A test of character awaits Arsenal on Saturday as they look to rebound from their first defeat in over two months with a trip to Crystal Palace. Having won 12 of 13 matches since an ignominious home loss to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, Arsenal were exposed late on to allow Borussia Dortmund to a secure a 2-1 victory in their Champions League clash at the Emirates Stadium. After displaying a propensity for mental fragility in recent seasons, Arsene Wenger’s side have a further chance to prove that this is a new Arsenal this season.
The loss to Dortmund will certainly have hurt. It would be unfair to Napoli and Tottenham to say that the match against last season’s Champions League finalists was Arsenal’s first real test of the season, but it was certainly their toughest. Ultimately, they came up short. Afterward, Wenger was left lamenting his side’s naivety in pushing for a win, when a draw would have kept Arsenal in pole position in their group, and leaving holes at the back to allow Robert Lewandowski to volley home. It is also true that Dortmund outplayed Arsenal for long periods.
Key to both the Gunners’ performance and their late concession was the absence of Mathieu Flamini. As when he went off with a concussion against Norwich last weekend, his value was perhaps been more when he was absent. The French midfielder’s return to the club on a free transfer this summer was unheralded, but he has been key in establishing a more combative and harder-working tone when Arsenal don’t have the ball. Against a side that press as well, if not better, than any team in Europe on Tuesday, Arsenal’s lack of work rate off the ball was shown up.
There will be plenty of relief then that Flamini will be fit for Saturday, although just how much he will be needed against a Palace side on a run of five-straight defeats is debatable. After being undone by two wonder strikes to fall behind against Fulham, Palace capitulated to a team not exactly known for their dynamism. The 4-1 defeat proved so debilitating that manager Ian Holloway later tended his resignation and, after chairman Steve Parish initially tried to talk him down, eventually left by mutual consent.
Having made 14 signings in the summer on the back of a rudimentary scouting system, Holloway conceded that the spirit of the squad that won promotion last season had been ripped out. Assistant coach Keith Millen will take attempt to pick up the pieces against Arsenal. While it is often the case that a manager’s departure leads to an initial upturn in results, it is hard to see that happening in this case. Palace have used 24 players in their eight matches so far this season and not only are they devoid of quality but of any identity or cohesion either.
Ironically, the only team in the Premier League to have used as many players as Palace thus far is Arsenal. There the similarity ends. Wenger’s hand has been forced through injury, a problem that continues to plague the club. While there is good news on the horizon, with Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Yaya Sanogo due back in a couple of weeks, the sight of Jack Wilshere hobbling off against Dortmund brought much concern given his personal history with injuries. Although he claimed to be all right following the match, his precise diagnosis remains unclear.
Regardless of the midfielder’s availability, Arsenal should have far too much for Palace at Selhurst Park. When Arsenal are allowed to play they can rip teams apart and that could well happen as they look to put the Dortmund loss firmly behind them.
Prediction: Crystal Palace 0-3 Arsenal
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.