Arsenal's four-game winning streak came to an end in frustrating fashion Thursday as Crystal Palace held them to a 0-0 draw at the Emirates Stadium. Palace were outstanding in defense, forcing Arsenal to attack down the flanks and lob in crosses that were all too easy for James Tomkins and Cheikhou Kouyate to deal with. Certainly the hosts could have done more to get their best players in goalscoring positions -- Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had just one shot -- but much of that was down to the diligence with which the Eagles defended their penalty area.
Indeed the Eagles had the better of the chances during an impressive flurry in the first half, Christian Benteke's header well saved by Bernd Leno and James Tomkins flicked a free kick against the bar. Here are the key talking points from the game.
Arsenal's intermittent dominance
A common refrain of Mikel Arteta's first year at the Arsenal helm has been that his side are not yet at the level to dictate terms against any Premier League opponent. He perhaps phrased it best after a 2-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers where he said: "At the moment we don't have the ability to batter teams for 95 minutes."
That much was apparent against Palace in a match that seemed early on to be a training exercise for Arsenal to break down a packed defense, something they did rather ineffectively for the opening quarter of this match. Gunners teams of old would assert a chokehold on opponents, never giving the ball away, constantly probing for gaps in the rearguard and striking when they emerged. To do so necessitates technical excellence across the team, not a player like Ainsley Maitland-Niles who struggles to fulfill the attacking basics of a left-back.
After around 25 minutes Palace upped the ante down the left, where Ebere Eze and Wilfried Zaha would gang up on Hector Bellerin, an avenue that led to a fine Benteke header well saved by Bernd Leno. There was a flurry of pressure to end the half that not only had Arsenal feeling nervous but also gave Palace a welcome break from their defense.
0 – Arsenal have kept their first home clean sheet in the @premierleague since July (12 games), whilst Crystal Palace have recorded their first on the road since June (13 games), with this the first goalless draw in the top-flight between the sides since Oct 1997. Predicted. pic.twitter.com/fUpcPK4kgJ— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 14, 2021
Once play resumed after the interval Arsenal once more were able to apply the pressure but it was fleeting and all too easy for Palace to deal with because there was no-one in the Gunners attack who might beat a man with a dribble. It was notable that after 55 minutes the visitors had completed more take-ons (17 to 15) despite having just 35 percent possession.
Xhaka shakes off memories of his lowest moment
When these two sides last met at the Emirates Stadium in October 2019, it seemed certain that it would be the moment Granit Xhaka's Arsenal career reached its end point. As supporters booed their then club captain he responded by inviting them to "f--- off" and the die was seemingly cast. The story of his revival has been told on many occasions and although there have been moments when the Gunners fan base have doubted his worth since he has continually proven to them that he is one of the best of what they have... even if that probably is not enough.
At his worst Xhaka can let his aggression get the better, Thursday he used it to put in perhaps his best defensive performance in an Arsenal shirt. On no occasion since a 3-1 win over Burnley early in his time in north London had he won more tackles than the six he did Thursday. That possession was often regained after he had given the ball away rather typified what the Swiss international has been for Arsenal.
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Still this was another impressive display from Xhaka, who seemed to have done further damage to his Arsenal career with a foolish red card in a draw with Southampton last month. Since being brought back into the time he has been a greatly improved player, seemingly using the suggestion he has been written off as fuel to fire improved performances.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles: The 23-year-old is entitled to have some mitigating factors offered in his defense. This was a first Premier League start since the middle of last month and a first on the left flank since October. However his passing was poor, his defensive work left a lot to be desired and he seemed to lack his usual burst of pace. RATING: 3
James Tomkins: Whenever a cross came into the box you could be sure that the veteran center-bak would be on hand with a clearing header or a smart but direct ball to safety. Arsenal must have felt they were running at a brick wall in attacking Tomkins. RATING: 8
Premier League outlook
The shared points leave both sides where they started the day, Arsenal in 11th and Crystal Palace in 13th, though the two clubs have now played one more game than most of those teams around them.