Crystal Palace host Arsenal in the lunchtime game on Saturday, as Roy Hodgson’s side look to bounce back from a disappointing FA Cup defeat at home to Derby County. Injuries are piling up for the Eagles, and Hodgson has claimed he will be barely able to field eleven fit players come Saturday, and with key men such as Luka Milivojevic, Andros Townsend and potentially even Wilfried Zaha on the side lines, Mikel Arteta will be sensing an opportunity to capitalise.
Arsenal head into the game on the back of a hard-fought win over Leeds in the FA Cup, where they were made to panic in a lacklustre first half against the impressive Championship side, but tactical tweaks from Arteta at half time helped his side improve and qualify for the next round. The improving performances, including a comprehensive 2-0 over Manchester United, will give Gunners fans reason to be optimistic ahead of Saturday’s clash, and it should be an interesting clash at Selhurst Park.
Crystal Palace have been consistent in how they set up against the higher class of Premier League opposition, as they look to sit deep and concede possession for large parts of the game, before looking to utilise their pace on the counter attack, often through the likes of Zaha and Townsend on the break. However, with their current injury troubles, it is going to be tough for Palace to approach the game as they normally do, with many of their preferred outlets missing through injury.
Hodgson is still expected to line up with his preferred 4-5-1 formation, however quite how he adapts the personnel around the injuries awaits to be seen, and could leave a number of vulnerable areas for Arsenal to target come Saturday. Against Derby in the FA Cup, Connor Wickham was asked to lead the line, with Jordan Ayew moved out wide and youngster Brandon Pierrick handed a start on the opposite flank, and a similar shape will be expected.
Wickham will be asked to lead the line, and his target man ability will need to come into play against the Arsenal backline, which can at times struggle against the physical presence of a target man. With Palace sitting deep and relying upon Wickham as an out ball, he will be in for a long afternoon, and his hold up play will be key to stopping Arsenal from building up too much pressure and onslaught of the Palace backline.
Palace often rely upon the wingers to push up and provide the link, as well as an out ball to drive out from the defensive areas, but Ayew isn’t as well suited to this role, whilst if Zaha misses out, it will either be a big ask of Pierrick on the wing, or could see James McCarthur asked to fill in out wide, particularly as someone who can offer more defensive cover against a top side.
As a result, it will be no surprise to see Crystal Palace struggle to get out from their own half for long periods, and see Arsenal see plenty of possession, and as a result see their passes rack up throughout. Arteta has begun to see his style implemented on the Gunners, and this is proving to be effective in the last two games, as his side have shown much more structure, particularly in midfield, as Granit Xhaka has looked revitalised with the increased reliance put on the Swiss midfielder, as well as attacking freedom.
Against Leeds, he constantly offered his side an outlet by driving up the pitch and getting involved much higher up the pitch than under Unai Emery, and this comes with a more reserved role for his central midfield partner, whether Lucas Torreira or Matteo Guendouzi. As a result, keeping both the Swiss midfielder and an improving Mesut Ozil quiet will be key for Crystal Palace, as Manchester United found it hard to do so on New Years Day. Arsenal did struggle in the first half against Leeds with the intensity of Marcelo Bielsa’s sides pressing game, but it is hard to see Palace open up in the same way, given their lack of attacking options at Hodgson’s disposal, as well as lack of pace at the back, and it will be vital for Arsenal to have an excellent creative performance out of either Xhaka or Ozil.
With Gary Cahill expected to partner James Tomkins up front, they will look to sit very deep and not concede space in behind for the pacey Arsenal attack, and this could see an increased reliance on attacking out wide for Arsenal, especially with a congested central area expected. Ozil will be given a free role and expected to drift wide where the support is, whilst the full backs will look to press high and offer support and create 2v1s with the wingers, especially with makeshift wide midfielders expected to start. If Ayew starts out wide for Palace, Arsenal could look to target this flank with his defensive struggles, and this could bring a lot of joy for the Gunners throughout the game, especially if he starts on the left flank as against Derby.
Nicholas Pepe has started to hit form and will be full of confidence after his goal against Manchester United, and he gave both Luke Shaw and Nemanja Matic a torrid time in the victory. Coming up against Jairo Riedewald and potentially Ayew, although this could be Zaha if passed fit, he will be ably supported by full back Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and Arsenal could look to focus attacks down this flank. The hit and miss nature of the Ivorian attacker does bring into play both the card and tackles markets, in the same way that Zaha sees the same markets come into play for himself up against Maitland-Niles, and these are two areas certainly worth keeping an eye on.
If Zaha is passed fit, Arsenal will be wary of his threat after his ability on the counter attack in the reverse fixture saw him win a penalty on the break, and with Arsenal’s full backs expected to push on and provide an overlap, it could leave them vulnerable against the break, and the covering centre back will potentially need to drop slightly deeper to watch against Zaha’s pace and trickery. It is worth noting that Crystal Palace do have two of the most fouled players in the Premier League in Zaha (3.2 fouls per game) and Ayew (2.5 fouls per game), so the card markets could easily come into play for an Arsenal side who will be vulnerable to the breaks from these attackers in particular. Paul Tierney takes charge, and whilst he is one of the more lenient referees, it is a game that should still lend itself to cards being accumulated on either side, and could offer some value up in the betting, particularly on the individual card markets.
Given Crystal Palace’s injury woes, they look particularly vulnerable to a resurgent Arsenal side under Arteta. Although priced in some places at a competitive 1.90, I’d be happy to add in Over 1.5 as their stretched defence will be vulnerable to the attacking threat Arsenal have at their disposal, and this subsequently sees Arsenal to win and over 1.5 goals at 2.20 (Bet365).
Although referee Paul Tierney on the whistle is one of the more lenient referees in the Premier League, the tactical elements of the match do lend itself to a number of tactical fouls, particularly if Arsenal are caught on the break, or Palace are chasing the game. Interestingly, given Palace could be forced to come out and chase the game, they are an appealing prospect on the card handicap, particularly when considering their lack of pace at the back and Arsenal’s own ability to control the game and counter. Pepe will be relishing the opportunity against Riedewald, and in recent weeks the Ivorian winger has seen himself fouled at a much higher volume when he completes 90 minutes, with six against City standing out. As a result, both Palace to have more cards at 3.10 (Bet365), and Riedewald to be carded at 5.00 (Bet365) do look promising options.