This was the kind of performance that, at most clubs, might render the manager’s position untenable. It was a display so feeble that the only consolation for Arsène Wenger was that the delirious din whipped up by the majority at the final whistle served to drown out the poison being directed at the visiting players from the away section. Only a handful dared approach that seething mass of frustration in the corner of the Arthur Wait stand. Even those few who did were dismissed as unworthy.
Participation in next season’s Champions League looks a pipe-dream now for Arsenal who remain seven points behind fourth place and utterly rudderless. It is just about excusable to labour in contests against elite opposition, as they have so often, but they were thrashed here by Crystal Palace. Local delight at the triumph was born less of a first home win against these opponents since 1979, when Terry Venables was in charge and this team wore a sash, but more of the victory taking the hosts further from the relegation places.
That damned Arsenal in itself but, while Palace’s momentum will surely carry them clear of trouble, Wenger’s team are in a tailspin. A dismissal of West Ham last midweek had merely papered over gaping cracks. This side have now conceded three goals in each of their last four away games in the top flight – Wenger had never previously lost that many in succession – and, in truth, were fortunate to ship only that many here. It was as if they never recovered from a tardy arrival at the ground 45 minutes before kick-off. They began flustered and rarely offered even a hint of composure thereafter. Alexis Sánchez was holding his head in his hands long before the end, a pose which is becoming excruciatingly familiar, while Wenger merely looked forlorn. Something surely needs to change.
It has at Palace. Sam Allardyce’s rejuvenation of this team is almost complete with his impact on this squad demonstrated here in their breathless energy, snarling aggression and bite in forward areas which shamed the visitors. Mamadou Sakho was a colossus once again, inspiring those across a back-line who must have been braced for Sánchez, Olivier Giroud or Mesut Özil to dazzle as they so often have in this arena. But, in truth, none of that trio, nor Theo Walcott or Danny Welbeck for that matter, were permitted to prosper while the hosts snapped at them, forever disrupting rhythm on the approach. That harrying was even more devastating at the other end where the visitors’ fragility was exposed from the off.
Palace might have scored twice prior to edging ahead. Arsenal’s rearguard, denied Laurent Koscielny, was rendered ramshackle as opponents tore at them eagerly. “The whole emphasis on the players’ ability to shut them down, crowd them out of their fluent play, was the key to our success,” said Allardyce. The spaces that gaped were duly exploited by the lung-bursting running of Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha, or clever manouevring of Yohan Cabaye and Jason Puncheon. Christian Benteke tormented Shkodran Mustafi in the air and it was invariably a Palace player who gathered the knockdown.
“We were full of energy, full of fight, full of belief and full of talent in the end,” added a manager who, eight days previously, had overseen a victory at the division’s runaway leaders, Chelsea. “It’s been one hell of a week for me and everyone at Crystal Palace.”
Arsenal, wheezing at the brutality of it all, never really threatened to recover from that early bruising inflicted by Benteke. It was the Belgian who had flicked on just after the quarter-hour to spread the panic, Cabaye and Townsend exchanging neat passes on the edge of the visitors’ box before easing the ball wide for Zaha. The winger actually seemed to slip as he squared into the six-yard box but no Arsenal player reacted and Townsend was unmarked to convert.
The former Tottenham Hotspur winger would win a penalty from the panicked Emiliano Martínez’s lunge before the end, again from a Benteke flick which Arsenal could not repel. The excellent Luka Milivojevic thumped in his reward from the spot, prompting an ashen-faced Wenger to sink further into his trench coat on the Arsenal bench.
His team were still reeling from shipping a second moments earlier, a goal born of Townsend scrapping for possession at a throw-in and then sending Zaha free beyond a befuddled Nacho Monreal. The Ivorian sprinted into space and, rather than sliding a cross for Benteke, pulled his latest assist back to Cabaye at the top of the box. The Frenchman’s finish was clipped first time, arcing over Martínez and in. He had not scored here since 2015 and he has never delivered reward this sumptuous in a Palace shirt.
The first choruses of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” had been bellowed from the travelling support in the aftermath of those goals, the tone becoming more spiteful while the visitors mounted late pressure which meant nothing and yielded less. This whole display had been shambolic, a humiliation to endure in a corner of the capital where this club have tended to thrive. Walcott’s post-match apology will have fallen on deaf ears. This team truly is “lost”, as Ian Wright declared on social media. It is hard to see where their manager goes from here.