and attack the space Lacazette himself had vacated. With Aubameyang on the move, Lacazette threaded it through and his strike partner finished superbly.

Whatever else happened in the rest of the game, this goal (and their first-half performance as a whole) was a major validation of the ambition of Mikel Arteta’s project. Arsenal are currently stumbling about in the darkness before the dawn, but this goal was one of the first few splinters of sunlight beginning to penetrate the twilight. Hope is coming.

2. Jordan Ayew is a grown man

Jordan Ayew has always been a player defined by his diminutiveness. Not that he’s short, but he’s the younger brother of a modern day footballing hero and both are in turn the son of an even bigger legend, a genuine icon. So it’s never been easy for Ayew to show that he is a man to be taken seriously in his own right. Even Palace aren’t sure about him, having signed Cenk Tosun to help in attack.

Against Arsenal, Ayew responded. His wonder goal against West Ham was a marvel in its own right but this goal against Arsenal was almost more impressive, given that Crystal Palace were giving him almost no support. There was no wing wizardry from Wilfried Zaha or Andros Townsend, Ayew was essentially on his own and was still the most threatening Palace player (just crying out for some help) in the first-half. He conceded a massive seven fouls against Arsenal because his lack of supply meant all he was doing was battling.

But then, in the second period, when he finally got the ball where he could fashion a half-way decent look at goal? He didn’t hesitate to rattle a shot off. Yes, the deflection was key to it going on, but Ayew deserved that good fortune for his tremendous application.

It’s time to take Jordan Ayew seriously.

3. VAR works!

VAR in the Premier League has often been a frustrating beast. It’s often got things wrong, or simply failed to even get involved despite the obvious reasons for it to do so. The referees don’t even go over to the monitor to check things and add drama! It’s a major disappointment and that was summed up with Crystal Palace displaying anti-VAR banners.

But we finally got an instance of VAR getting involved and making the right call. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s tackle on Max Meyer was absolutely horrific. It obviously wasn’t intentional, Aubameyang did look genuinely devastated at being sent off for the first time in his career, but his tackle was high, reckless and very dangerous. VAR took its sweet time deliberating the decision but in the end intervened and ensured justice was served. Although they still didn’t have Paul Tierney going over to the monitor!

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4. Deja Vu

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored a crucial goal for Arsenal at Selhurst Park. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was sent off for Arsenal at Selhurst Park. These things happened in the same game. In fact it’s the first time that has happened for Arsenal since Mikel Arteta in 2013. Also against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.

Then Arteta scored a penalty to give Arsenal a 1-0 lead, and his red card was for a more cynical “professional foul” instead of an accidental lunge like Aubameyang’s. And also back then the Gunners ended up winning 2-0 rather than conceding an equaliser and holding on for a point. But still, the echoes in incident will provide Arsenal fans with some amusement in these dark and gloomy times (that could continue as Aubameyang is now suspended for three games). Take the joy where you can get it!

5. First Half FC, for now

Under Unai Emery, Arsenal were Second Half FC. The Spaniard would routinely get his line-up and tactics wrong and have to make adjustments, but would frequently do just that and then the Gunners would power their way to a win. Well, under Mikel Arteta that trend is reversed as the Gunners are now First Half FC.

The intensity and focus with which Arsenal play first-halves is commendable and speaks to Arteta’s quality in terms of coaching, tactics and preparation. Only Marcelo Bielsa has out-done him in the first-half and that’s because no one on earth can outdo Bielsa in terms of coaching, tactics and preparation.

So Arsenal start hot, as they did against Palace where they looked so coherent and confident. Then after half-time, things descended into chaos and Palace were much the better side even before Aubameyang’s red.

Now, the reason for Arsenal’s second-half foibles are mostly because Arteta has only been in charge for three weeks and his side have to yet fully adapt to both his tactics and the fitness requirements of his system (they also had to take Lucas Torreira off at half-time because of injury). Their physical exhaustion in the second periods of games will pass, in time, but for now it leaves them as First-Half FC flailing about yet again.