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Arsenal turn a corner in title race with big win vs. Palace

LONDON — The answer to Arsenal’s goal-scoring problems was there all along. Mikel Arteta sought to explain the issue this week by pointing to internal data suggesting they carried more of a threat than recent results would suggest, and Saturday’s 5-0 win over Crystal Palace highlighted one key aspect: corners.

Arsenal took control of this encounter through two Gabriel Magalhães headers (the second later credited as a Dean Henderson own goal) which underlined the home side’s potency from dead-ball situations.

It provided an invaluable route back into some sort of form here, albeit tempered by Palace’s passivity — only Eberechi Eze emerged with any credit from a collectively insipid performance that places manager Roy Hodgson’s future under further scrutiny. The irony is, the Gunners didn’t even prioritise set pieces during their training trip to Dubai during their midseason break.

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“The reality is that we trained set pieces less in the last week than other aspects of the game,” Arteta said postmatch. “This is the beauty of it. But we worked on a lot of things that actually happened and we trained them a lot. Set pieces are a big part of us, especially against teams that want to defend deeply. It is a good way to win games.”

Gabriel’s 11th-minute header — which came from a corner that, in a new development, was taken by Declan Rice — was Arsenal’s first goal at home in 50 shots. Before this game, Arsenal had won more Premier League corners this season (158) than any other team, and by some distance — Manchester City are next best on 141. And they make the most of them. Arsenal have scored more goals from corners than any other team in the league this season (10), and their 10 headed goals are also the most of any side.

The club’s set-piece coach, Nicolas Jover, worked with Arteta for several months under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City in 2019 and he has helped transform an area of weakness prior to his arrival into one of strength. Arsenal had conceded goals from set pieces — four in six games prior to their winter break — but here they turned those moments in both boxes back into positives for a result that puts them back on track in the title race after one win in seven games across all competitions.

“This is the second part of the season, we want to tackle it with a lot of aggression and motivation,” Arteta said. “I would like to play three days after, but it is what it is. We will keep preparing and we must continue to do better and improve as a team.”

Gabriel has scored at least three more goals than any other centre-back since he made his Premier League debut in 2020. He thought he had another when meeting Bukayo Saka’s 37th-minute delivery but the decisive touch came from Henderson as he flapped helplessly on his goal line.

“They were good set pieces,” Hodgson said. “But there were infringements for both of the goals but we weren’t lucky enough to have those recognised by the referee.”

The goal from open play that Arteta craved came on 59 minutes. Technically, it came from a Palace corner. A sweeping counter-attack started with smart distribution from David Raya and ended with Gabriel Jesus feeding Leandro Trossard, who cut inside on his right foot and thrashed a shot past Henderson.

Arsenal’s only concern was injury scares to Rice and Gabriel, who both appeared to suffer hamstring issues, triggering their immediate precautionary withdrawals.

“[Rice] was feeling some tightness,” Arteta said. “I don’t know exactly what muscle it was but when he says that at 3-0, obviously we don’t want to take any risks. The same with big ‘Gabi’ as well. He had some discomfort, I think he had a tackle in the first half and he was a bit struggling so it was the right moment to take him off.”

Arsenal were so comfortable here that Arteta was able to give Emile Smith Rowe a 20-minute run-out as proof he will get game time if he stays at the club amid interest from West Ham United in taking the midfielder on loan. The same is also true of Eddie Nketiah, afforded the final nine minutes as Palace continue to monitor his situation. How they need a goal scorer on this evidence.

Michael Olise’s absence due to a hamstring problem left Eze as the sole creator. His smart turns in tight spaces and quick skill to dart away from opponents was a flash of light in the darkness of a dismal display that prompted Palace supporters to unveil a banner that read: “Wasted potential on and off the pitch. Weak decisions taking us backwards.” It was hard to disagree.

Another substitute, Gabriel Martinelli struck twice in stoppage time to add further gloss to the scoreline as Palace unravelled completely. After shaking hands with Arteta and several members of his backroom staff, Hodgson stood motionless, alone, on the touchline, staring in the general direction of the away fans who raised their protest banner once again.

Arsenal now have another 10-day break until travelling to Nottingham Forest — plenty of time to work on further innovation with Arteta able to reflect on more positive data. Saturday’s display returned their highest expected goals (xG) of the season: 3.02. This time, they got the points to go with it.

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