Arsenal v Norwich: A Tactical Review
Premier League 2011-2012 / Game 37 / Emirates Stadium
Arsenal 3 (Benayoun 2, Van Persie 72, 80)
Norwich City 3 (Hoolahan 12, Holt 27, Morison 85)
What a disappointing result! More so because Norwich came to play football, just the way Arsenal like it. It certainly wasn’t a parked bus affair.
Arsenal started pretty much as expected, Benayoun keeping his place on the left. Paul Lambert made wholesale changes trying to freshen up the side after the Canaries’ 3-0 loss to Liverpool last week. On paper, both teams were playing a 4-2-1-3 formation, although I felt as the game wore on, Norwich played more of a 4-3-1-2.
The Gunners started with a bang, birthday boy Yossi Benayoun scoring after just 55 seconds. It was the kind of shot which Arsenal players are criticized for not attempting often enough, a beautiful right footed curler into the far corner.
It was a perfect start but there were early indications of later troubles. A pull back from Jackson early on fell to Holt inside the box, with neither Vermaelen or Gibbs attempting to mark the striker. Luckily, his shot was blocked by Gibbs.
Szczesny looked nervous and indecisive right from the start. He came out to punch in the 11th minute and was easily beaten by Holt. There were other times as well when he looked unsure whether to come for the ball or stay back.
Norwich’s equalizer came from the left with Bennett’s crossed ball falling perfectly to Hoolahan whose tame effort was straight at Szczesny but Arsenal’s number 1 made a total mess of it, letting the ball wriggle into the net. The fact that it came through Koscielny’s legs may have distracted Wojciech, but he should still have saved it. One could also be critical of Song and maybe he should have been closer to Hoolahan. But I would actually credit the Norwich midfielder for checking his run and creating that opportunity.
Going forward, Bacary Sagna was his usual influential self on the right and saw a lot of the ball. His passing and understanding with Gervinho however, was not the best and this led to loss of possession on more than one occasion.
Defensively, this left Laurent Koscielny isolated on Arsenal’s right, with both Sagna and Gervinho up the other end and neither Song nor Ramsey filling in that space. This is seen by his defensive contribution in the opening 30 minutes as compared to Sagna’s.
The central defender’s problem was compounded by the fact that Holt and Jackson kept switching positions all game, so Laurent had to deal with the brute force of Holt at times and at others, was exposed to the pace of Jackson. Considering this, I thought he did very well in reading danger and making timely interceptions and clearances.
In attack, Arsenal always looked dangerous, exchanging quick passes between the wide men and midfield. Rosicky was getting plenty of space to play in with Norwich leaving two up front most times. Even Hoolahan did not come very deep in support of the two holding midfielders, Howson and Johnson although Elliott Bennett played deeper and narrower without the ball.
On 27 minutes, it was this sense of adventure on Norwich’s part which led to their second. Although it has to be said that it started with a bit of misplaced adventure on Arsenal’s part. And it came just as the Gunners were building some pressure on Norwich. Thomas Vermaelen intercepted a ball at the centre circle and laid it off to Gibbs who passed it to Benayoun. In the meantime, the Belgian defender had casually jogged up the field to support the front players and was Arsenal’s furthest player forward when the attack broke down.
Sagna’s cross was headed clear by the Norwich defense and fell to Holt, who laid it off for Hoolahan running down the centre. That run, seen in the picture below, took out both Song and Ramsey with neither of them having dropped deeper to cover Vermaelen’s foray forward. Because Norwich had both Holt and Jackson playing further up the pitch, it quickly developed into a 3 v 2, with Rosicky too far on the left to have any say in the proceedings.
Considering how dangerous the situation was, Kieran Gibbs did very well to cover Holt and not allow him much room. It was unfortunate that the striker’s shot deflected off the left-back and looped in. You have to say though that too many times, our defending gets us into situations where luck becomes a factor – Gibbs versus Holt was always going to be a mismatch.
Thomas Vermalen is a goal scoring threat, without doubt. But his forward runs so early in matches have to be questioned. Yes, he did it against Wigan and it came off but we were 2-0 down at that point so there was some justification in bombing forward then. Against Newcastle, his goal came in injury time and you expect big tall defenders to get into the box late in games.
Yesterday, the problem was amplified because unlike Wigan and Chelsea who left just one man up top, Norwich always had 2 players in front of our back line. With neither Song nor Ramsey inclined to sit in the holding role, every loose ball falling to Holt or Jackson presented Norwich an opportunity to run at Arsenal’s isolated central defenders.
Just after Norwich’s second goal, Arsene Wenger swapped the wingers with Gervinho going left and Benayoun coming right. The manager may have done this to provide more defensive cover on the right or with Gervinho looking dangerous, letting him have a go at Kyle Naughton down Arsenal’s left.
But the result was not noticeably different and things continued as they had, with Arsenal making all of the play in Norwich’s half. Then, the unfortunate Bacary Sagna suffered another broken leg. He’s been Arsenal’s Mr. Consistent and I really feel for him missing out on the European Championships. More importantly for the Gunners, Arsene Wenger will have a right-back issue to sort out in the summer, with his compatriot expected to be sidelined for 6-8 months.
Francis Coquelin came on to replace Sagna and Arsenal tried to get back into the game, but it was Norwich that looked the more likely to score. On another day, the French youngster’s sliding challenge inside Arsenal’s box may have been deemed to be a foul. Laurent Koscielny’s shirt pull on Martin also looked like a stonewall penalty. As it turned out, Anthony Taylor had decided not to award any spot kicks yesterday. While Arsenal were at the right end of the referee’s benediction in the first half, his ineptitude would cause us much pain later in the game.
Arsenal would have considered themselves lucky to be just one behind at the break. At the start of the second half, Gervinho and Benayoun resumed their original starting positions. While we looked a little nervy in the opening few minutes, we settled down quickly enough and started to dominate possession. There was one very good chance for Benayoun, but the Israeli was not able to get on the end of a Van Persie cross.
The same disease which afflicted Vermaelen in the first half befell Laurent Koscielny early in the second. He went forward to support the attack but the cross never came, in which case the defender should have run back to his natural position. Unlike the Vermaelen incident, Arsenal had comfortable possession of the ball for a good amount of time before play broke up.
The header from Norwich came to Jackson who simply turned and ran past Ramsey. Although Alex Song was covering for Koscielny, it was still a 2 v 2 with Coquelin desperately trying to track back. Jackson coolly dribbled past the Verminator and was through on goal – only a weak finish straight at Szczesny kept Arsenal in the game.
Thereafter, the Canaries dropped deeper and allowed Arsenal to dictate play on the edge of their box. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on for Ramsey and slotted into the same position in midfield alongside Alex Song. Chances came and went and are too innumerable to list here, some really good opportunities which should have been converted.
Chamakh was introduced for Benayoun in the 69th minute and Arsenal became 4-4-2 with Alex Oxlade going to the right wing and Gervinho on the left. The Gunners’ equalizer came after the Moroccan’s blocked effort came out to Song who again found Van Persie with a delightful ball over the top and the footballer of the year put the ball in the back of the net with a superb left foot finish.
It was all Arsenal at this point and eight minutes later Van Persie scored again. This time it was right foot finish under Ruddy after a loose ball fell perfectly in hs path. Arsenal seemed to have staged another amazing recovery and Gooners everywhere breathed more easily.
Not for long.
Going behind woke the visitors up and they pressed forward with urgency. The play started happening in Arsenal’s half now, Norwich pushing up as one and not allowing the midfield and defense to get time on the ball.
Gingers4Limpar tweeted a telling statistic that in the 5 minutes between Arsenal’s third and Norwich’s equalizer, we misplaced 8 of 23 attempted passes. The ever insightful GoonerDesi felt this was because Arsenal’s front players slacked after going ahead, putting pressure on our defenders and midfielders to find an out ball in view of the pressing employed by the Canaries. On a seperate note, if you aren’t already, you HAVE to follow these two bloggers.
While I do agree with GoonerDesi to an extent, there were at least 3 Arsenal passes that were misplaced without any pressure on the ball:
81 min – Vermaelen tried an ambitious over-the-top ball for RvP, well overhit
82 min – Alex Oxlade tried a threaded ball through again to RvP, again overhit
84 min – Song tries a difficult pass to Chamakh, with both Rosicky and Vermaelen available close to him
The picture below shows the positioning of Arsenal’s players just as Song is about to pass. While there is pressure on Rosicky, it was a far easier pass to make than the one the Cameroonian eventually attempted to Chamakh.
That misplaced pass, by the way, was the one which started Norwich’s attack and resulted in Morison’s goal. Again, Thomas Vermaelen has to take most of the blame for this one too. The Belgian was completely flat footed and moving towards the ball when Howson’s dinked ball to Morison left the Norwich striker in acres of space. His perfectly placed finish inside the far corner gave no chance to our Polish keeper.
With only 5 minutes left plus injury time, Arsenal still had chances to win it at the other end. The most important incident was the denial of a clear penalty when Naughton bundled Robin Van Persie over just as he was about to tap in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross. Anthony Taylor’s earlier show of mercy came back to bite us as he refused to award a spot-kick and Arsenal were a bit unlucky in that respect at the end.
Still, we stretched our luck with shoddy defensive play and it eventually ran out on us.
Just some quick observations on player performances – Vermaelen and Szczesny had stinkers, Gervinho was very lively, Robin van Persie looked dangerous, Song was below par even though he supplied the assist for Arsenal’s second and Chamakh looked half decent in the short time he was on.
The Arsenal player that impressed me the most was Francis Coquelin, who not only took over Bacary Sagna’s position but also his compatriot’s workload and was majorly involved in Arsenal’s play, as seen by the graphic on the right. It highlights player influence prior to Sagna’s injury and since Coquelin’s introduction.
This was the kind of game Arsenal would have won with Mikel Arteta in the side, not only because of his ability to keep the ball or his impressive defensive qualities, but also for the calmness, composure and leadership qualities he brings to bear in pressure situations. He would have drawn tackles and won free kicks, slowed the game down and disrupted Norwich’s rhythm.
In summary, the game went exactly as I had imagined with Norwich keeping an attacking shape with two up front and allowing Arsenal plenty of freedom to work the ball. We had a whopping 11 shots on target yesterday. Which was the other instance where we had that many attempts on target this season? Yes, you guessed it. In the reverse fixture against Norwich in November.
While it indicates that we wasted some good opportunities, it is also a massive credit to Norwich’s defending. They made 5 crucial blocks and Ruddy seemed to be in the right place each time. Still, we did convert 3 chances and that should be enough to win games every time. Only a thoroughly disjointed defensive performance and some well-timed individual errors could have denied us maximum points yesterday – and we produced exactly that.
So the result leaves us cheering for Alex McLeish’s side tonight and hoping for a City win at the same time. After all the hate we fans have directed towards the current Villa manager and an ex-Arsenal player presently at City, it’s a little ironic that we are now dependant to an extent on those two to keep us in the hunt for third.
There will be more twists and turns this season though. Keep the faith and stay calm.
Do post your views and comments and thanks for reading.