On a bitterly cold night, Arsenal’s apprehension hung in the air and their attempts to break down a stubborn Crystal Palace side melted away without any malice. If the Gunners’ four-match run of victories had been supposed to spark a return to loftier heights, this goalless draw brought them plummeting back to earth and once again revealed the depth of the cracks that have been papered.
It was not quite a full return to their old malaise, but it still served a sharp reminder of Arsenal’s struggles. Their attacks creaked without conviction and, when a spark was desperately required, nobody could muster a decisive stroke of ingenuity to set this damp affair alight. It was not for want of trying, but that has never been the issue.
So, in a season that’s already taken more twists than a contortionist, Arsenal still find themselves treading water in the middle ground. Their hopes not quite sunk but hardly gathering pace. This was the fifth time in succession they’ve dropped points against Palace and it might well have been worse were the Eagles not so blunt themselves.
Because while Roy Hodgson’s approach seems to have eroded Palace’s imagination in recent weeks, in a run that now reads as just one win in their last eight matches, they did set up with an urgency here as Wilfried Zaha and Eberechi Eze – starting in spite of his recent Covid breach – inspired a more willing attack.
It made for an open contest, with both sides breaking in swift tides and testing the resolve of one another’s questionable defences. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, replacing the injured Kieran Tierney, surged down the left flank with force but was let down by a lack of final ball. Emile Smith Rowe, the flourishing academy graduate who starred against Newcastle, could not tap into that same vein of magic and, in truth, Arsenal were flat and uninspired from the off.
Instead, it was Palace who threatened. Eze’s slippery runs inside incited momentary panic before Zaha’s wild howl beguiled the referee into a foul on the edge of the box, much to the displeasure of Granit Xhaka, who, unsurprisingly, did not accept the slight graciously.
Eze’s attempt soared over the bar and it fell to Arsenal’s captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose form has barely been lifted by his side’s recent resurgence, to provide an antidote to the tedium. An explosive sprint down the wing left Joel Ward all but stationary and it did at least inject his side with spirit. A drilled shot swerved violently and was palmed away by Vicente Guaita before Bukayo Saka’s curling effort again sent the goalkeeper scrabbling.
As Arsenal have come to know better than most, though, their moments of promise this season are often shudderingly brief. And while they stuttered, Palace unleashed in a fusillade. Zaha was the driving force behind every attack and often irresistible, even if his moments of ingenuity are played out between fits of sulks and tantrums. Twice he pierced the gap between Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin and fed Benteke, only for the striker’s shots to be easily gobbled up by Bernd Leno.
Leno then incited further angst, hesitating to a floating ball which Tompkins pounced on and the centre-back’s header rocked the crossbar. But the goalkeeper made amends almost straight afterwards, producing an outstanding leap to tip Benteke’s towering header over the bar.
Galvanised by Arteta at half time, Arsenal’s response seemed to catch Palace cold. With their defence ragged, Bellerin seized on a rebound but his drive only managed to blister the side-netting. Saka waltzed into newfound space, Ceballos dictated an increase in tempo while Alexandre Lacazette, who had in fact played the first 45 minutes, finally cast at least some material influence on the match.
But with every drop of added intent, Arsenal left themselves exposed. Zaha, becoming increasingly antagonised by Arsenal’s biting tackles, made a mockery of the space only to be left isolated all on his own. It is a great shame that Benteke, whose hold up play remains excellent, seems to have been deprived of his finishing instincts, the years of goalscoring rot wearing down his teeth.
Their inability to score increasingly apparent, Palace seemed to take more comfort in a point and, in turn, Arsenal gathered a final wind. In the end, though, despite the introductions of Nicolas Pepe and Eddie Nketiah, they blew little more than smoke on an evening that was relieved to see an end and three points would have amounted to a minor case of theft.