On Sunday, Arsenal hosted a Crystal Palace side renowned for their results on the road; both sides featured two African players in attack, but which of the duos was most effective?
Unai Emery decided to start Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe in the same line-up for this game, doing so by initially using a narrow 4-4-2 with Pepe and Dani Ceballos coming inside from wide positions to allow a front pairing of ‘Auba and Laca’.
Crystal Palace set up in a defensive 4-5-1 with Jordan Ayew leading the line and Wilfried Zaha wide on the left, but with some degree of freedom to flit across the front-line to involve himself.
The opening period of the game saw Arsenal 2-0 up after just nine minutes from two excellent corners from Pepe, whose deliveries from dead-ball situations were arguably Arsenal’s most consistent route to creating chances.
In general, Pepe’s involvement in the opening period was not particularly effective, with his three first-half dribbles usually from making his way out of tight spaces in deeper areas. He was not generally enjoying facing a deep, organised defence and had just 10 touches in the opening 23 minutes.
The Ivory Coast winger’s best first-half moment in open play came late on as Aubameyang found him after a quick freekick, and although Pepe’s shot clipped the post, the offside flag had been raised.
Aubameyang, meanwhile, managed to have one of the half’s best other openings as he raced onto a long Matteo Guendouzi pass on a counter-attack, but his first touch was poor and he skewed his shot well wide.
Other than the two above moments, the Gabon forward was a peripheral figure as he touched the ball just 11 times in the first half. In truth, things didn’t improve for him in the second period as Palace kept him quiet or pressured him whenever he received the ball centrally or wide.
His only other contribution of note was a shot from range after Pepe’s late switch of play, and after his sensational start to the season with seven goals in his first seven Premier League games, it’s now over 300 minutes without scoring.
Pepe also struggled to influence the game in the second period, although he did make a late burst forward to win a corner as he finally injected some tempo into an otherwise languid display. It was his delivery after 65 minutes with nearly saw James McArthur put into his own net, whilst it was his corner which led to the VAR-disallowed goal for Sokratis in the 82nd minute.
However, when your biggest contributions are all from dead-ball situations, it’s a worrying sign.
For Palace, Zaha had a point to prove after Arsenal’s failed move to sign him in the last transfer window before instead bringing in his international teammate in the same general position.
Matteo Guendouzi Wilfried Zaha Arsenal vs Crystal Palace 2019-20.
Zaha’s numbers prior to this game had seen a dip in chances created and shots per game as teams use double-marking or tactical fouling to keep him quiet. Outings on his less-favoured right flank have perhaps also played a part.
It was a slow start to this game with his side under pressure but he grew well into both halves. In the 29th minute came the first big flash-point as the winger was booked for simulation, but VAR overturned the decision and awarded a penalty.
Zaha had timed a run in-behind the defence on the left, then pulled off a trademark contribution by dragging the ball to the left and provoking a challenge.
Former Premier League referee, Mark Clattenburg said in his Daily Mail column had the original decision should have stood.
“Wilfried Zaha clearly dived,” he said. “Referee Martin Atkinson was right to book the Palace man for simulation. He was in a perfect position to make the call, too.
“Calum Chambers' leg was planted and Zaha threw himself to the ground.”
This was a surprising stance, as Chambers’ leg had clearly impeded Zaha, who would have had to hurdle over it to retrieve the ball. The defender had found himself square on and into a position when he could not reach the ball after the Palace man’s moment of skill.
That decision took the winger to 16 career Premier League penalties won, the joint-most in the competition’s history with Raheem Sterling and Jamie Vardy.
Although Arsenal right-back Chambers was only booked later on, he was he a sitting duck against Zaha after that, with the winger turning him several times.
On one occasion, Chambers chopped him down, then Zaha cut inside and shot over the bar from distance. He nearly won the game late on after rolling Chambers in a central position and seeing a shot deflected narrowly wide of the post.
There was also some strong Eagles defending to contain Pepe as Arsenal countered from a Palace corner, a ‘second assist’ for the equaliser, and a late break which saw him hauled down by Guendouzi.
The Franco-Moroccan midfielder later acknowledged to Arsenal.com that Zaha was in a dangerous position and that his action was calculated.
“I had to foul Zaha at the end, otherwise he is through on goal on his own,” the midfielder began. “I'm the last defender, but I’m far from our goal as well. I had to do it.”
Alongside Zaha was Ayew who, after netting just one league goal last season, he scored his fourth of the season in this game.
After Zaha found James McArthur’s run into the channel, the Ghana striker peeled off David Luiz at the back post and headed past Bernd Leno.
His goals this season have been a huge reason for Palace’s excellent start, with match-winning strikes against Aston Villa and West Ham United, the opener in a win at Old Trafford against Manchester United, and then the equaliser here.
He proved an excellent focal point for the side, winning five aerial duels and drawing numerous freekicks as Luiz took him down three times as he held the ball up. Later, Sokratis forced to hack him down after a dribble from deep.
When Ayew was taken off after 80 minutes, he was very unhappy with the decision – understandable after an outing where he made a lot of very little service and played very selflessly for the team.
Overall, with a goal and a penalty won, Palace’s duo edged this game against Arsenal’s combo, and this was a performance that showcased the qualities that both Zaha and Ayew bring to Roy Hodgson’s side.