Was this the night Arsenal’s wheels came off? Mikel Arteta will hope it was an isolated off day in a largely excellent season but his players did not turn up here and were thoroughly beaten by energetic, highly-motivated opponents who outdid them in every department.
That would normally be problematic enough at this stage in the race for a Champions League spot but the angst did not end there; the sight of Tottenham unexpectedly occupying fourth place presents a headache but they departed with added concerns that may skew the next few weeks against them.
Chief among them was an injury to Thomas Partey, who limped off shortly after Wilfried Zaha had scored an excellent Crystal Palace side’s third goal from the penalty spot.
Partey had, like almost all of his teammates, put in a crushingly disappointing display and had conceded a number of cheap fouls; Arsenal’s squad is so thin, though, that it was impossible to miss the worry in Arteta’s voice when he said the midfielder had aggravated an old injury. “A big concern” was how the manager put it, and it was the best way to capture the entire evening.
Equally worrying will be the fact that Kieran Tierney, who did not appear at all because of the knee injury, will see a specialist tomorrow and risks missing the rest of the season.While nobody in an Arsenal shirt can escape blame for a woefully inadequate performance, The drop off in standard between Tierney and his deputy was glaring. Nuno Tavares endured a torrid first 45 minutes and was replaced by Arteta at half-time, the explanation that it was purely a tactical decision not sounding entirely convincing.
It was, at least, 10 minutes longer than Tavares lasted when he was hauled off at Nottingham Forest in his previous start; the 22-year-old may need an arm round the shoulder if he is to fill in effectively over the remainder of the campaign.
Palace had started at a ferocious tempo, Conor Gallagher setting it by tearing towards the returning Aaron Ramsdale within two minutes, and had clearly been under instruction not to let a normally fast-starting sidethe away side settle.
But Arsenal’s errors were not all forced: when Ramsdale and Ben White, such reliable distributors from the back, both fed aimless balls all the way through to Vicente Guaita in the opening stages it was clear things were not right. Patrick Vieira, whose team had largely bested Arsenal during a 2-2 draw at the Emirates in the autumn, had primed his players to capitalise and they did so with glee.
Jean-Philippe Mateta’s opener came with an element of luck but it was as much as Palace deserved. When Gallagher swung a free-kick over from deep on the left, Joachim Anderson was facing away from the ball as he challenged a weak Tavares at the far post. It struck him on the back of the head and, while he had undoubtedly intended to get some purchase, he could hardly have expected it to zip across the six-yard box and perfectly into Mateta’s path. The centre-forward could not miss and Ramsdale had no hope of stopping his header at point-blank range.
Rather than drop deep in the manner that restrained Manchester City three weeks previously, Palace kept going. The second goal was wonderfully created from their point of view but, from Arsenal’s, a precis of all that was wrong. Alexandre Lacazette lost a 50/50 challenge far too easily and, when the ball was worked back to Andersen, worse would follow.
A flat, raking 40-yard pass from halfway was wonderfully executed but a sliding Gabriel Magalhaes made a complete hash of his interception while Tavares, mystifyingly perched a yard behind his defensive colleagues, looked on. It left Jordan Ayew in the clear; he beat Ramsdale confidently to his right and Palace, who simply seemed hungrier, had a level of reward they might not have imagined.
Arteta deployed Gabriel Martinelli in Tavares’ place and around the hour mark Arsenal perked up slightly. Martin Ødegaard should have pulled a goal back but dragged wide and then, running back into his own box, clipped Wilfried Zaha for a penalty award nobody could dispute. Zaha, who was passed fit and proved a thorn in Arsenal’s side yet again, did the rest and a couple of late saves from Guaita preserved Palace’s hugely merited clean sheet.
Almost five years ago to the week Palace defeated Arsenal by the same scoreline and contributed heavily to the end of their long sequence of top-four finishes under Arsène Wenger. The fear for Arteta will be that grievous damage has now been done to their hopes of a return and a quirk of the Premier League’s scheduling means a fixture announcement made shortly before kick-off has even more resonance now. Arsenal will visit Tottenham on 12 May, three games from the end of the season; it would be as well to circle that in the calendar and, before then, Arteta faces a daunting task to regain the initiative.