Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is maybe, just maybe, starting to learn from his mistakes on the road heading into the business end of the campaign. That's if an ugly win at Crystal Palace this afternoon is anything to go by, because there was more than a hint of rope-a-dope about a 2-1 victory which saw the Gunners earn three points without ever threatening to leave second gear.
Wenger's side have had something of a bi-polar attitude away home this season, with a breakthrough victory at Manchester City last month proving that Wenger is capable of setting up a conservative team that can soak up pressure and be ruthless on the counter if required.
The Gunners went with the same approach at Tottenham Hotspur two weeks ago, it failed. A disappointing defeat at White Hart Lane hasn't altered Wenger's thinking though, because for 75 minutes against Palace they played with the handbrake on and despite an almighty scare in stoppage time earned victory courtesy of grit, determination and a huge dollop of luck to boot.
Wenger has suffered some humiliating setbacks away from home that have shaped this new, pragmatic, approach, one that Blues boss Jose Mourinho would be happy to call his own.
Remember Arsenal's embarrassing first-half collapse at the Britannia Stadium in December in their last 3pm kickoff on a Saturday afternoon?
You can be sure Wenger does, because he picked a team to face Palace that took an Eagles attack packed with pace and potential into account. Quite a departure for a manager often criticised for being tactically inflexible.
Chambers got the protection he desperately needed
Calum Chambers was forced into the starting XI at right-back after Hector Bellerin passed a late fitness test, but to accommodate for that adjustment Danny Welbeck featured and played noticeably deeper in front of his full-back for large parts of the first 45 minutes.
Arsenal can ill-afford to let Chambers defend on-one-one when he’s in that position due to a lack of pace, which Dwight Gayle looked to exploit on a number of occasions.
Welbeck was an insurance policy that helped Arsenal stay solid early on, even though at the other end their exciting array of attacking options consistently failed to link with any kind of purpose.
Left-back was a similar story. Nacho Monreal look vulnerable against Wilfried Zaha, but regular support from Alexis Sanchez to stem the tide. Wenger even brought Kieran Gibbs on to be ultra-cautious late on, which actually worked against the Gunners as it gave struggling Palace full-back Papa Souare licence to bomb on.
Wenger's thinking was clear though, contain and win rather than look to score a third and kill the match. That Arsenal nearly blew it late on as Yannick Bolasie's 95th-minute cross came off the woodwork and into David Ospina's grateful gloves is incidental, Wenger has decided to evolve rather than become extinct.
Ozil switches inside
Wenger made a second important adjustment as Mesut Ozil was moved inside to his preferred number 10 position this afternoon, compared to a wide role which puts pressure on the German international to track back.
Ozil was ineffectual for long spells but did Arsenal no damage without the ball, almost the opposite to what happened to the World Cup winner at White Hart Lane last month. The £42.4m man scored the opening goal in that match but then let his side down in terms of doing his best defensively, that wasn't allowed to happen again this afternoon.
Ozil was actually left as Arsenal’s furthest man forward a few times in South London and showed why early in the second half, controlling a hopeful clearance and delaying a pass to perfection to Alexis Sanchez could gallop clean through on goal.
Sanchez skewed his strike just wide, but it was still a lovely piece of play that served as a showcase for the German’s unique selling point perfectly.
Giroud is irreplaceable to Wenger right now
Olivier Giroud also showed why he’s vital to this Arsenal side, because his physical presence at its most basic gave the Gunners an out-ball that simply wasn’t on elsewhere this afternoon.
Giroud is much more than just a target man and has the goal record to prove it, but when needs must he serves that purpose just as well as any forward not named Diego Costa in the Premier League.
His game-killing goal, a 50th in Arsenal colours, moments before half-time continued a prolific run in 2015 that’s seen the Frenchman score times in games.
It’s no co-incidence that the Gunners have won eight of their last nine in all competitions just as Giroud has found his shooting boots, even if he rarely gets the praise his performances deserve.
Slowly but surely Giroud's critics, and there's plenty of them, have to give the fine-haired Frenchman some overdue praise. Widely considered to a flat-track bully and a big-game bottle job, he's scored against Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City this season.
Giroud is close to the only player in this Arsenal squad that Wenger has no direct replacement for, which is exactly why he'll continue to start when fit in the big matches without exception.
Wenger deserves small measure of credit
Arsenal fans have been quick to hammer Wenger after painful slip-ups on the road over the last three seasons, so a small measure of praise should be handed out for tweaks that have his teams far better equipped for battles away from the Emirates.
Santi Cazorla has been taken off the left flank and been given licence to get involved in the rough stuff inside, using his quick-thinking and outrageous technical ability to make a fine job of it too.
Francis Coquelin has been a revelation next to him, finally a mobile, effective holding midfielder that serves as a shield in midfield rather than harbouring ambitions further up the field.
Wenger has an incredible array of attacking talent his disposal when Welbeck, Sanchez, Giroud and Theo Walcott are all fit and firing, but clearly realises they have to operate within a framework which expose the poor souls tasked with doing the dirty work in defence.
Perhaps its a stretch to say he's gaining the same functional streak that's got Mourinho on the verge of a third Premier League title, but its a massive step in the right direction for Arsenal and means third place and further cup success looks very much within Arsenal's grasp.
Arsenal fans, do you see winning ugly away as a positive step in the right direction or a negative given what the Gunners normally serve up at the Emirates? Let us know by having your say in the comment box below.
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