Arsenal vs. Norwich: A show of class

The Gunners outclassed Norwich 4-1 on Saturday to stay top of the Premier League. A trend is clearly emerging after eight matches. Whereas Arsenal had the second tightest defense to finish fourth last season, only Manchester City has scored more goals than Arsenal in this campaign. This ability to outscore opponents is what makes the Gunners so dangerous right now.

A lot of fans were eager to watch Saturday’s game because Ozil and Cazorla were playing together for the first time. Despite some fine work on the opening goal, Cazorla lacked a bit of match fitness and will need more time to work on his understanding with the Germany playmaker.

The starting lineup was quite interesting. Wenger left Ramsey on the bench to give him a breather and started Flamini and Arteta in central midfield for the third straight match. With Wilshere and Cazorla on the wings, Ozil in the playmaking hole and Giroud up front, this is arguably Wenger’s most defensive formation on paper. Yet, it’s easy to see the manager’s rationale. The pairing of Flamini and Arteta gives a lot of protection to the back four. Koscielny and Mertesacker had nothing to do until Flamini suffered a concussion in a head clash with Tettey and was replaced by Ramsey in the 38th.

Flamini and Arteta are more experienced than Ramsey and Wilshere, who started in the 3-1 loss to Aston Villa. It’s therefore no surprise Flamini and Arteta are still ahead of Ramsey and Wilshere in terms of positional play and reading of the game. The two British midfielders have more stamina and run faster, but they’ll need a couple more seasons under their belt to improve the defensive side of their game. While the pairing of Ramsey and Wilshere still lacks experience, letting a youngster team up with a veteran would be fine. Flamini-Ramsey, Flamini-Wilshere, Arteta-Ramsey and Arteta-Wilshere would be great options in central midfield for the manager.

Arsenal dominated ball possession in the opening minutes but lacked penetration. With three passers and two ballwinners in midfield, it was hard to see who could make a run to split the Norwich defense. The match looked very much like the 1-1 draw with West Bromwich as the Gunners too often tried to play the ball down the middle despite some offensive contribution from Sagna and Gibbs. I thought only the Brazil team of the early 80’s could score with that kind of approach. And that’s exactly what Arsenal did in the 18th minute, combining in the heart of the packed Norwich defense for the opening goal.

Three Gunners versus six Canaries in a tiny space. That’s not really a favorable situation from a tactical viewpoint. But great movement, quick decision-making, slick one-touch passing and technical superiority helped Arsenal find the net. Cazorla charged down the left wing and traded passes with Wilshere before picking out Giroud on the edge of the box. Giroud fed Wilshere, but the ball jumped slightly behind the England midfielder. Wilshere played the ball back to Giroud with a backheel flick. The Frenchman was more accurate with his next touch and Wilshere ghosted past two defenders to collect the offering and beat Ruddy from close range.

Arsenal came close to doubling the lead in the 37th when Gibbs stole the ball from Martin and cut the ball back for Giroud. But Ruddy tipped away the Frenchman’s first-time effort. The Canaries were toothless at that stage. However, Flamini’s concussion helped them get back in the game as the Gunners struggled to adjust to his substitution. Szczesny palmed away a cross-shot from Martin in the 43rd before stopping a long-range strike from Fer on the stroke of halftime.

Norwich still threatened after the break. An unmarked Martin volleyed wide from a free kick redirected by Turner in the 49th. Then Snodgrass got ahead of Gibbs in the 55th to fire a low drive stopped by Szczesny. Just when the Canaries had a short spell of domination, Arsenal capitalized on a counterattack to add a second goal in the 58th. Ramsey found Cazorla in midfield and the Spaniard released Giroud down the right wing. The Frenchman spotted a smart run from Ozil and made a pinpoint cross for the playmaker, who outjumped a defender to head in.

Norwich did not give up and could have scored on a dodgy play. Pilkington fouled Mertesacker off the ball, pulling the Germany defender’s jersey before taking a pass. Clean through on goal, Pilkington still missed the target. It’s hard to blame the referee for not seeing that foul because he usually focuses on the ball while the linesmen either look at the ball or check the offside line.

Imperceptibly, Arsenal lowered its guard and that was enough for the Canaries to pull one back in the 70th. Sagna gave Olsson a bit too much space for a cross. Mertesacker’s miscued clearance fell into the path of Howson, who controlled the ball before firing into the bottom corner. Mertesacker got the blame for that poor clearance while a kick into touch was the safer option. But Sagna and Gibbs could have closed down Olsson and Howson much better.

The pressure was back on the Gunners’ shoulders. Ramsey tested Ruddy with long-range strikes in the 75th and the 79th, but each time the Norwich goalkeeper made the save. Arsenal was not successful from outside the area on Saturday, but it’s good to have long-range options instead of exclusively trying to walk the ball into the net. Bendtner replaced Giroud in the 78th and took his chance in the 81st, but Ruddy parried his powerful strike from a tight angle.

In the end, it was Ramsey who helped secure the victory. He took a pass from Wilshere on the left side of the area and dribbled past three defenders to score with a low strike in the 83rd. The Wales midfielder showed great composure on that play. He’s definitely the most improved player in the Premier League this season. That goal clearly dealt a blow to Norwich’s morale. Mertesacker headed a cross from Arteta inches wide of the far post in the 87th. The following minute, Ramsey was left unmarked at the far post and cushioned a cross from Rosicky into the path of Ozil, who tapped in for a 4-1 lead.

The more time Arsenal spends atop the Premier League, the stronger will be the belief they can win the title. Somehow, Saturday’s game tells you why the Gunners are doing much better than last season. Giroud had two assists and showed he has adjusted to Arsenal’s style of play. Ozil scored twice and is living up to his world-class status. Ramsey extended his great run of form with a goal and an assist. And last, but not least, Wilshere is becoming more consistent. This is his second goal in two games. He is simplifying his game the way Ramsey did last season. He understands it can be more efficient to run without the ball than to carry it.

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Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

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