It was a night to test the durability of the extremities and, also, the strength of Arsenal’s mini-revival. It does not seem so long ago that they were mired in that gruesome slump, unable to buy a victory or even, seemingly, a goal.
The statistics showed they had scored just four in 10 Premier League games up to the defeat at Everton on 19 December but at kick-off here they could reflect on eight in the previous three – all of them victories.
Arsenal being Arsenal, they duly punctured the mood of cautious optimism by playing out a scoreless draw and, amid plunging temperatures, the truth was that it could have been worse for them.
Crystal Palace hit the crossbar through the defender James Tomkins, and if Christian Benteke in particular had been able to locate a cutting edge in front of goal, the visitors would have had more fulsome reward for a performance of energy, discipline and no little thrust.
It was difficult to remember Arsenal extending the Palace goalkeeper, Vicente Guaita, and their frustrations were summed up in the 84th minute when they tried to counter through the substitute, Eddie Nketiah, only for him to be fouled by Joel Ward.
The incident happened directly in front of Mikel Arteta and, when the ball spun clear, the Arsenal manager edged ran on to the field to swipe at it and the nearby Andros Townsend. There was contact between him and Townsend – as we are obliged to say these days – and Arteta was perhaps fortunate that the Palace winger wore a broad smile instead of a scowl and did not seek to make anything of it.
Roy Hodgson, the Palace manager, said he hoped that the performance would do a lot for the confidence of his players moving forward and there was a sense of adventure about his 4-4-2 formation, in which Wilfried Zaha played in attack alongside Benteke. That said, Zaha’s license to roam was pronounced and the forward was involved in many of his team’s best sequences.
Palace were bright in the first half and unlucky not to lead at the end of it. Eberechi Eze glided with intent off the left – what a lovely stride he has, matched by a composure in possession – while Benteke was effective and selfless with his link-up play.
Arsenal dared not give Zaha too much space and his best moment of the first half came when he swapped passes with Benteke and sliced away from two Arsenal challenges inside the penalty area. He could not get away from a third, which was put in by Granit Xhaka. The Arsenal midfielder made a series of important one-on-one tackles and he was his team’s best performer.
It had to be said that there was not much competition. Emile Smith Rowe faded after a few flashes in the first half while there was little from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette or Bukayo Saka.
Palace thought they had the lead on 39 minutes when Tomkins got above Rob Holding to meet an Eze free-kick only for his header to come back off the woodwork while, minutes later, Tyrick Mitchell crossed from the left for Benteke, whose header drew a flying save out of Bernd Leno. Palace could also point to the moment in the 29th minute when Mitchell cut the ball back and Benteke, leaning back, lifted wastefully high.
Arsenal only quickened the pulses once before the break when Smith Rowe crossed low for Lacazette, having been released up the right by Xhaka. But with Lacazette shaping to shoot, Héctor Bellerín arrived to nudge the ball away from him and to nobody in particular.
It was a good example of Arsenal’s lack of cohesion. They got into some decent positions at times but the final action was routinely missing. Aubameyang cut in from the left and banged straight at Guaita, who parried up into the air before grabbing at the second attempt, while Saka shot tamely at the goalkeeper.
Arsenal lacked spark – Arteta said it was a lack of freshness because of the number of matches they have played – and it was plain that they missed their in-form left-back, Kieran Tierney, who had to pull out at the last moment because of a tight calf. His withdrawal unhinged Arteta’s plans. Tierney faces a scan on Friday.
Arsenal began the second half at a higher tempo, with Bellerín and Tierney’s replacement, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, pressing high from the full-back positions. Both of them had sights of goal; Bellerín’s was the better chance, but he lashed wide.
Arteta replaced Maitland-Niles with Nicolas Pépé – a switch that saw Saka go from right wing to left-back – and it was an illustration of the manager’s determination to push for the win. But it also allowed Palace to flicker on the counter, with Xhaka cutting out one Zaha cross that was aimed for Benteke. From the ensuing corner, Benteke ought to have done better with his header.