About three weeks ago, when Arsenal looked to be in dire straits following a run of unjustifiable performances and results, supporters may have dreaded facing Crystal Palace, the team they host at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday.
The supposed fear wasn’t to do with Palace’s form at the time, rather, the in-house issues in North London; Mikel Arteta’s team were without a Premier League win in almost two months, were poor in nearly every area and looked to have lost the budding structure that embodied their early growth under the young Spanish manager.
Observers focus on that seven-game winless run but tend to forget the run of results even before their 1-0 success over Manchester United on November 1 wasn’t inspiring. One win in four games until they ended a 14-year absence of league victories at Old Trafford meant the form book read two wins in 12 prior to Chelsea’s visit on Boxing Day.
Success over the West Londoners, as well as maximum points against Brighton & Hove Albion and West Bromwich Albion, have lifted Arsenal to 11th spot, albeit still nine points adrift of fourth place in the standings.
While there’s a tendency to get excited over the North London side’s results, it ought to be noted that the turnaround came against a Blues side that are in a really rough patch of their own, a Brighton team that have won just twice all season and The Albion with a sole victory since they regained promotion. The latter pair are also in the bottom four in the table.
One thing Arteta’s men have going for them right now is momentum, but facing Palace threatens to halt the feel-good factor at the Emirates on Thursday.
Roy Hodgson’s team may not have enough to sustain a decent-to-good level of performance and results enough to see them end inside the top half of the PL, still, they mostly seem to rise to the challenge against higher-echelon opposition.
Their 3-1 opening day win over Manchester United was deserved, they resiliently held Tottenham Hotspur to a 1-1 stalemate in mid-December and were within minutes of securing a victory against Leicester City in their final match of 2020.
Admittedly, there have been disappointing results vs Chelsea away (4-0) and that 7-0 annihilation by Liverpool on December 19, games that highlighted how easily the Eagles have surrendered in some encounters this term.
When they are on it, however, Hodgson’s team pose problems to the opposition with their resolute defending and menace in transition.
The latter is undoubtedly aided by the talismanic Wilfried Zaha, now ably assisted by the talented Eberechi Eze since his arrival from Queens Park Rangers in the summer. Even though the danger Zaha carries is well-known, his clutch performances to lift a largely average Palace side shines through fairly consistently.
The sort of hazard the aforementioned stars possess has come to the fore in the Eagles’ stalemate against Leicester at Selhurst Park and their victory over Sheffield United to begin 2021. Against the Foxes, having received possession inside his half from Luka Milivojevic, the Ivory Coast star drove forward in possession, held off Luke Thomas and Nampalys Mendy before releasing Andros Townsend into space far on the right flank.
Zaha, wanting more, then broke his neck to dart into the box before outsmarting Youri Tielemans with his movement to side foot the hosts into a 1-0 lead on the hour. Striking about that move was not only the involvement of just three players but also the desire of the Palace side to provide options for Townsend.
Nine players were behind the ball when Milivojevic passed to the dynamic Ivorian but an extra pair — Jeffrey Schlupp and Jairo Riedewald — gave the home team added presence in the Leicester area, while the captain was positioned close to the edge of the box.
Within seconds, the Eagles had transitioned from the edge of their box with only Zaha and Christian Benteke ahead of the ball, to have no less than six players in the Foxes’ third.
Hodgson receives criticism for his general approach, but you sense the 73-year-old will point to that strike against the side with the best away record in the league as validation for his modus operandi, for better or worse.
As for Eze, the maverick’s solo strike against Sheffield United was the Anglo-Nigerian’s finest moment so far in top flight football.
Barely 10 minutes after replacing the injured Schlupp before the break, the 22-year-old received possession from James McArthur, trusted in his ability and advanced with the ball toward the Blades’ goal.
He silkily went past a couple of markers thereafter bending a lovely effort beyond the helpless Aaron Ramsdale, for what certainly is a contender for goal of the month and possibly the season.
That sort of threat will come in handy when Hodgson takes his troops to face an Arsenal side that have kept clean sheets in three of their last four goals in their supposed renaissance.
In fact, their only concession in the last four games was a late Tammy Abraham effort in the 3-1 success that’s prompted this current turnaround.
Be that as it may, the Gunners have somehow found the Eagles hard to beat in the last two campaigns, failing to get the better of their London rivals in all four meetings since Arsene Wenger’s retirement, a run they’ll look to end on Thursday.
While his side are prone to be flaky this season, Hodgson will hope to get the versions of Zaha and Eze, who not only recognise opportunities but similarly take decisive action as they look to extend their unbeaten run against the resurgent three-time PL champions.