LONDON — Three quick thoughts from Crystal Palace’s 3-0 Premier League win over Arsenal on Monday at Selhurst Park.
1. Palace embarrass aimless Arsenal
The travelling Arsenal fans didn’t seem certain who was to blame. At various points they chanted their frustration toward manager Arsene Wenger, and then at the players. Perhaps manager and players alike deserve to have the finger pointed at them, but whoever is responsible for this latest embarrassment, a 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace in which a vertebrae-deficient Arsenal were ruthlessly dispatched, it doesn’t bode well for their chances of salvaging some dignity from this most divisive of seasons.
If Arsenal seemed aimless and devoid of guile, this was a Crystal Palace performance full of purpose and controlled aggression. The goals came from the excellent Andros Townsend, Yohan Cabaye and Luka Milivojevic’s penalty kick; Arsenal was both bullied and outplayed by a team that before the game were only three points above the relegation zone. At one point toward the end, Palace’s Mamadou Sakho was doing Cruyff turns just outside his own box. Palace manager Sam Allardyce likes few things better than beating Arsenal; this was more than that, it was a humiliation.
Crystal Palace took the lead after 18 minutes, when a large gap opened up on the left side of the Arsenal defence. Cabaye slipped a neat pass to Wilfried Zaha, who managed, despite slipping in the process, to square for Townsend to score.
After that, the game was characterised by intermittent Arsenal attacks that threatened, but Palace always seemed to have a defender there to get in the way of the final pass. Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez both went close with efforts from either side of the penalty area; the home defence looked open at times, but Sakho made a few crucial interventions, continuing the fine form he has displayed since joining Palace on loan from Liverpool in January.
At the other end, the Palace forward line was sharp, zesty and threatening, helped partly by an accommodating visiting defence, but broadly because Zaha, Christian Benteke and Townsend were so viciously effective. At one stage, Townsend chased down his own forward pass on the right, and then hared over to the left to harass another defender.
Palace started the second half on top 1-0 and had the ball in the net after five minutes, when Benteke pushed home a rebound in the 6-yard box. Even the Belgian centre-forward seemed to know he was offside (although only just) when he slotted the ball in, but that almost didn’t matter, as far as the mood among the home fans went.
Arsenal inched their way back into the game, but even after Wenger made an uncharacteristically early change, bringing on Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey before the hour mark, Palace doubled their lead about 20 minutes into the second half. Again it was Townsend and Zaha who combined, with the latter firing in a low cross from which Cabaye looped an inventive finish over fill-in Arsenal goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez.
Five minutes later, it was 3-0. Referee Michael Oliver pointed to the penalty spot without hesitation when Townsend went down in the area as Martinez and Hector Bellerin challenged. While replays suggested the Palace man dived, from the referee’s angle it looked like a clear penalty. Milivojevic fired home from 12 yards, and Wenger looked on, bereft.
2. Arsenal’s sorry defence can’t protect Martinez
Martinez has the makings of a pretty decent keeper. He seems secure on crosses and is fairly vocal, and no goalie gets to even this phase of his career without being a solid shot-stopper. Although a few Manchester City fans might disagree with that characterisation, having watched Claudio Bravo this season.
Still, this was just Martinez’s fifth Premier League start. The majority of his experience thus far has been on loan in the lower divisions, and in order to break him into life at the top level, ideally he would need a little help and protection from his more experienced colleagues in front of him. Alas, that was not forthcoming.
Admittedly, Arsenal were without the calming influence of Laurent Koscielny, but that isn’t an excuse for what a fog-headed mess their defence was, particularly in the first half. Full-backs Nacho Monreal and Bellerin (who has declined rather alarmingly this season) were given chasings by whichever of Zaha and Townsend chose to appear on either wing, while Shkodran Mustafi lunged in recklessly on a number of occasions.
It’s pointless to draw comparisons with the great Arsenal defences of times past; they were outliers, a unit forged in a different time, but what realistically can be expected of Wenger’s latest side is a back line that doesn’t panic against a team that have been flirting with relegation for most of the season. While this state of affairs continues, Arsenal’s inertia — decline, perhaps — will continue.
3. Allardyce has improved Palace at both ends
Everyone knew that Allardyce would eventually tighten Crystal Palace up at the back; indeed, they’ve now kept three clean sheets in their past six games. But what might be a little more surprising is how vibrant they look going forward.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. Allardyce is a pragmatist at heart, and when presented with a squad featuring a number of direct and talented attackers, he would have been foolish not to make the most of them.
And make the most he has. Zaha produced two assists, menaced Monreal throughout, and was of course brilliant, but the man of the match was Townsend. The England winger has often flattered to deceive in his career, too often playing the role of a man who would run around with the ball a bit and then cut in on his left foot and shoot from implausible angles — like a budget version of Arjen Robben.
But on this occasion Townsend was exceptional, genuinely smart, and threatening without any needless fluff or garnish; this was an intelligent performance that helped make Palace a rapid attacking force in general.
Allardyce’s reputation is one of a manager who coaches effective but often unattractive football, but while his Palace team are undoubtedly direct, this time it has more to do with piercing pace than hoofed balls toward a striker. By harnessing the best his players have to offer, Allardyce has improved Palace at both ends of the pitch.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.