Story of a Match: Arsenal
The Arsenal game was a weird one, and it wasn’t just because I was watching it with a weapons grade hangover. As Lambert rightly pointed out, we were in it until the very end, and a 2-1 defeat to one of the league’s best teams is not to be sniffed at. Yet there’s a feeling that we didn’t quite give it all – we didn’t quite put in the same performance we did vs Liverpool or Man Utd. So why is that?
Losing the midfield battle
This is not altogether surprising when you’re up against a midfield of Aaron Ramsey, Alex Song and Mikel Arteta. These are fantastic players who have graced the Champions League and it’d be foolish to assume we could school them on our patch the same way we did Swansea. Saying this, however, we didn’t quite do enough to compete. The key change in personnel involved bringing in Crofts for Bennett, a change a lot of us might have predicted or supported given Bennett’s less than stellar performances lately. Unfortunately Crofts was, at best, pedestrian. Bradley Johnson had a better game than he’s had recently, but was still lacking urgency, and all of this can be summed up when you look at their equaliser.
In this screenshot, the ball has just been played from Van Persie to Walcott. In the build-up, Russell Martin (1) has stepped out of defence to pressurise Van Persie because no one else was doing it. Around him you can see 3 other Norwich shirts, belonging to Crofts, Fox and Johnson. As the three players given the task of protecting the back four, it is their job to close down threats before they hit the backline, and their lack of pressing in this dangerous area led Martin to step up and force the pass wide. The consequence of this was that Leon Barnett was the sole centre-back, covering Gervinho. When Walcott, two seconds later, beats Tierney and has an acre of space in front of him, Barnett is unable to get across in time and close down because he’s been forced to stay central as the last remaining CB. If he’d stepped across earlier, as he normally would to cover his full back, Gervinho would have been unmarked and the cross would’ve been delivered anyway. So Theo is able to put in an uncontested cross, the two centre backs are not in the best positions, and RVP, running from deep, is able to tap it in. All of this comes about because the midfield has not done a good enough job of protecting the back four. If there was any urgency in their play, the centre backs would’nt have been put in the position they were.
Unfortunately, while we were losing the midfield battle for most of the game anyway, it got worse second half. The 1-1 at half time was flattering to Norwich as Russell Martin had almost single-handedly kept the score down. The introduction of Bennett at half time to provide width and cover on the right hand side wasn’t all that surprising, but removing Fox was, in my eyes, a mistake. This may not surprise some of you. Crofts completed the same number of passes, the same number of interceptions and only 1 more tackle in 90 minutes that Fox made in 45. In Crofts we have a hard working player who is unfortunately out of his depth and was a passenger for most of the game. Added to that, we removed one of the players we can rely on to keep possession.
And it was made worse when Gervinho was taken off for Benayoun. Michael Cox of Zonal Marking makes the same point but isolates it to the removal of Hoolahan for Holt, but the impact is there to see. We had lost Hoolahan, Fox and Pilkington, and they had packed the midfield. Prior to the introduction of Benayoun we were still making some chances and getting the ball forward. By removing a player who is a speed merchant outlet pass, and bringing on someone who helped monopolise possession, Arsenal saw out the game comfortably, and we barely got hold of the ball in the last 12 minutes. As you can see from the chart above, half the passes we did attempt were long hopeful balls that got nowhere, and this is because our 3 best players with the ball at their feet were off the pitch. I understand the logic of bringing on Holt and Jackson, but taking off the bystanding Crofts and, more likely, Johnson, would have given us a better chance to grabbing that equaliser. In my eyes, anyway. That isn’t to minimise Johnson at all, as he had a decent game.
This point was isolated by Match of the Day but they aimed it at the Theo/Tierney duel. While this was the more eye catching one, with Theo providing the cross for the first goal, the full back who was really done for on Saturday was Naughton. The decision to drop Bennett, as I’ve said, was not surprising but it did expose Naughton as he had little cover in front of him. He then made a few dodgy decisions (not for the first time) when he had the ball, or stepping up to try and win it, and left absolutely miles of space behind him for Gervinho to run into. If that boy could finish, we’d have lost by a lot more.
Caught far enough up the pitch for two Arsenal players to get in behind him, one of whom was a centre back. This is just dumb play. Part of it would have been helped if he’d had adequate protection from a winger or by the bank of three midfielders in front of him, but a lot of it was just dumb play. Against Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool the back four were incredibly disciplined and stuck to their task, but Naughton was exposed time and time again and another day we’d have been heavily punished.
A weird game. We only lost 2-1 and could have gotten something from it, and the stats have us doing alright. We held our own and the performances of Ruddy, Martin and Pilkington in particular were highlights. But there was an element of not being up for it, of being passed by by a team they were expecting to lose to. Without adequate commitment in midfield, the defence was exposed to two of the fastest players in the premier league and it’s most in form striker. After doing so well in other games, there’s just this niggly feeling we should have done more.