Story of a Match: Arsenal (A)

Posted by on May 7, 2012 in Match Analysis | 3 comments

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.


  1. I’m a big fan of Steve Morison – have been ever since watching him terrorize the Norwich defense for the first fifteen minutes of the Millwall game at Carrow Road last season. If he hadn’t gone off injured, he’d have won it single-handed, conjuring up one of those lovely ‘what if-s’ we football obsessives devote our spare time and brain cells to – instead the win really got us believing…

    (Zaha and Vaughan did a similar job for Palace when they actually did beat Norwich at home, with the skill at pace which is one of the few missing ingredients in Mr Lambert’s toolbox. Wouldn’t it be nice to see them re-united here next season? We might actually start to see what Vaughan can do. Please Mr Lambert, can we do a Martin-plus-cash deal for Zaha and Klyne?)

    Back to Morison – like everyone else I’ve been a bit mystified by his loss of form this calendar year, and troubled by the silly rumours about his private life. He’s obviously a bit ‘complicated’, in a thoroughly Welsh kind of way, and more than a little bit moody. A certain kind of striker is, mainly because scoring goals is what they basically live for. In that sense he reminds me of Allan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke, striker for the truly great Leeds team of the late 60s/70s. Never once smiled, though he put on a lovely sarky smirk when he scored.

    But in football terms I suspect the explanation for Morison’s downturn in form is more straightforward – a combination of lack of decent chances and service and loss of personal confidence, sending him on a downward spiral of intermittent opportunities and indifferent performances. They look like good mates, but I suspect he has suffered from Grant Holt’s extraordinary development into a world-class striker (and, lest we forget, first choice ahead of Morison, having started the season pretty much in second).

    In the meantime the team have been shaped around Holt, actually a very different player to Morison. Holt is much more static and strategic, more like an advanced midfielder in many ways. We know a lot about the team’s flexibility and operational intelligence – this amazing but kind of obvious-when-you-think-about-it ability to adapt personnel and formation to probe the opposition’s weaknesses – but one option they seem to have neglected is Morison as a straightforward goal-scorer. This is a real shame, because he’s better than any other player in the squad at putting away good chances. That’s what his goal on Saturday demonstrated – nobody else would have scored quite so clinically, as Jackson showed when he created a very similar chance for himself and put it straight at the Arsenal goalie.

    So here’s my very late vote for Steve Morison as player of the season. Let’s get the morons off his back (Canary Call? Retard Rant more like – ‘No I wasn’t at the match but I listened to the commentary…’), stop expecting him to waste energy chasing lost causes, hope the midfield can play to his strengths and deliver better balls – to feet or head running in on goal – and sit back and watch him kill defenses next season. And, as Holt naturally wanes, several seasons after that… Yes, we f**king love Steve Morison (not least because I suspect he needs it more than Holt).

  2. Just to pick up on your point re: Russel Martin and Ryan Bennett – I thought it was interesting to note the player positions as generated by the WhoScored website, which shows an aggregated position of the players over 90 minutes:

    These two diagrams show the aggregated player positions from the Arsenal game (top) and the previous game against Liverpool (bottom). Ignore the other defenders, whose positions are warped due to Naughton swapping sides half way through the Liverpool game, and look at Bennett (33), Ward (22) and Martin (2) . The Liverpool diagram shows both Bennett and Ward quite high up the pitch, consistent with all the games they have started together recently – however the Arsenal diagram shows Martin playing much deeper, with Bennett in an almost identical position. Both Bennett and Ward have a tendency to play fairly high, attempting to win balls in the air from goal kicks etc. This proved notably disastrous at home against Liverpool where Ward was caught out, letting Suarez in behind to score, more than once. Against Arsenal however, Russell Martin was playing much deeper, in a covering position, almost like a sweeper even, allowing Bennett to roam forward as normal, with Martin dropping deeper and clearing up behind. You can see this reflected also in the number of offsides – Liverpool were offside 5 times, whereas Arsenal were caught out just once. This would probably have been a direct tactical decision to prevent Van Persie doing the same, and a result of better communication between the two CBs, which you touch upon.

    We still ended up conceding 3 goals of course, but there you go.

    • I was actually going to make more or less that point but forgot. Martin and Bennett are more complimentary defenders in this way. All successful partnerships have one player who tends to go forward for the ball, cutting out goal kicks or anticipating passes, and one who sits deeper and sweeps things up, acts as a cover. Just think of Vidic and Rio at their best. In Ward and Bennett you’ve got two players who get forward a lot, especially Ward. Martin is much more of a sweeper, and is generally more intelligent. I really think he improved Bennett’s game.

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