A week of ‘R n R’ in Spain this past seven days and having also decided that the international break was an opportunity to step away from the blog in the mornings, I find myself rejuvenated and excited for what feels like ‘Part III’ of Arsenal’s season. In Part I we experienced the lows, the memes, the repeated jokes about Arsenal with zero points and zero goals. Part II was the ‘redemption’ section in which the team laboured, but ultimately succeeded, in bringing back what felt like more of a balanced side. Now, with the ending of this match week for all other sides except Arsenal and Crystal Palace, Part III begins and tonight we see if this section of the season is one to kick start Mikel Arteta’s side. It needs to be.
It really does though, doesn’t it? Because if this manager is to ever have a successful career at The Arsenal it feels like it needs to happen now. His players are in, they’ve been together for a number of weeks, they’ve experienced the joys of when it ‘clicks’ and have stuttered like the Brighton game last time out. If at the beginning of Part II the narrative was “your team now, no excuses”, this chapter needs to be “time to kick on, no more excuses”. Is that harsh? I don’t think so. Arteta knows that at a club like Arsenal you can only sell a ‘Project’ with results and games like this evening’s against Crystal Palace simply have to be those that have three points for The Arsenal attached to them come 10pm.
Of course there is the added spice of the Patrick Vieira factor this evening and of course the media were weaving that in to every corner of their column inches over these last few days. But when the dust has settled on the preamble ahead of the game this is Arsenal v Crystal Palace, not Arteta v Vieira. Those Arsenal players are at home, they have a home crowd behind them who have been behind a team more than I have seen in many a year, they simply must deliver tonight.
It won’t be easy though. Vieira has them playing better football and as the chap who Andrew from the Arsecast said this last episode just gone by, they have been unlucky in some of the situations that have led to draws and perhaps some of the results on paper bely the fact that there is a resolution about this much changed Palace side. They will come tonight looking to play a more aggressive and high-tempo brand of football and Arteta and his army of coaching staff need to be ready for that. They need to be prepared for other obstacles that aren’t simply just Zaha on the counter. Palace like to have a little more possession these days and so we need to be prepared to see them want to keep the ball a little more and playing out from the back, building from their central defenders. To me that means our set up needs to involve a more high intensity, front-footed press, with the likes of Odegaard, Smith Rowe and Saka all involved. We need to force turnovers higher up the pitch and isolate their attacking players. If we can do that and stifle them when playing their football from deep, then we could have some joy.
Arteta has a relatively fully fit side to call upon it seems, so the real question I think most of us will be pondering is whether he adopts a 4-2-3-1 system with Sambi Lokonga replacing the injured Xhaka (like at Brighton), or whether he is a little more aggressive in his line up by deploying a 4-3-3 with Pepe coming in and Odegaard dropping in to the midfield along with Smith Rowe as the two number eight’s with Partey sitting a little deeper. To me the latter feels a little more exciting as it crams an extra attacking player in to the team, but I’m not sure if it’s the right way to go from tonight’s opponents. My main thinking here is Odegaard. If he sits a little deeper as a number eight in a 4-3-3, then he’s not going to be pressing high like he did against the likes of Spurs or Norwich, is he? There will be three players ahead of him detailed to do that in Pepe, Saka and Aubameyang and to my mind nobody so far has shown the same levels of intensity in an attacking press as Odegaard. So why not lean in to that if Palace are going to want to play out from the back? If we play Odegaard in the middle, Saka wide right and Smith Rowe wide left we have a three that can press spaces higher up the pitch and leave Aubameyang also free to position himself in case we win the ball higher and catch Palace on the back foot with a turnover in their own half.
To me the 4-3-3 works well when you have teams that are going to sit deep and defend their own box. Roy Hodgson’s Palace would have been perfect for that. But I’m not sure Patrick Vieira’s Palace will be.
I’m also nervous because they seem to have had the drop on us in recent years, even at the Emirates. We haven’t beaten Palace on our own turf in three years! Last season was a 0-0 bore draw in which we really should have beaten them. The season before that was the Mustafi meltdown game in which we lost and the season before that was when we were shafted by VAR having had a perfectly good goal ruled out to snatch the winner. In fact in both home and away games we’ve only managed to pick up one win in our last six games. That’s mental when you think of Crystal Palace over the years and how we’ve tended to always be able to overcome them. But this is a different time; games are closer and Premier League opposition is better, whereas we still fail to show any kind of consistency. I won’t be going in to tonight’s game under any illusion that three points is a given. We will need to be good tonight to get them. I hope we are.
Catch you all tomorrow for a post match de-brief.
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