That was a lot of football packed into 90 minutes! Most of it was high quality and both teams deserve credit for their display. Arsenal produced breathtaking moves at times but Norwich too, showed bravery and commendable technical qualities. The scoreline flatters the Gunners a bit because the game was close for a long while but it is also a reflection of their superior quality in the decisive areas.
The first observation, and one that shaped a lot of the game, was the pleasantly surprising approach by the visitors. I’d expected them to sit back with their lines relatively close to each other for most of the game but they came out with a positive attitude and tried playing their game. Attempting over 500 passes at the Emirates is no mean feat.
The key aspect to appreciate here is that when a team sits back it’s so far away from the opposition goal that they have to rely on long balls to gain territory. But the visitors didn’t pull 8 or 9 outfield players deep into their half so they always had the chance to play out from the back.
The flip side of this is that the Gunners found a fair amount of space in front of their defence. If you look at the first goal – When Cazorla receives the ball and cuts inside, there is virtually no one blocking his path. Jack too is unmarked. Norwich had a narrow, flat back four – something they would be used to – but there wasn’t a second line in front of that. Tettey was the only one sitting in front of the back four.
Often it’s said that having a defensive midfielder with physical qualities sitting in front of the back four is the way to break down attacks, but look at that goal and you’ll agree it doesn’t work in all instances. Of course, the precision, vision, and understanding shown by Cazorla, Wilshere, and Giroud was other-worldly. It’s really the kind of goal that shows us why the so-called smaller teams come and park the bus at the Emirates. Five players are not always enough to stop such attacks. Although Hughton will probably agree that his full-back should have been tighter on Cazorla the moment the winger received the ball and his back four should have been compressing the space a little higher up the pitch.
Another very interesting observation in this game, particularly in the opening half-hour or so, was Arsenal’s pressing high up the pitch. It was sensational. As stated earlier, Norwich were brave and were trying to play their football, but the Gunners just suffocated them and turned the ball over in their own half on quite a regular basis.
Things changed after a collision that left Flamini with double vision. The Gunners seemed to lose their rhythm. Norwich were then on top for the final 10-15 minutes of the half.
Look at the difference between passes attempted and completed by both sides.
First, from kick-off till around the 32 minute mark.
Of the 10 attempted tackles in the first half hour or so, 8 were around the centre circle or higher up the pitch. Only one was in that zone for the rest of the first half.
Similarly, there are no interceptions higher up the pitch after the 32nd minute till the interval.
Now, the dumbest explanation you are likely to read, and this could be a fairly popular opinion, is that Flamini is a great defensive player and his absence made the side vulnerable.
The Frenchman is a very good player and the substitution had an impact on the game but assuming any causal relationship between the unavailability of his defensive qualities and Arsenal’s slump is silly. It can be rubbished by pointing numerous instances in the recent past when the Gunners have lost control and have been pushed deep into their own half even when Flamini has been in the side along with countless comparable situations (playing well and then suddenly losing the grip or starting horribly and then recovering to dominate) over the last few years when Flamini wasn’t even in the squad.
But more importantly, the point to understand here is that any Wenger side playing well is a work of art reliant on rhythm with the players having the feel for the game in unison. The Frenchman is not good at producing functional sides where one player can be pulled out and a similar one inserted without any change to the output. That’s also why rotations don’t work so well for him but going down that road will be a major digression.
Coming back to the point at hand, Flamini’s absence disrupted Arsenal’s rhythm. The inexplicable swapping of Wilshere to the left also contributed to the chaos. The Gunners suddenly didn’t know how to build from the back and how to press higher up the pitch. Every player’s game was affected in terms of his positioning and choices made on the pitch.
Flamini wasn’t the only one pressing or winning balls back. In fact, the Frenchman only made two interceptions and no tackles in his time on the pitch, with only one interception in the opposition half. Most of the defensive work was done by the other players. For instance, look at the defensive dashboards of Cazorla and Sagna.
Notice their tackles and interceptions higher up the pitch. They just couldn’t get to those areas once the team lost it’s mojo.
Now recall that Norwich were actually playing well but were thwarted by Arsenal’s pressing and you’ll see how they suddenly came to life. The game at this level works in small percentages. A 2-5 percent drop in Arsenal’s output would be enough to give the visitors the upper hand. They were able to build from the back and pushed the Gunners deep. Hughton’s side also did an excellent job of recovering the ball high up the pitch during this period, which meant Arsenal didn’t have a way out.
When the Gunners lose their rhythm or get into a muddle tactically, one tell-tale sign to look for is the lack of off-the-ball movement. You’ll see a lot of players who are static without the ball and waiting for something to happen that would tell them what to do. That kills Arsenal’s game because it’s so inherently reliant on movement. Opponents can feel confident when pushing up and pressing high because this lack of movement ensures the ball won’t be passed quickly to beat their pressure. Even the whole ‘lacking leadership’ saga has it’s roots in this but again it’s a major digression I want to avoid.
The fact that the Gunners can go from the sublime to the ridiculous in the same game when their flow is disrupted remains a major concern. Against the smaller teams they have shown – as was again the case in this game, kudos – that they can defend the vital central areas even when they’re not playing well and thus minimize the number of quality chances created. Norwich only managed two shots on target during their period of domination and both were relatively easy to save hopeful punts from distance.
The second half started where the first had ended, although Wilshere had moved back to the right and Santi to the left. The first ten odd minutes belonged to Norwich. The Gunners were unable to build from the back while the visitors pushed up the pitch.
Something very important happened during this period though, that isn’t quite captured by that chart. Arsenal scored the second goal. It was against the run of play but it’s quickly becoming a trademark for this team. The ruthless efficiency of that move knocked most of the stuffing out of Norwich sails. Giroud with another pin-point assist. Özil with a header! It didn’t quite have the visceral quality of the first goal but it was the more valuable one in my eyes.
After the goal the tension was lifted and it led to a degree of laxness among the players and then to a soft goal conceded. That was Norwich’s only shot on target from inside the box. It did bring back some nerves but the third and fourth goals settled the game. And when you look back it’s pretty clear that even during the closely fought periods or spells when the Canaries were flying high, the difference in class in the attacking third was evidently decisive.
Szczesny: Made a couple of decent saves from long range shots. Positioning and decision making was good. Might have done a bit more to slow down the game when the team was struggling but that doesn’t mean he shoulders any blame for the weaker periods. Deserves to be happy with this display.
Sagna: Did a good job of joining the attack and pressing high up the pitch. Excellent at defending his flank when the team was pushed back. Crossing seemed below par except one ball that forced a desperate clearance from Turner. Good understanding with Wilshere as neither got in each other’s way.
Mertesacker: Made one vital block and several useful clearances. Passing was super reliable. Interesting that he was 24/24 for passes in the first half but only 2/2 between 33 and 47 minutes. Went very close to scoring at the other end when his header sailed agonizingly wide late in the game. Unfortunate that his attempted clearance flew straight to Howson.
Koscielny: Was the busier of the two defenders as Snodgrass was more of a threat than Pilkington and Norwich built a lot from their right. Reliable with his positioning, choices, and physicality in duels. Got on the ball only half as much as his partner but made judicious passes when he had to.
Gibbs: Like Sagna, the Englishman too made good offensive contribution, and his was a bit more intricate than being available out wide and putting balls into the box. Created a great chance for Giroud, for example. Unlike the Frenchman though, Gibbs’ passing was not as consistent as it should be. Of course, it was harder on his side as the visitors had more players there, but he could have avoided a few unforced errors. Couldn’t close Howson down quickly enough but I don’t blame him for the goal.
The back five had a pretty solid game and did an excellent job when the team was under consistent pressure. They could have done with a bit more support for the goal because Norwich were really pushing for the equalizer.
Arteta: I recall getting annoyed at a couple of misplaced passes by the Spaniard. It happens quite often these days and every time I look back at the game it turns out that those were the only bad passes from close to a hundred attempts. Point is, he is so good and reliable with his passing that every misplaced one has a jarring effect when watching his free-flowing style. Worked hard in defence to go with his excellent controlling game. Not in a glamorous way, but he kept the vital areas pretty well protected.
Özil: Delighted to see him among the goals. What a run that was to get on the end of Giroud’s cross. How many times will Arsenal score four without an Özil assist?! It’s great to see the creative burden shared and it should encourage him to continue developing other aspects of his game like dropping deep and getting into scoring positions in the box.
Flamini: The points made above were not an attempt to take anything away from the Frenchman who had a very good game before he had to leave the field. His positioning was good as was his commitment and passing.
Ramsey: I thought he started slowly and suffered a bit when the team didn’t quite have the right flow. Didn’t see much of the ball (Attempted only 4 passes and received 3) in the 10 odd minutes of the first half after he came on for Flamini. Grew into the game in the second half and played a big part in re-establishing Arsenal’s control. His goal would have received a lot more air time had the first goal not caught everyone’s fancy. The close control, composure, confidence, and change of direction were simply excellent.
Wilshere: Great work in the build-up followed by an amazingly cool finish. Also got a good assist for Ramsey’s goal. Struggled when he was on the left wing. Looking back he’ll probably feel there’s room for improvement in his play (precision, choices, etc) in the final third. I still find it hard to see him as a finished product, which does make him a genuinely scary prospect for the future. Such games are great for his development and the right wing could be the platform for calibrating the finer details of his attacking game.
Cazorla: Played a vital part in the build up to the first goal. Did a good job of winning the ball back higher up the pitch. Didn’t feel like he was at his best, which again bodes well for upcoming games when he’ll hit full flow.
Rosicky: Brought more energy and dynamism to the side after Cazorla tired. I did get a feeling he was cruising a bit and didn’t quite hit top gear.
When the Arsenal midfield clicks as a unit, the world notices. And when they don’t, virtually any team can dominate the Gunners. We saw both sides in this game but their quality in the attacking third was a class apart, and they made up for the weak moments through sheer determination. Well mostly, because there should have been another midfielder tracking Howson for that goal.
Giroud: Özil would have been proud of the precision of his assists. The Gunners will get a lot of joy if they can get balls to his feet and bodies closer to him in the attacking areas. Work rate was again top class. Almost scored, that was a great save by Ruddy.
Bendtner: Had the least time on the pitch of all the players but I liked the vibes that I got from his movement and body language. It just felt like he was ready to knuckle down and do what was needed to play a constructive part in the squad. Other things will come.
With the midfield as dominant and decisive as it is and given the way Arsenal play, the lone striker won’t always get too many chances to score (these will be spread around). So they need to put in a shift and contribute in other ways. Giroud is on the right path to becoming a complete all-round striker and Bendtner has certain unique qualities to offer of his own if he can match his competitors work ethic.
Wenger: Some of the moves in this game must be the kind of thing that makes all the hard hours worthwhile. It’s the stuff he can see in training, the kind of details that make him believe in the players and back them to the hilt. Can he find a way to bring this out more often while controlling the slumps? As said earlier in the article, these slumps could prove costly against better teams.Follow @goonerdesi