Arsenal saw their hopes of finishing in the top four take a huge dent on Monday after their defeat to Crystal Palace, and the performance highlighted several weaknesses in Mikel Arteta’s squad
After watching his Arsenal side eat a slice of humble pie with a 3-0 defeat by Crystal Palace, Mikel Arteta was left to carry the burden of another “unacceptable” display. But the reality is this result is something the Spaniard may have seen coming months ago.
The Gunners had recorded six wins in their last seven Premier League matches and looked a safe bet to go on and secure a top-four finish ahead of Tottenham and Manchester United. Win this game and they were three points ahead of the former and six clear of the latter with a game in hand. Certainly, they had enough to carve out a favourable result at Selhurst Park.
But quite simply, they never got going. The north London side were made to feel uncomfortable by Patrick Vieira’s men, with Conor Gallagher and Wilfried Zaha using their energy to become pressing menaces. And when Palace had their chances to score, they took them with precision as Jean-Philippe Mateta, Jordan Ayew and Zaha sealed a convincing victory.
Arteta had no answer or excuse for their morale-damaging defeat and labelled the performance “unacceptable”. But his assessment of where they lost the game proved to be the most interesting remark: “We discussed it just before kick-off, the way you win here is when you compete the way you should,” he said.
“That means you win duels, have presence and the composure on the pitch to manage certain situations. They are a really physical team and the pitch is not the best to do that, so you have to find a way to do other things that usually you don’t have to do. We didn’t manage to do that.”
Two of his defenders who are key to implementing that physicality, Kieran Tierney and Takehiro Tomiyasu, were both injured. It has since been revealed that Scottish defender Tierney requires surgery on his knee, which could rule him out for the rest of the season, while Tomiyasu is out of their next two games. And without adequate squad depth in defence, Arsenal’s hopes of securing Champions League qualification are in jeopardy.
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It was well-documented that Arsenal would need to sign a striker to prepare for the eventuality of Alexandre Lacazette and possibly Eddie Nketiah leaving on free transfers, after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang tore up his contract. But they missed out on Dusan Vlahovic and Alexander Isak in January, leaving Arteta woefully short up front.
However, an even more pressing issue was staring them right in the face — and they failed to see it. Allowing Calum Chambers to join Aston Villa left Arteta with only Cedric and Nuno Tavares to provide back-up to Tomiyasu and Tierney. While Cedric has generally proved to be an adequate deputy, questions linger over the suitability of Tavares.
A speed merchant with a raw ability, the 22-year-old has a tendency to make high-profile blunders, as demonstrated by his part in the second Palace goal. The Portuguese full-back was given a torrid time by Jordan Ayew, forcing Arteta to hook him at the interval. While he was signed with the future in mind, what good is Tavares to Arsenal if he cannot step up when needed to now?
Their failure to strengthen in the winter transfer window has been undermined by Tottenham’s seismic improvement since deadline day. Antonio Conte brought in Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur from Juventus and the pair have been undroppable for Spurs ever since, and they are now ahead of Arsenal on goal difference after thrashing Newcastle 5-1.
On the red side of north London, the same problem that has dogged Arsenal for years has reared its ugly head again. While they splashed out £150m on six new signings, that alone was not enough to turn them into top-four contenders. Arteta was reportedly keen on signing Matty Cash and Djed Spence in January, but neither deal transpired.
Now, with nine games left in the season, it will be down to him to get by with the players at his disposal. Their next two fixtures against Brighton and Southampton now hold much greater importance, with tough fixtures against Chelsea and Tottenham to come. And if Arsenal are unable to finish off what they started, there will be regrets about ignoring the warning signs back in January.