Friday 24 May 2019

Palace make the most of Mustafi blunders to hurt Arsenal's top-four hopes

Arsenal 2 Crystal Palace 3

Wilfried Zaha celebrates after scoring Crystal Palace’s second goal in yesterday’s Premier League clash against Arsenal. Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images
Wilfried Zaha celebrates after scoring Crystal Palace’s second goal in yesterday’s Premier League clash against Arsenal. Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

Sam Dean

If a single game could summarise the imbalances in the Arsenal squad, the unavoidable contrast between their attacking brilliance and their lingering defensive ineptitude, then this was it.

At one end, Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored two goals that oozed Champions League quality. At the other, Carl Jenkinson and Shkodran Mustafi, in particular, committed the sort of errors you would not expect to see in the third or fourth tier.

Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace is challenged by Shkodran Mustafi of Arsenal. Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images
Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace is challenged by Shkodran Mustafi of Arsenal. Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

On this occasion, the farce outweighed the class. It turned out to be the most gruelling of defeats for Arsenal, a setback that was entirely avoidable against a Crystal Palace side who should have been entirely beatable.

Calamity stalks Mustafi like a shadow and the sorry truth for Arsenal is that his mistakes here could prove to be decisive in the race for the top four. Arsenal's attempts to capitalise on defeats for Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United were undone almost single-handedly by a defender whose heavy-footed incompetence seemingly knows no bounds.

There are others who must take some responsibility, of course. Too many players appeared sluggish, and Unai Emery had perhaps tinkered too much in making seven changes from Thursday's impressive victory in Naples. But there can be no denying that Mustafi's fingerprints were all over this near-criminal defeat, Arsenal's first at home since the opening day of the season.

Ushered

It was hard to believe, as Mustafi ushered Wilfried Zaha through to score the second for Palace, that Emery's side had won their past 10 home matches in the league. It was equally hard to believe they had seemingly put their defensive woes behind them, conceding only one goal in their previous seven games.

The ball eludes Arsenal's Nigerian striker Alex Iwobi (L) in a late missed chance. Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images
The ball eludes Arsenal's Nigerian striker Alex Iwobi (L) in a late missed chance. Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

This felt like a regression for Arsenal after weeks of progression.

Christian Benteke and James McArthur were allowed to score from set-pieces, either side of Zaha's second-half strike, and not even the genius of Ozil and Aubameyang, who each scored goals of individual excellence, could make up for the carnage at the back.

Victory secured safety for Roy Hodgson's side and the nature of the win underlined how much of a threat they can be when Benteke and Zaha are in a confident, physical mood. Zaha was almost untouchable on the weekend when he made it clear he wants to be playing his football at the highest level.

Benteke's goal, his first of the season, was one of the easiest he will score. Jenkinson played him onside from Luka Milivojevic's free-kick and Mustafi simply ambled back with an arm in the air rather than making any attempt to challenge. A reminder that the defender who cost the club more than £35m in the summer of 2016 can send shivers down an Arsenal fan's spine.

Andros Townsend of Crystal Palace holds off Ainsley Maitland-Niles of Arsenal. Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images
Andros Townsend of Crystal Palace holds off Ainsley Maitland-Niles of Arsenal. Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

Bernd Leno then produced a brilliant double save to deny Cheikhou Kouyate, before Arsenal's claims for a penalty were wrongly turned down after Aaron Wan-Bissaka clearly handled the ball in the box.

Arsenal came back strongly after the break, with substitute Alex Iwobi and Alexandre Lacazette combining to find Ozil inside the box. Ozil stabbed down on to the ball, skimming it off the turf and then up and over the bewildered Vicente Guaita in the Palace goal. It was a moment of genuine class, and for a brief while it seemed to be only a matter of time before Arsenal took full control.

But Mustafi was not done. A simple long ball bobbled in behind, and the German again decided to stop playing rather than clear it. Zaha only needs a yard to cause problems. Mustafi gave him around 10.

Desperate to make amends, he soon threw his head at another long pass, conceding a needless corner. Milivojevic's delivery was met by Scott Dann and then by McArthur, who could hardly miss.

Andros Townsend of Crystal Palace holds off Ainsley Maitland-Niles of Arsenal. Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
Andros Townsend of Crystal Palace holds off Ainsley Maitland-Niles of Arsenal. Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Arsenal appeared finished at this point, with some of the attackers no doubt in shock at their own team's defending. Aubameyang was the first to wake up, scoring a goal entirely of his own making.

He sliced inside, past three yellow shirts, and then cannoned his shot into the bottom corner after an inadvertent one-two with Palace defender Joel Ward. Iwobi should have done better with a late chance, but the blame for this result will not be directed at him. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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