Norwich vs. Arsenal: Now it’s all about limiting the damage

Two injuries, two points dropped. But we’re still in the Top 4 of the Premier League. I guess that’s what we call damage control. The 1-1 draw with Norwich on Sunday means that we’ve lost five points in our last two games against some really average sides. On paper, that’s a poor return. But it’s not a surprise when you look at our depleted squad. A lack of decent options on the bench has deterred the manager from resting some key players. And the subsequent lack of rotation has generated more fatigue in the team.

Norwich vs. Arsenal

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

What makes the result even worse is that Koscielny and Sanchez have picked up injuries. Koscielny suffered a knock to his hip in the eighth minute while Sanchez seemed to pull his right hamstring in the 59th. There’s nothing you could have done about Koscielny’s injury since it was the result of a challenge. But I thought Wenger made a risky gamble on Sanchez. The Chile forward was a doubt for the Norwich game because of a hamstring strain. Why would you risk your best player’s health just before the busy Christmas period? Now the manager will have to carefully monitor Sanchez’s fitness because a relapse would make the second half of the season more difficult.

Sanchez and Ozil have carried the team in this first half of the season as Tuesday’s 3-0 victory over Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League clearly showed. Their understanding shone again at Carrow Road. The hard-working Sanchez stole the ball from O’Neil to send Ozil clean through on goal and the Germany playmaker opened the scoring by chipping Ruddy in the 30th.

Dirty play

The Gunners looked a bit jaded and created very few clear-cut chances in windy conditions. Giroud did not get much service. The Frenchman connected with a cross from Monreal in the 19th but his sliding effort sailed wide. His only decent chance came in the 77th when he headed over the bar a cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain. Sanchez was more accurate in the 28th with a powerful strike from 16 yards that Ruddy parried. I thought the referee was quite lenient when Bennett pushed Sanchez into the pit in the 40th although the ball was already out of play. It looked even more malicious than Arnautovic’s shove on Debuchy last season. I believe Bennett should have been booked for such a dirty play. Campbell replaced Sanchez in the 61st but did very little of notice.

Ozil is enjoying his best season at Arsenal. We definitely needed him to step up on Sunday as neither Giroud nor Sanchez could find the net. Ozil nearly scored from a Monreal cross in the 17th but his first-time effort was deflected out by Bassong. He also set up Ramsey in the 35th for a curling shot that was blocked. Ozil reads the game well and has decent pace and some flair for finding space, so it makes sense for him to develop into a nine and a half.

Cech’s diving save

To a certain extent, the Norwich game looked similar to the 2-1 loss at West Bromwich the previous weekend. The Gunners failed to protect a 1-0 lead again. Defending is a team effort and when the intensity from our midfielders drops, then our defenders’ weaknesses get exposed. The Canaries sent a warning in the 42nd when Flamini and Cazorla failed to close down Brady, who picked his spot for a long-range strike that Cech palmed away. A minute later, Brady slipped a through ball to Grabban who beat Cech with a low strike to level. Brady too easily cut inside Ramsey, Cazorla failed to intercept the pass, and Paulista was on the wrong side of Grabban. Paulista, who replaced Koscielny in the 11th, needs to work on his dodgy positional play because it’s not the first time that he’s making that kind of mistake.

Bellerin was not guilty on that play but I thought he produced one of his worst performances this season. On the stroke of halftime, Bellerin left Hoolalan unmarked at the far post. The Norwich midfielder met a cross from Wisdom only to fire a half-volley over the bar from six yards. In the 70th, Olsson got the better of Bellerin to make a cross that Paulista nearly headed into his own net. It took an outstanding save from Cech to prevent an embarrassing own goal. Cech definitely won us a point on Sunday. From the ensuing corner, Bennett outjumped Bellerin to head the ball across goal for Howson, who fired over from close range. Bellerin made one significant offensive contribution in the 67th but was let down by some poor decision-making. The Spanish fullback played a one-two with Ozil but then opted for an angled shot into the side-netting while a cross was the better option, especially with three Gunners inside the box.

Playing hurt

The Ox made his return from injury and could prove a key player in our passing game at a moment when Giroud is desperate for decent service. The England international needs to learn from his defensive mistakes as a lapse of concentration in the 80th allowed Olsson to make a dangerous cross. But Paulista got ahead of Grabban to clear the danger.

The partnership between Coquelin and Cazorla has efficiently protected Arsenal’s back four this year. However, a knee injury will sideline Coquelin until mid-February while Cazorla could miss the next game after suffering a knock to his knee against Norwich. Cazorla made a mazy run to set up Sanchez in the 28th and missed the target with a curling shot the following minute. He apparently played hurt in the second half after colliding with O’Neil in the 46th.

I thought Flamini did a decent job in the holding midfielder role. Obviously, he doesn’t have Coquelin’s energy but his stats are good with 86% of duels won, 3 interceptions made and 2 out of 3 tackles won. Until Coquelin recovers, I believe Flamini is our most reliable option in the ballwinner position. Arteta is too much of a liability because he can’t stop counterattacks. The Spaniard shouldn’t start games and shouldn’t play when the Gunners are trailing or when the score is tied. Arteta should only come off the bench to beef up the midfield when the team has the lead.

Life without Coquelin

Ramsey and Chambers have been mentioned as possible alternatives. Ramsey lacks tactical discipline for that position and as the manager said, playing Ramsey as a holding midfielder would kill his strengths. However, a partnership between Flamini and Ramsey could be an interesting option if Cazorla is injured. I don’t see any future for Chambers in midfield. He doesn’t read the game well enough, is more limited than Coquelin technically and doesn’t win as many duels.

Staying in the Top 4 while Coquelin is injured will be a tough challenge for the Gunners. We will face Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea without the French midfielder. Given our inconsistent form and the injuries plaguing the squad, we can expect anything from the game against Sunderland next Saturday. On paper, the Blacks Cats are a weak side fighting relegation. Yet, we didn’t show much against the Canaries, who are at the same level as Sunderland.

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