Arsenal’s First Half Outburst: Credit or Blame?

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 20: Nacho Monreal of Arsenal celebrates after scoring his sides first goal with his Arsenal team mates during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Crystal Palace at Emirates Stadium on January 20, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

By the 23rd minute, the game was effectively finished. While Arsenal fans must cringe—at least internally—at a 4-0 lead, even the most incompetent of defensive sides rarely squander such a lead. Arsenal’s first half reminded fans of the beautiful football the team is capable of playing. In the shadow of Alexis’s inevitable departure, the squad played the half with a chip on their shoulder. They played like a team more than capable of winning without its so-called “best player”. And for 22 glorious minutes, Sanchez’s absence felt a lot like addition by subtraction. The Gunners were rampant, slicing through the Palace midfield and back line seemingly at will.

Arsenal’s First Half: Blame Roy?

However, it would be negligent to suggest that the first half was merely a case of scintillating football by the home team. Palace seemed all too willing to play the patsy. Like the jobber in professional wrestling, the south London side seemed to be playing along with a script written by an extremely biased playwright.

One of Arsenal fans’ chief complaints is that the team is that Wenger’s teams are easy to play against. The general strategies seem to fall into one of two categories. Teams can tuck in and defend compactly, waiting for a chance to counter. Or, they can press relentlessly all over the park and force multiple turnovers in advantageous errors. Roy Hodgson seemed to instead try an “abandon the midfield” strategy, with predictably disastrous results. Time and time again, both Jack Wilshere and Mesut Özil found themselves able to receive, turn, dribble, eat a sandwich, and chat with friends before looking for an incisive pass, which they often found. It was, frankly, baffling tactics from the former England boss.

A Tale of Two Halves

Someone may have gotten to Hodgson at halftime. In addition to employing an “Occupy the Midfield” strategy, Palace pressed Arsenal high for much of the second half. And it worked! Not only did Palace get a consolation goal, they created a few significant chances, and pressured the Arsenal defenders back into their worrying habit of turning the ball over in their defensive third.

Of course, it is difficult to separate the variables in the second half to understand which one caused what. It was clear that the Gunners let off the gas in the second half, which is probably natural with a big lead. It might even be smart, with a huge League Cup tie against Chelsea on Wednesday. However, in his post-game comments, Arsène Wenger acknowledged his team was not up for the challenge in the second half.

All of this is to say that it would be premature to draw significant conclusions from this match. This is not to take credit away from the Arsenal attack, who played some exquisite football in that first half. Clearly aided by the return of Nacho Monreal  – who likely appeared in the most effective cameo of the season for any team – as well as an improved Alex Iwobi, playing on his clearly preferred left, Arsenal looked like world beaters, overwhelming Palace and putting the game away almost before it started.  But make no mistake: Arsenal’s first half was aided by managerial negligence from Hodgson. And it is an open but very interesting question as to how that game might have turned out had Roy Hodgson bothered with a viable strategy in the first half.

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