Wednesday, April 17

Arsenal’s loss at Crystal Palace serves as a warning for Arteta’s threadbare squad in top-four race

LONDON — It is almost five years to the day since Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were beaten 3-0 at Crystal Palace, promoting the away supporters to chant “you’re not fit to wear the shirt” at underperforming full-back Hector Bellerin.

Monday’s defeat by the same score on the same ground featured another shambolic display from a defender, Nuno Tavares, but it did not prompt a similar derision given the team’s recent buoyancy under Mikel Arteta. Yet that sense of history repeating will be a particular source of frustration for Arteta, who has focused much of his work on him since taking charge in December 2019 on eradicating a culture of underperformance that set in under Wenger and reared his head again here.

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A spirited Palace side brutally exploited Arsenal’s shortcomings in a showing that raises serious questions about the Gunners’ durability in the race for a Premier League top-four finish. With no European or domestic cup football to sate a large squad, Arteta streamlined his group in January, allowing five players to leave the club without a single first-team signing, in the belief a leaner Arsenal would be better equipped to meet the sole demand of capitalizing on a promising position to secure Champions League qualification for the first time since 2017, that penultimate season under Wenger in which the club’s 19-year stay in Europe’s premier competition came to an end.

Recent results — six wins in the past eight league games — have made that look a shrewd call, but it would only take a couple of injuries to underline the size of that gamble, and that is precisely where Arteta finds himself now. Defender Kieran Tierney will see a specialist on Tuesday with the club fearing a knee problem could sideline him for the rest of the season.

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“The feeling that he had, it wasn’t really positive and what the scans showed either, but we have to wait and see what happens,” Arteta said.

Tavares, his natural understudy, lasted just 34 minutes before being substituted in January’s FA Cup third-round defeat at Nottingham Forest. He threw his gloves to the floor in frustration at being singled out. This time, on his first start from him since, he was withdrawn at the interval and by that stage, Arsenal had already thrown in the towel.

“We weren’t at the races today and especially in the first half we were late to every ball, we were soft in the duels and we didn’t earn the right to play,” Arteta said. “When we did a little bit, we were sloppy on the ball. We didn’t have any dominance, any sequences of play where we could take control of the game and we conceded two poor goals as well, so overall it is unacceptable, put our hand up, apologize, regroup and tomorrow is a new day.”

Palace began with vibrancy and purpose, Jean-Philippe Mateta opening the scoring with a 16th-minute header as Joachim Andersen steered back a Conor Gallagher free kick. Ben White’s foul to give Gallagher a chance to deliver was poor but Gabriel’s positioning eight minutes later was worse, failing to cut out Andersen’s pass to Jordan Ayew, who steered a low shot past Aaron Ramsdale.

Arsenal continued to lack conviction in their play and intensity in their pressing. Tavares was perhaps unfortunate to be singled out at the break given the Gunners’ collective malaise, a decision that feels bigger in the context of Tierney’s likely absence from him.

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Arteta has other options at left-back, namely midfielder Granit Xhaka, who deputized there in the second half, and Cedric Soares, who could switch from right-back if Takehiro Tomiyasu returns from a calf injury. Yet Tavares now has another humiliation to overcome, something Arteta explained away as a “tactical reason… I’m sorry it was Nuno again but we had to do it,” and the Portugal youth international may yet be required in the final nine matches given how stretched the squad may become.

Winger Nicolas Pepe was missing with illness and midfielder Thomas Partey could now be another absentee. The Ghana midfielder lost the ball to Wilfried Zaha late in the second half and pulled up with a limp. Zaha burst forward and was clipped in the box by Martin Odegaard, earning a penalty he dispatched moments after Partey hobbled off injured, holding his thigh.

“He felt something in the same area that he got injured previously, so [it is] a big concern,” Arteta said.

Arsenal did improve in the second half, but whereas previously the supporting cast had been able to offset Alexandre Lacazette’s modest goal return, Odegaard, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe were all unable to take presentable chances that could have triggered a revival.

This was a bad night for Arsenal’s goal difference comparable to Tottenham Hotspur, who ended the weekend in fourth place and have now emerged as the Gunners’ most serious rivals for that top-four spot. Palace’s shutout here completed a seven-goal swing in Spurs’ favour.

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It was also further evidence of the fine job Patrick Vieira is doing at Selhurst Park. He was considered for the Arsenal job following Wenger’s departure, and on this evidence will surely be a candidate to return to his former club again in the future, although Arteta can rightly continue to believe the club remain on an overall upward trajectory despite a difficult night.

He will be mindful of Arsenal’s history, however. Arteta has spoken regularly about the bond with supporters and he went to applaud the away section at full-time, many of whom stayed to show their support. They have come a long way together, far enough not to allow one poor outing alone to divide them.

Yet Arsenal recovered from losing to Palace in 2016-17 by winning seven of their final eight league matches. Although they also won the FA Cup, the Gunners missed out on a top-four finish to Spurs — losing to their bitter rivals in the run-in to fall short by a solitary point. This chastening evening must serve as a warning.

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