It’s an interesting coincidence that Arsenal are playing Norwich in the 8th game of the season because the same thing happened last year. Only, that game was at Carrow Road. The Canaries were winless going into that game but ground out a win against an Arsenal team that had all the possession but ‘lacked sharpness’.
Fatigue can be an issue for a team like Arsenal after the international break but credit must also go to Chris Hughton who has the knack for frustrating the Gunners. His Newcastle side also won 1-0 at the Emirates and even last season Wenger’s men only saved face at home against Norwich with goals in the final seven minutes after going behind early in the second half.
Hughton approach is pretty basic but has proven to be effective more often than Wenger would like to see. His team compresses the space between their penalty box and the centre line. If necessary, and this happens often, they drop back to the edge of their box with the second line of defence right on top of the first. Such tactics are very common in England and we saw something very similar against West Brom in the previous game. Again, that was an encounter where the Arsenal attack didn’t quite click.
It’s basically a matter of one set of players working very hard to control the opposition’s vital attacking areas through their positioning, and with a fair amount of redundancy built into the system because the lines are so close. That means if Arsenal get past one player in the central areas another will soon be there to challenge for the ball. Add the Gunners’ rather limited ability to use the wings and even such a basic approach can be fruitful if executed diligently.
Quick passing is one way to get through packed areas and if Cazorla and Özil are fit the Gunners will certainly have the firepower to break through. But passing quality and vision alone isn’t always enough. Arsenal need to get more bodies closer to Giroud along the deeper/second defensive line and some players will have to make runs in behind. The final pass or the ball before that has to be one that breaks open the close knit defensive unit.
The issue with placing more bodies along the defensive line is that it leaves fewer players to thwart counter-attacks. The balance is not always easy to find and such games inevitably provide a stern test of the players’ technical and decision making abilities.
Wilshere spreading the ball from deep, Cazorla drifting inside, Özil finding space, and full-backs making well-timed forward runs can produce moves that lead to high quality chances. Having said that, I do have a feeling that the first 15-20 minutes can be vital in this game. The defensive teams that rely on patience and hard work always grow in confidence when the opponents don’t start well. And that added belief also gives them extra bite in attack. One freakish goal can sometimes be enough to convert a must-win game into a frustrating result for the Gunners.
At the other end, Norwich no longer have the sheer physicality of Grant Holt that has been a source of problems for the Arsenal defence. Ricky van Wolfswinkel is a clever player with good movement and appreciable technique. He is also a hard working player who can be a nuisance for central defenders when they are looking to build from the back and when he forces them to chase him into the channels on the counter-attacks. The goals haven’t quite come for him yet but part of that is down to the manager’s primarily defensive approach. He’s better than the stats show but he isn’t a guy who can bully the central defenders into a mistake. Players like Howson, Snodgrass, and Pilkington, if fit, will provide able support. The visitors have decent quality in attack to trouble Szczesny if they can get up the pitch and stay there for sustained periods. Otherwise, in case this is another game where the Gunners dominate possession, a smash-and-grab will be their only hope.
On the issue of dominating possession, we have to see if Wenger’s players continue sitting off the ball as they’ve done in many games this season, particularly after taking the lead. That’s not the approach for long term success and I’m keen to see how the Arsenal manager addresses the situation. Arteta’s presence in midfield could make a difference.
Wenger’s starting eleven could influence the side’s approach too. There are many choices and it’s hard to say what the best eleven is. A case could be made for a number of players.
For instance, Ramsey is the form player in the League but he is also one who’s been playing almost incessantly. On the other hand, Wilshere hasn’t been at his best but could do with another chance in a driving role from deep as he is undeniably fresher.
Similarly, there is some merit in selecting the youngster Gnabry because he can bring more directness to the side along with the ability to take on players in the wide or even the central areas. At the same time you could say that he is inexperienced and could weaken the defensive balance of the side if more players push forward and are given freedom to roam.
Most Gooners can’t wait to see Cazorla and Özil together but the Spaniard does lack match practice. Rosicky has been impressive whenever fit in the last couple of seasons and he is also well suited to the role on the left.
Flamini has been a revelation in his second stint at the club but Arteta is without a doubt the more proactive player.
Since there are so many permutations for Wenger to choose from, I’ll just share the side I’d like to see.
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Wilshere – Gnabry, Giroud, Cazorla.
Wenger might pick Flamini for either Gnabry or Cazorla to give the side greater defensive depth. He might even be tempted to keep Ramsey in the starting line-up. After all, rotating players is not his strong suit. Rosicky could also be on the left if Santi is genuinely lacking match fitness.
Irrespective of the choices Wenger makes, he should have two or three high quality players on the bench who could come on to influence the game if things go awry.
This is a must win game for the Gunners but it’s also a potential banana skin. Even a five percent drop in performance will level this game up and give the visitors a fighting chance to get a point or record a stunning upset. Don’t take the result for granted.
That said, I hope the players perform close to their potential and get an early goal. Then it could become a very entertaining game for all to enjoy.Follow @goonerdesi