At a real crossroads moment in their season, Arsenal ended up rooted to the spot as they laboured to a draw with Crystal Palace.
In the build-up to the game, I wrote about the importance of Arsenal seizing the opportunity to pick up another win in order to move themselves into the mix for the European places – particularly with another winnable game coming up against Newcastle on Monday.
The manager too said this game and next week’s trip north would go a long way to shaping the remainder of our season as we either turn our attentions up towards Europe or down towards building for next season.
In the end, Arsenal went neither forward or back, no progress was made and no real ground was lost. It wasn’t the worst outcome but it did pop the bubble of momentum we had been building to an extent.
Having conceded a staggering amount of goals over the festive period, Roy Hodgson took the brief respite offered by FA Cup week to refocus his side’s efforts on organisation and solidity which, of course, meant that they were more difficult to beat than at any point for months. But that shouldn’t really be an excuse for Mikel Arteta’s men.
They had enough quality on the pitch last night to create more and better chances and they simply didn’t. Quite why that was is unclear but I suspect it is the coming together of a number of factors – chief of which was the inbalance in the team.
Without Kieran Tierney, Gabriel, and Pablo Mari absent, the Gunners fielded Ainsley Maitland-Niles and David Luiz in the defence, bringing an overwhleming right-footed bias into a side that has been used to playing with at least two left-footers in the defence. With the dynamism and endeavour of Gabriel Martinelli also missing from the left flank, there was a telling lack of creative options for the Gunners down what has been our most productive flank.
The result was a return to the sort of timidity in attack that typified our play for much of the November/December period. It was also slow and predictable and generally easy to defend against. It served as a reminder that, as a team, we are one or two players away from being back to square one.
Tierney’s absence was particularly keenly felt on the night and raises questions around the decision to give him the full 120 minutes in the FA Cup at the weekend when, arguably, he would have been better rested for the Premier League.
All things considered, it was a disappointing effort from the Gunners and a reminder that more bodies are still needed in this squad to build up some resilience and some depth of quality, something which this match showed us again is lacking.
On a positive note we welcomed back Thomas Partey to the midfield, if only for a cautious 20-minute period as the match petered-out. He was never going to be a match-winner but, hopefully, if we can get him on the pitch from the start, he can begin to build his influence on the midfield, particularly in games where we struggle to progress the ball against compact opponents.
While our opportunity to make real strides up the table may have passed us by for now, it is not yet disappeared. A point keeps us moving in the right direction, if a little slower than we might have liked. Monday’s trip to Newcastle – another team which will doubtless look to make like difficult by sitting deep – takes on another level of importance, you feel now like three points is the minimum.