Another away game brought another humiliation for an Arsenal team that is so dysfunctional as to make a mockery of Arsene Wenger’s continued management of the club. If their 3-1 defeat at West Bromwich Albion felt like a nadir then this was even worse. Utterly outplayed by Crystal Palace, this Arsenal no-show was yet another refutation of the case for Wenger to sign a new deal.
Arsenal got everything wrong all over the pitch. Their defence was a mess, shredded by Andros Townsend, Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke with every attack. On another night Crystal Palace could have scored five or six, strange as that may sound. Arsenal put up no real fight in midfield and up front they never looked like scoring. Rarely has a team been so comprehensively beaten by one ten places beneath it.
This is a huge win for Crystal Palace, moving them six points clear of Swansea City with another game in hand on them. But ultimately this was about Arsenal, their failings and their problems. They are now seven points adrift of fourth and it is impossible to see them making that gap up playing like this. They have an FA Cup semi-final to worry about too, against a Manchester City who let them off the hook last weekend.
But even big games and competitions are insignificant compared to the only questions that matter at the club: whether Wenger should stay as manager, and whether he will.
On that first count this evening was emphatic, a far stronger case against Wenger than the West Ham United defeat argued for him. All of Arsenal’s failings in the late Wenger era were on show here: the exposed defence, the lack of fight, the passivity with and without the ball.
Arsenal looked even worse because they were up against a Palace side who, for all the resource imbalance, could do the things Arsenal have let slip. This was about a team who knows its strengths and weaknesses, who adjusts for opponents, who has a clear plan to win the game, a team who is simply well-coached, being lucky enough to stumble on an opponent who is none of those things. Yes, the Palace players played well and the Arsenal players played badly but that does not happen in a vacuum. This was Allardyce’s triumph and Wenger’s failure.
If Arsenal thought that Palace would be as pliant as West Ham were in midweek they quickly learned otherwise. Palace were compact, strong and efficient, everything you would expect from an Allardyce team. Of course they let Arsenal have the ball, as they were always going to. But they made sure to get everything right in both boxes, knowing that Arsenal would not.
Shkodran Mustafi is half the player without Laurent Koscielny alongside him and here Palace targeted him from the start, and it worked. Mustafi was forced into some desperate lunges for the ball, and was lucky not to be booked when he upended Christian Benteke in the first half. Only when he chopped down Andros Townsend later on was he eventually carded.
By then Palace had already taken the lead with a goal that perfectly illustrated Arsenal’s failings. After a long Wayne Hennessey kick, Benteke beat Gabriel to win the first header. Palace won the second ball too and moved the ball to Wilfried Zaha on the right. He slipped but still squeezed his cross through the defence to Townsend, lurking at the near post. The finish was simple.
This should have woken Arsenal up but it did not. There was no reaction, no spark, not even after half-time when Wenger had the chance to remind his players what he expected of them. Either Wenger let the players off again or they did not care enough to listen.
The second half was all about Zaha, in the form of his life, beating Nacho Monreal every time he attacked him. First Zaha crossed for Benteke, whose shot was saved by Emi Martinez. Then his cross ended with Benteke tapping in from close range, only for the goal to be disallowed for offside. Palace knew they could not relax until they had their second, but soon enough it came.
One sharp Townsend pass set Zaha away again down the right. Monreal was miles away, Gabriel made half an effort to stop the cross. So Zaha pulled the ball back to Cabaye on the edge of the box, and he looped his shot over Martinez and in.
Martinez might have been unfortunate for the second but the third was his fault. Bellerin was running side-by-side with Townsend but Martinez, desperate to impress, slid in and cleaned them both out. Michael Oliver awarded the penalty and Luka Milivojevic, the new Serbian midfielder, put the ball into the bottom corner.
What more could Arsenal do? Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey had already come on, making no impact. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on for the last 20 minutes but he could do nothing to turn a game that was already deeply lost. This was nothing to do with individual quality. Arsenal had Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil on the pitch, and they contributed little.
This was about the collectives and the managers and the simple fact is that in 2017, Allardyce is better at getting the most out of his players than Wenger is. That says a lot about Wenger’s sad decline but also why, at the end of this season, it has to stop.
Crystal Palace (4-4-1-1): Hennessey; Ward, Kelly, Sakho, Schlupp; Zaha, Milivojevic, Puncheon, Townsend; Cabaye; Benteke.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Martinez; Bellerin, Mustafi, Gabriel, Monreal; Elneny, Xhaka; Walcott, Ozil, Sanchez; Welbeck.