Two games to go. Two wins needed. Fate in own hands. Pressure on. Will the Gunners fire or implode?
Taking it step by step, all the focus at the moment has to be on Norwich. The canaries might not have much to play for, and perhaps that is affecting their form – they’re coming into this game on the back of three successive defeats in which they’ve conceded 11 and scored 1, but anything less than the best from Arsenal will not do. Just ask Spurs.
The Gunners have some worries of their own. With Arteta missing – Arsenal are yet to win in his absence – the midfield does not have the same fluidity to it. Nor does it have the requisite defensive nous. Up front the winger’s are offering very little in terms of creativity, incision, or finishing. Robin van Persie is the only real source of goals at the moment, so much so that even Wenger was forced to acknowledge that.
He has to push us over the line. There are two games to go. We have been a bit over-reliant on him, I concede that. But it is difficult to change that before the end of the season.
In this game there will hardly be any surprises. It’s just a matter of execution. Arsenal will have to be flawless as a draw might not be enough.
Norwich will be organized. Their Keeper is capable of making top-class saves. They’ll put bodies on the line and make it hard for Arsenal to find the goal. But now we’re at the stage of the season where statements like “their Keeper had a MotM performance”, “we hit the post X times”, “They cleared the ball off the line”, and “We should have had a penalty”, will sound like lame excuses rather than valid arguments.
Similarly, at the other end, it doesn’t matter whether the visitors score from a freakish goal, or a deflection, or a wonder strike, or from a set-piece, or via their only shot on target, etc. If Arsenal concede the price could run into tens of millions of pounds.
Koscielny and Vermaelen have to win the physical battles and aerial battles or at least make enough of an impact to keep the goal guarded. An effort as committed as the one at Stoke, and without the error that led to their goal, should help.
The full-backs will have to handle their tricky and quick wingers. Holt or Morrison can be hard to control if they get quality service in the box.
Song, and more importantly Ramsey, will have to be disciplined in front of them. These are the two who have to find the balance between attack and defence. The attack must not be deprived of bodies as it inhibits quick passing, which makes it easier for the defence to remain organized and behind the ball. But they can’t leave the back four exposed as Arsenal will undoubtedly have to fight for the second ball. The roles of the two midfielders are largely unglamorous (apart from the eye-catching through-balls) but these smaller details are just as vital as the decisive moments at either end. Ultimately, it’s the simple things that indirectly govern the odds. Will Arsenal create more chances, will the concede gilt-edged ones, will the team look lethargic or lethal? A lot will depend on the engine of Ramsey and the drive of Song.
And while we’re talking of engines and drive, who can forget the metaphorical handbrake. Many in the Arsenalsphere regard complacency as the evil that’s plagued the Gunners in their quest for sealing third spot. I’m not completely convinced. I think it’s more about inhibition and uncertainty. It’s very hard to believe a team can fight as hard as they did against Stoke and then play as if they don’t have a care in the world in the next game simply due to complacency.
There is no doubt players sometimes give the impression that they’re too relaxed or lazy. But it’s quite possible they’re just anxious and hence repressed. Since Arsenal’s system tends to expose the defence more often than it should when the players go forward, there is a tendency in them to be over cautious when it isn’t clicking. A good example of this was seen against Chelsea when the visitors got in behind on a number of occasions early in the game. After that the Gunners dropped deeper collectively and played with the so-called handbrake on.
This is relevant because Norwich’s ability to play balls over the top and in-behind can trouble the Gunners and trigger this inhibition. The visitors also have strong physical presence up front and could force mistakes which could again make the players drop deeper.
In order to win, it’d be vital for the Gunners to impose their style of play early on and then control the game till the end. A reactive style does not suit Wenger’s side and they could end up looking indifferent or, worse, clueless on the pitch.
In terms of team selection Arsene will probably go with the same back four that’s started the last game. Santos has looked better as a sub but it still seems difficult to trust his match-fitness and concentration. There aren’t many choices in the middle either.
In attack, Le Boss could pick Oxlade-Chamberlain ahead of Gervinho but both have been rather ineffective in their last few outings. He could also pick them both if he thinks the balancing contribution of Benayoun is not needed in this game.
We might see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Rosicky, Ramsey – AOC, RvP, Benayoun.
Such a line-up would put extra defensive pressure on Sagna as the youngster Oxlade-Chamberlain isn’t always defensively aware due to his inexperience. It could also limit the full-back’s attacking contribution as the two players on the right haven’t played together often enough and might struggle to link effectively. Given the fact that the left side is relatively weaker in attack, compromising the right does not seem like a clever idea but, at the moment, Arsene needs some inspiration from certain individuals. Gervinho hasn’t been able to provide that even if his effort can’t be faulted.
Winning this game will put pressure on the chasing pack. Losing, or even drawing, will hand them the momentum. The challenge for Arsenal is to overcome the inhibitions and produce the quality we know they have in them.Follow @goonerdesi