by James O'Conners
Jordan Ayew was the hero and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang the villain as Crystal Palace and Arsenal shared the spoils in the pick of the Premier League games at Selhurst Park this weekend.
Coming into this game, much of the talk revolved around Wilfried Zaha facing the Gunners, the club who tried to buy him in the off-season, and the winger they signed instead, in Nicolas Pepe.
Both players were expected to showcase their significant dribbling ability, whilst two other African stars, Aubameyang and Jordan also started in attacking positions.
For Palace, Ayew led the line, but had a largely defensive brief – to drop onto Arsenal’s deep-lying central midfielders when Mikel Arteta’s men were building up. That would allow the central midfield trio to stay compact and limit the space between the backline and midfield units.
Arsenal used their usual shape in Premier League action so far under Arteta – a 4-2-3-1 structure with Mesut Ozil occupying the right half-space and Aubameyang the left half-space, giving the Gunners significant threat between the lines.
On the same flank were Pepe and Zaha, the latter often so deep that he often found himself doubling up on his Ivory Coast teammate.
After an opening 10 minutes in which Arsenal had 80 percent of the ball, Aubameyang gave them the lead.
His start to the game had been very bright with a fine layoff and then run up the line to win a corner in the opening minute and, later, a clever backheel to continue his burgeoning understand with Sead Kolasinac.
When the goal arrived, it was lovely team effort.
David Luiz found Ozil behind Palace’s midfield, he passed to Alexandre Lacazette and the France striker put Auba through on goal to finish.
This was a perfect example of the latter’s ‘third man running’, which has been a trademark since Arteta took over.
That goal means the Arsenal captain has scored 11 times and assisted on four occasions in London derbies since joining the club, a goal contribution every 86.5 minutes on the field in those matches.
Aside from those early clever touches and the goal, there was some good movement and very responsible defensive work on the left flank, but not much other goal threat.
Nigeria (@GoalcomNigeria) January 11, 2020
His strike came from his only shot and in the second half, Palace got a real foothold in the game, limiting Aubameyang to just seven touches in his 21 second half minutes before being sent off.
The Gunners skipper will miss the upcoming Premier League matches against Sheffield United and Chelsea, as well as the FA Cup fourth round tie against Bournemouth. He will return for the away game at Burnley on February 2.
Pepe was another player to show flashes of class but not sustain it for the entire game.
He drew a superb fingertip save from Vicente Guaita onto the post in the 83rd minute after switching over to the left flank, whilst it was his corner delivery that David Luiz headed over the bar in the 62nd minute, ending 50 minutes for Arsenal without a single attempt since their goal.
The other dangerous moment from the winger saw him go past James McCarthy, sell Gary Cahill a lovely dummy, but was then guilty of a heavy touch before he could get a shot away.
However, these were very much flashes in an inconsistent display which included only touching the ball once in the 17 minutes between the half-hour mark and half-time.
On Palace’s side, this was not an attacking game to remember for either Zaha or Ayew, despite the latter’s opportunistic equaliser.
When Arsenal lost concentration on a freekick, Palace took it quickly to Max Meyer and the ball made his way to Ayew via Cheikhou Kouyate.
The Ghana striker got his shot away quickly and scored via a wicked deflection off David Luiz.
That strike made Ayew the first Palace player since 1972 to score goals both home and away against Arsenal in a league season. It was his only shot on target in what was an excellent defensive performance from the striker.
Ayew’s biggest contribution was in making two tackles and two interceptions and committing seven fouls in the opening hour to break up Arsenal’s rhythm. He drew five freekicks with his close control and strong hold-up play and that allowed Palace to get a footing in the game and move up the pitch.
However, in an attacking sense, he had only three touches inside the box and most of his passes were in very deep areas. Once Cenk Tosun came on up front, he moved to the right flank and did a strong defensive job on Kolasinac.
Zaha, meanwhile, had one of his least effective games in a while. For the opening hour, he got very little joy out of taking on Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who could match him for pace in every attack.
However, once the Arsenal full-back was yellow-carded and the visitors were down to ten men, the influence of Zaha grew a little.
It was his 78th-minute cross from which James Tomkins forced Sokratis to clear off the line and as the clock ran down, the Ivory Coast man was nudged over in the box for a penalty shout.
This was not a game to savour for the four African players, as Aubameyang’s afternoon was ruined by a red card, Pepe struck the post and fluffed his other chance, Ayew spent most of the game either fouling or getting fouled, and Zaha was a peripheral figure against the club he supported as a boy.
The biggest take-away is Ayew’s leveller and continued selfless work for the team.
His sixth league goal once again directly earned Palace points – as did most of his other five – and it was his ability to hold up the ball, break up play or draw fouls that changed the tide of this game.