LONDON — Befitting of Patrick Vieira’s return to Arsenal, this really should have been settled in midfield.
Vieira was a colossus in the Gunners’ engine room for nine years, and for long spells on Monday night, his Crystal Palace side were the better team in central areas of the pitch to an extent they deserved to leave Emirates Stadium with a win. Substitute Alexandre Lacazette‘s stoppage-time equaliser rescued a point for Arsenal in an entertaining 2-2 draw but the Frenchman’s energetic cameo only partially masks the issues that came before.
Mikel Arteta has been keen to defer judgement on his management until his reshaped squad is fully available to him, but only Granit Xhaka is currently sidelined with a knee injury until the New Year. Arteta views Xhaka as a key component of his midfield, but there have been signs he wants to switch to a more dynamic 4-3-3 shape for some time, and that formation was used here for the first time since last month’s 1-0 win at Burnley.
Thomas Partey‘s deployment as the sole pivot was in part based upon being able to drop into the back four more easily to deal with Palace’s aerial threat. It also allowed Arteta to add another attack-minded player into an offensive lineup with Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe playing as No. 8s behind a front three of Nicolas Pepe, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bukayo Saka.
With the ball, it looked vibrant early on, particularly as Arsenal raced into an eighth-minute lead. Pepe exchanged passes with Takehiro Tomiyasu and curled a left-foot shot at goal, which Palace goalkeeper Vicente Guaita did well to palm wide. But Aubameyang did even better to react quickly, turning the ball in with a smart finish from a tight angle.
However, Arsenal were curiously passive thereafter and without the ball, Partey was isolated. Palace’s wide players — Conor Gallagher and Odsonne Edouard — drifted in off the flanks to outnumber Partey in midfield, occupying space behind Odegaard and Smith Rowe to turn and run at the Gunners’ back four.
It was a problem Arteta inadvertently sought to rectify at half-time, replacing the injured Saka with Albert Sambi Lokonga and moving to something closer to the old 4-2-3-1, but the balance was still wrong and Palace capitalised.
First, Partey lost the ball cheaply 30 yards from goal under pressure from Jordan Ayew. Christian Benteke took full advantage, working the ball onto his right foot before firing low past Arsenal goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale. Lokonga then conceded possession to Gallagher and Palace broke with Edouard firing in off the crossbar with 17 minutes left.
Arsenal ended up with Smith Rowe and Lokonga anchoring a 4-2-4 system that enabled Lacazette to play up front and score the 200th goal of his professional career, turning the ball home from close range after Guaita saved Ben White‘s shot in a desperate finale. Palace had dropped too deep at that point, inviting pressure that eventually told, but it was the first time their shape had been wrong all evening.
Arteta won the Premier League’s Manager of the Month award for September after steadying the ship following a dismal start to the season, but this was a reminder of how fragile that recovery remains.
Partey is Arsenal’s best midfielder but he will need time to adjust to operating as a lone defensive midfielder, as will Odegaard in a No. 8 position deeper than the No. 10 role he is used to. Odegaard was substituted for the final 23 minutes after an ineffective outing, but it was difficult to escape the conclusion he was asked to do more defensive work and affect the game from further out than he appears naturally suited to.
“We start to defend something after scoring the goal and that is what I don’t really like,” said Arteta. “We started to play not forward, kept the ball in the wrong areas and put ourselves in trouble. That’s the period I didn’t like. I thought we got better in the second half and the start was better but when we had some control, we just gave the goals away.”
The bright spark was provided by Lacazette, who bookended a lively display by geeing up the crowd moments after coming on before giving them something to celebrate with what was virtually the last kick of the game.
Lacazette’s motivation remains unclear. There is presently no contract offer on the table from Arsenal despite his existing agreement expiring at the end of the season. Fresh terms to stay in north London or the possibility of promoting his talents ahead of a January move could be behind his renewed vigour, but either way it could be a useful asset for Arteta in the weeks ahead.
The Spaniard had a case for shifting focus away from his side’s teething problems by voicing his irritation at VAR.
Arteta claimed afterwards that Saka’s half-time withdrawal was the result of the effects from a challenge by James McArthur on the stroke of half-time, which referee Mike Dean determined was only worth a yellow card. As McArthur wound up to volley a dropping ball on the edge of the box, Saka put his body in the way. McArthur continued unabated and instead put his foot through the back of Saka’s calf.
“If we want to detect things that are really relevant in a game and can change a football match, then they have to be looked at,” said Arteta. “That situation is not only affecting them but we have to take the player off because of the action so it is affecting it two different ways. It is not right.
“You [need to] make a straight decision, when it is so clear and so obvious straight away and they have to play with 10 men.”
Similarly, Arsenal wanted a foul on Lokonga as Gallagher won the ball for Palace’s second goal.
He had a clear case in both instances, even if Vieira diffused the row by invoking Arsene Wenger’s classic defence that “I didn’t see it” in relation to McArthur’s challenge. But managers often talk about controlling the controllables, and Arteta’s bigger problem is finding a better midfield balance.
Arteta was one of many players to sign for Arsenal and attempt to fill the void left by Vieira, but for Lacazette’s late intervention, he would have been left in Vieira’s shadow again.