Arsenal always seems to be on the brink of crisis. Not quite in crisis, but, more so than ever before, teetering on the edge of it.
As their Big Six rivals load up for runs at the top four, there’s a worry that the Gunners are falling behind; that last year’s failure to qualify for the Champions League is merely a sign of things to come. And big parts of that worry are Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. Not their presences in North London, but rather the fear that their check-out dates could be approaching.
Both Sanchez and Ozil are on expiring contracts. They are free to leave at the end of the season, and all indications are that they will. They could therefore be sold in January. With the winter transfer window approaching, uncertainty is in the air.
But while they’re still at the Emirates, even with their impending free agency inseparable from the club’s fortunes moving forward, Arsenal will be in the top-four mix. Their brilliance will still propel the Gunners to results. That’s exactly what Sanchez’s did Thursday.
The Chilean forward struck twice in the second half to lift an impressive, but at times shaky Arsenal over resilient Crystal Palace. He broke a 1-1 deadlock with a powerful drive that snuck in at the near post, then took a wonderful Jack Wilshere through-ball out of the air and again beat Julian Speroni, this time with guile and craft.
The Gunners held on to win 3-2. They flirted with collapse, but ultimately avoided it. They were not thorough, not impressive from start to finish. But as long as Ozil and Sanchez are still around, they don’t always have to be.
There can be no questioning Arsenal’s readiness for what it knew would be a demanding 90 minutes. As Selhurst Park bounced and showered the field with song, the Gunners started on top, and stayed there for much of the first half. Back in their 3-4-2-1 after a brief reversion to a 4-2-3-1, they played some slick possession football, and fashioned several chances.
They went ahead amidst a spell of pressure that could have yielded multiple goals. It yielded an opener when Speroni parried Alexandre Lacazette’s tight-angle shot right to an unmarked Shkodran Mustafi at the far post. Mustafi’s finish, also from a tight angle, was precise.
Arsenal could have, and perhaps should have, been more than 1-0 to the good at halftime. Minutes after the goal, Sanchez spotted a seemingly non-existent window, and slotted a seemingly impossible pass through it. Ozil was denied from close range.
Later in the half, the German playmaker was in again, bearing down on Speroni. But his square pass to either Lacazette or Hector Bellerin, for what would have been a tap-in, narrowly evaded both.
Palace then charged out of the dressing room and pulled level. Wilfried Zaha, the hosts’ best player on the season and on the night, beat Calum Chambers to the end-line. His low cross, trickling back to the penalty spot, was swept home by former Tottenham winger Andros Townsend.
Arsenal’s second was all Sanchez. Its third came courtesy of Wilshere, another player with just six months to go on his current contract. The oft-injured midfielder, getting his first extended run in the Gunners’ starting lineup in some time, was on top of his game for much of the evening. His lofted ball over the top and into the path of Sanchez was sublime.
Palace recovered well, and pulled back to within one in the 89th minute. It had Arsenal on its heels over the final 15 minutes and stoppage time. It poked around at some of the Gunners’ weaknesses, and took advantage of them. It couldn’t quite punctuate a strong second-half display with an equalizer.
The second half, though, really was an even contest. As simple as it sounds, Sanchez was the difference. Palace didn’t have him. Arsenal did.
Whether Arsenal will have him in February, or come next August, is a topic that will be beaten into the ground in the coming weeks. Arsenal Wenger and the club’s board will have an extremely difficult decision to make.
For now, though, they can celebrate Sanchez, Thursday’s hero, and a big reason the Gunners retain top-four hopes.