Story of a Match: Arsenal (A)
Three defeats in a row. About 2 wins in 12. The season appeared to be petering out as Norwich slipped into Charlton mode, mentally on their holidays when they knew safety was secured. They went to Arsenal, battling for third, and I wasn’t alone in wondering just how many they were going to score past us. I wasn’t confident. But as so often happens with this Norwich team, their ability to surprise everyone was clear and present, and we left with a hugely deserved point. So how did this come about?
Lambert again rang changes, and we lined up with Holt and Jackson ahead of a sort-of-diamond midfield, Wes at the tip, Howson deeper and Bennett/Johnson in the middle. It was a bit more fluid than this though, with players often covering for each other if the other was occupied elsewhere. On a few occasions Howson went pressing up the pitch or followed a player he was marking (often Rosicky) and Johnson would drop deep to cover his space, or Wes would drop deep to get the ball so Bennett would move up into the area between the lines and offer an outlet. It was very smart midfield play from all involved.
In defence Russell Martin replaced Ward, not overly surprising after Ward’s poor outing vs Liverpool, but with Drury injured it left Simon Lappin to cover left back. Against the quality of Arsenal’s attacking players, this was a bit of a worry. However, Norwich were helped by Arsenal not playing with that much width. They had Benayoun on the left, and it was he who opened the scoring after about 65 seconds with that lovely curled shot. However he isn’t a natural winger and preferred to cut inside. On the right was Gervinho, a tricky, pacey winger who prefers playing on the left.
As you can see from the example above, Gervinho spent a lot of his time coming inside for no real reason. He isn’t as comfortable on the right as the left, and while Lappin still had his work cut out, he was given a bit of an easier ride than he probably would have expected. It wasn’t until midway through the second half that Gervinho was moved onto the left while Alex Oxlade Chamberlain was put on the right, and it was from here that Arsenal really began to threaten, especially through the Ivorian.
The above chalkboard shows Gervinho’s succesful ‘take-ons’, these one-on-one attempts where he takes on his defender and beats him. He completed 3 all game, all on the left hand side of the pitch after he was moved there. He would beat Kyle Naughton, cut the ball back from the byline and hope for a shot on goal. His pace and ability were a real threat at this point, but were more or less negated in the first hour. With him and Benayoun cutting inside, the middle of the park got notably congested and allowed Lappin/Naughton to get forward and offer support, Naughton especially. In fact, it was from a Naughton overlap that Wes got his shot in for the equaliser.
In the middle it was Howson and Wes who were key for us, but for different reasons. Howson provided stability in the middle, keeping a tight rein on Arsenal midfielders and being useful with the ball, playing good passes forward for Hoolahan and Bennett to build on. Wes, on the other hand, was revelling in the space offered by the Arsenal midfield.
As you can see, neither of them had prolific numbers of passes but both were key. They didn’t give it away in stupid areas, they were attacking and positive in their play, and both ended up with an assist. Against an Arsenal team that was always going to monopolise the ball it was important to have players who were going to make good use of it when we did end up in possession, and in Howson and Hoolahan we had those players.
Hoolahan in particular was in his element. The Arsenal midfield three of Ramsey, Song and Rosicky was playing without anyone really having a defensive duty. While this would normally fall to Song he either neglected it or was told to play further forward, as time and time again the ball broke to Wes and he had acres of space between the midfield and defence to run into. While the example above just led to a standard chance, it was from a very similar situation that Holt scored the goal to put Norwich into the lead just a couple of minutes later. This space was never really accounted for by Arsenal and if they had played with a bit more discipline, or given Wes the respect he deserved, then perhaps he wouldn’t have taken advantage of it quite so much.
Beyond this, though, the pattern of the game is hard to pin down on tactics and intelligent play. The game was frenetic, featured plenty of stupid defensive mistakes, bad refereeing calls and was more a typical English all out attack fest than some sort of strategic contest. Norwich completed far less passes than Arsenal but still had the ball for quite a lot of the game and always looked threatening going forward. This was in part down to the frailties already mentioned, but also due to Vermaelen’s insistence on getting forward and leaving gaping holes for Holt or Jackson to run into. Holt, for his part, was brilliant and put in the sort of line leading captains performance that we’ve grown to love.
As you can see above for the passes that he and Morison received during the match, they were hit with long, direct balls often, and both did well to win them and hold them up to bring others into play. Holt put in the sort of intelligent performance that makes people like me think he needs to given an England chance. He was always dragging defenders out of position, flicking balls on to the advancing Jackson or Hoolahan, creating space or being a nuisance. It was great to see him back in that sort of form after some poor games against Man City and Blackburn.
For his part, Morison had less time to impress but still managed it. With 5 minutes to go and 3-2 down, he fired in his first goal since our away win at WBA to level it at 3-3, a perfect response to the small section of fans who question his attitude or desire for Norwich. He’s a striker now in double figures in all competitions, our second highest scorer and has some some absolutely key winning goals all year and hopefully his bad run of form can be put to bed. It capped a good sub appearance from the Welshman who held the ball up when he could, and harried defenders when without it.
Prior to this, however, Norwich were dearly trying to hold onto a lead and it was looking only a matter of time until Arsenal knocked the door down. Once they had AOC and Gervinho on the correct wings they were a constant threat and Ruddy was in fine form to keep them out so long. On top of this, Martin and Bennett were diving in all over the place with key blocks to stop shots on goal. Martin justified the faith placed in him with another good performance and I also put his influence down to Bennett’s improved showing. He has gotten a lot of praise from Norwich fans in his short time here so far and this is despite poor games against Man City, Blackburn and Liverpool (he wasn’t the only one, of course). With a natural talker and organiser alongside him he looked more assured and comfortable.
Aside from this, the performance was great. Lappin erred in playing RVP onside for their equaliser but it was a lone mistake in an otherwise good game, and one you’d find it hard to blame him for given his limited playing time. Bradley Johnson continued to be back to his better form – while not technically on the level of Howson or Hoolahan, he protected Lappin at left back all day, putting in good challenges (yes Sagna, good ones) and breaking play up. Elliott Bennett offered plenty of threat down the right and occasionally the middle, and Simeon ran all day up front and should have had a goal. Ruddy, in goal, kept us in it at the end and showed why he’s a contender for player of the season.
A great point in a controversial game. Arsenal fans will point to the RVP non decision at the end (when Gervinho was offside), and Norwich fans will point to Martin getting shirt pulled and kicked in the head. They’ll also look at why Benayoun had nothing done when he kicked out, or why Ramsey was still on the pitch despite diving in all over the place. The ref was atrocious, for both sides more or less, and it gave an edge to what was already one of the most exciting games of the season. Once again Norwich went to a big club and didn’t get overawed, played with freedom and confidence and got a deserved point. They arguably could have had more.