The absence of one player was as crucial as the presence of another. Arsenal win that game with Kieran Tierney and lose it without Christian Benteke.
Beyond that, statistics can be cited to support whatever your preordained opinion of the managerial acumen of Mikel Arteta. This is the first time Arsenal have kept four consecutive clean sheets since October 2016; no player had more shots nor created more chances for the hosts than Rob Holding. Thomas Partey managed four tackles in 22 minutes upon his substitute return; some might suggest that is not entirely positive at home to Crystal Palace. The visitors looked a more well-rounded and well-drilled side for large swathes of Thursday evening; Kurt Angle’s WWE theme rang around the Emirates at half-time.
Arsenal threatened to make Palace’s ankles hurt for a brief period thereafter but that island of dominance in a sea of mediocrity rather summed this team up. From the restart to the 60th minute they were excellent, playing with more intensity and verve than what preceded and followed it. Three of their 11 shots came in the five minutes after what were presumably quite stern words exchanged in the dressing-room.
A quarter of all the goals Arsenal have scored have come in the opening 15 minutes of the second half – the highest proportion of any team in the top flight.
— Orbinho (@Orbinho) January 14, 2021
Then they reverted to type. It was slow. It was plodding. It was often painful. It was David Luiz and Granit Xhaka posted on the halfway line and demanding the ball as soon as a player turned back. It was a team still finding its feet against one that runs those same defensive drills in its collective sleep. On the rare occasion Crystal Palace were posed a question they did not instinctively know the answer to, Arsenal suddenly chose the wrong multiple choice option and the moment was gone.
It was enough to break Jamie Redknapp, which is ample justification for erecting an Arteta statue at the earliest possible opportunity.
But it could also have been worse. James Tomkins hit the crossbar with a clever header. Jordan Ayew spurned a late chance. Benteke has long exuded the energy of a man who spends an entire hour frantically searching for his keys before realising they were already in the door. Some of his hold-up play was exceptional. All of his finishing was oh mate I’m so sorry.
The last five players to have 6+ shots in a league game at the Emirates:
John McGinn (Sep 2019)
Raul Jimenez (Nov 2019)
Sadio Mane (July 2020)
Danny Welbeck (July 2020)
Christian Benteke (Tonight)
Sadly, that list is not excluding Arsenal players…
— Tom Ede (@TomEde1) January 14, 2021
Palace, it should not be forgotten, are a solid Premier League team. They have a wonderful goalkeeper, a diligent defence, an accomplished midfield and a varied attack. Eberechi Eze is a phenomenal player who deserved a better game than this in which to showcase his abundant skill.
Arsenal should probably still be able to overcome that. They absolutely must play better and not have to rely on the profligacy of an opposition striker to grind out a point. But this is not the disaster some may sell it as.
It is disappointing and frustrating at worst, a pointed reminder that any recent progress is stunted.
Perhaps most worrying is that there is no overarching issue or obvious cause for such an ordinary performance. The lack of Tierney was a problem but surely not enough to cripple their creativity entirely. As poor as Ainsley Maitland-Niles was as his left-back replacement the right-hand side offered little either. There was no balance, no urgency, energy or tenacity without Gabriel Martinelli. Their approach play was sedate and timid and precisely what Palace would have preferred. They lacked a certain expression of freedom, both as a collective and as individuals. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, once again, was anonymous.
They are not as bad as the majority of this performance would suggest, neither were they as good as their winning run hinted. Those myriad systemic problems are at least partially helped by the return of one player but that in itself exposes an issue of over-reliance. You can see plenty of what Arteta is trying to do yet struggle to understand bits of the bigger picture.
These are steps forward instead of strides. Arsenal are 11th and as close in terms of points to 1st as they are 18th. This is a team simultaneously looking up at those above them and over their shoulder at the sides beneath. That confusion really is starting to show.