LONDON — Three points from the Emirates as Olivier Giroud’s wonder goal helped Arsenal to a 2-0 win vs. Crystal Palace.
1. Arsenal cruise to win, move back up to third place
A comfortable victory for Arsenal means they’re back up to third place behind Chelsea and Liverpool at the Premier League’s midpoint. This was a quietly impressive display from the Gunners lit up by a moment of magic from Olivier Giroud to open the scoring.
On paper, this looked like a peculiar Arsenal side. Without Mesut Ozil, who is ill and also likely to miss the team’s midweek trip to Bournemouth, there was an unusual lack of creativity in the side. Alex Iwobi was handed Ozil’s No. 10 role while Alexis Sanchez and Lucas Perez played on the flanks, with Giroud retained up front after his winner against West Brom on Boxing Day. It was a particularly direct side, with a proper target man and pure pace just behind.
That might not have been a favourable approach against a Palace side that defends deep and is happy battling with tall strikers in the air, but Arsenal adjusted well. Their play was noticeably more direct in deep positions, with long balls from defence to find Sanchez or Perez racing in behind. Giroud, meanwhile, came short and provided neat touches in deep positions: Among his two goals in two games by converting crosses, it’s worth remembering that he also acted as something of a playmaker with his neat link-up play.
Arsenal’s full-backs scampered forward well, too. With Sanchez cutting inside onto his right foot and Perez onto his left, there was plenty of space for Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin — so often Arsenal’s key attacking weapon in home matches against bottom-half sides — to exploit. Both created chances with clever pull-backs.
This direct play based around the flanks also worked out nicely for Granit Xhaka, who had an excellent game pulling the strings in midfield and spraying some dangerous passes into wide areas. Arsenal often start slowly in matches like this, when their passing tempo is sluggish and the fans become restless. This display had more urgency.
After Giroud’s sensational opener, Arsenal doubled their lead 10 minutes into the second half. Monreal’s low cross was deflected high into the air, and Iwobi reacted first to nod the dropping ball toward goal, which retreating left-back Joel Ward couldn’t keep out. That put Arsenal out of sight, although they exerted more energy than they would have liked in the final half hour ahead of Tuesday’s trip to Bournemouth.
2. Has Giroud scored the goal of the year?
2017 is just one day old, but Olivier Giroud might have already scored the goal of the year. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s wonderful “scorpion kick” goal for Manchester United against Sunderland on Boxing Day received rave reviews, but this was surely even better — Giroud wasn’t offside, the ball stuck the crossbar before bouncing in (which always makes a goal look better), and it came at the end of a flowing passing move that Giroud had contributed to.
Mathieu Flamini’s misplaced pass deep in the opposition half allowed Arsenal to launch a quick break. Bellerin played the ball forward to Giroud, dropping deep to link play with a lovely backheel to find Xhaka, who played the ball into the pass of Iwobi. He dribbled forward before knocking the ball out left to Sanchez, who paused and then played a cross slightly behind Giroud, who was making his usual near-post run.
What came next was extraordinary.
Giroud threw himself forward, throwing out his left boot to hook the ball goalward with his heel. In that situation, of course, he’s hardly aiming for the top corner, simply hoping to get it in the vague direction of the goal. Nevertheless, the arc on the ball was wonderful; it looped past Wayne Hennessey, who was at full stretch but couldn’t stop the ball clipping the bar, bouncing down onto the ground, then high in to the net. It was a truly sensational goal, an aesthetically wonderful moment that somehow captured Arsenal’s approach play in this game: direct and free-flowing.
Giroud had earlier missed a much simpler chance, again at the near post, when he struggled to get anything on Monreal’s teasing ball across the 6-yard box. That’s classic Giroud, who comes up with frustrating moments and truly wonderful moments, too. He’ll struggle to score a better goal in his Arsenal career.
3. Allardyce’s task at Palace is laid bare
Sam Allardyce will be disappointed with Crystal Palace’s performance overall. Although they went behind only to a world-class goal, they allowed Arsenal too many chances and created little of their own, particularly in the first half. In fact, when Yohan Cabaye cut inside and shot tamely at Petr Cech shortly before half-time, the away supporters sarcastically cheered the attempt before singing, “Do do do do, shot on target!” It underlined their lack of goal threat.
This team, of course, is largely based around the aerial power of Christian Benteke, and while there are some managers who would struggle to find a place for him in their side (Jurgen Klopp, for example), the appointment of Allardyce seems perfect for the big Belgian.
Although he was isolated before half-time, it took just two minutes of the second half for him to have a decent scoring opportunity. Andros Townsend dribbled down the right flank, typically cut inside onto his left foot and sent a deep cross to the far post. Benteke got up well but slightly mistimed his header, which bounced wide of the far post.
Benteke also had Palace’s next good chance, towering above Arsenal’s defence to meet Jason Puncheon’s right-wing corner. Cech saved it, but Palace subsequently forced their first serious spell of pressure, forcing him to make further stops from Cabaye and twice from Townsend.
Palace only really started playing when 2-0 down, however, and they deserved nothing from this game.
The benefits of Allardyce’s organisational skills are yet to become obvious: Palace were opened up regularly here, with through-balls and cut-backs from wide areas, although there was little sign of the poor set-piece defending so obvious under Alan Pardew.