The Gunners ground out a 1-0 win over struggling Norwich on Saturday to move three points clear of Manchester City in the Premier League. It was a dull match with a lack of urgency from Arsenal. But one brilliant finish from Welbeck proved enough to make the difference.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Cech made three saves in the first half while Ruddy was not even tested. It was no surprise to hear the crowd at the Emirates stadium boo at halftime after such a listless display. To a certain extent, it was similar to the Sunderland game with the Gunners enjoying 69% of ball possession but struggling to create clear-cut chances.The only difference with the Sunderland game is that Giroud and Welbeck played together in the second half.
Instead of replacing a Giroud low on confidence with Welbeck, the manager decided to pressure the Norwich centerbacks by pulling out Iwobi and sending on Welbeck in the 56th minute. That move quickly paid off as Giroud knocked down a cross from Bellerin into the path of Welbeck, who fired a half-volley into the bottom corner in the 59th. Giroud won his duel against Martin on that play while Bassong failed to block Welbeck’s first-time effort. That was Welbeck’s only shot of the game but he definitely made it count.
Most of the talk before the game was about some fans’ protest 12 minutes after kickoff and 12 minutes from time. There were in the stands some signs reading ‘Time for change,’ an obvious criticism of the club’s lack of ambition this season. However, the fans also sang loudly ‘One Arsene Wenger’ and ‘We love you Arsenal’ to show their support for the team.
In complete denial
Was the protest necessary? That initiative had its flaws but I believe it was necessary for the simple reason that every level of the club has been infected with complacency. When Wenger claimed Arsenal could contend for the title just by signing Cech last summer, I thought that was the worst piece of spin the manager ever tried to sell.
Arsenal got off to a poor start last season before Wenger found the balance in midfield with the tandem formed by Coquelin and Cazorla to finish third in the league and win the FA Cup. The opposite is happening this season. The Gunners led the league until January when their passing game started decomposing and Giroud and Ozil struggled to respectively score goals and make assists.
If you look at the bigger picture, there’s an obvious pattern in the past few seasons. Either the Gunners get off to a poor start and finish strong to secure a Champions League spot. Or they have a good start before fading in the second half of the season. In both cases, the squad is not good enough to perform consistently throughout an entire season. The protest was necessary because the owner, the board and the manager are in complete denial.
Now what I didn’t like about the protest is that it mostly targeted the manager. If Wenger is getting some stick for the club’s stagnation, then the owner and the board should be blamed too. The most ridiculous part of the protest was the reference to the 12-year period without a Premier League title. How different is that from Mourinho claiming that Wenger is a specialist in failure? If you go through those 12 years, there’s not much you can criticize Wenger for.
Giroud’s link-up play
Arsenal finished second in the Premier League and won the FA Cup during the 2004-05 season. A year later, the Gunners reached the Champions League final and ended up fourth in the Premier League. Both were good seasons. Finishing in the Top 4 from 2006 to 2013 was a great achievement when the club had to pay for the cost of the Emirates stadium and struggled to keep its best players.
The Gunners have enjoyed more maneuvering room financially since the summer of 2013. They signed Ozil and Flamini in the 2013-14 season to win the FA Cup and finish fourth in the league. They added Sanchez, Welbeck, Ospina, Debuchy, Chambers and Paulista to the squad the following season to retain the FA Cup and finish third in the league. Both were good seasons. The current season is the only one that has been really disappointing. We could have significantly strengthened the squad to contend for the title but we failed to do so.
On Saturday, a stubborn Wenger made no change to the side that dropped two points in the goalless draw at Sunderland. Not much really clicked offensively. Giroud was caught offside three times and had no shot on target. His best chance came in the 11th when he took a pass from Ramsey and had his goal attempt blocked by Martin. The Frenchman’s main contribution was his link-up play. Giroud made 3 key passes, tied with Ozil and Redmond for most chances created from open play. Iwobi played a one-two with Giroud in the 10th to fire wide from a tight angle. Giroud then set up Welbeck for the winner in the 59th and fed Elneny for an 18-yard effort that Ruddy tipped over the bar.
Ramsey’s tactical discipline
On the wings, Sanchez and Iwobi under-performed. Iwobi made just 1 key pass and none of his 2 shots was on target while Sanchez too often ran into traffic and had 5 turnovers. The Chile forward fired a long-range strike wide in the 65th and shot straight at Ruddy from a counterattack in the 71st. His poor understanding with Giroud is one of the reasons for Arsenal’s poor scoring form. Sanchez made a cross for Giroud in the 80th but the Frenchman couldn’t climb high enough and Ruddy had no trouble to catch the ball. Knowing a victory was crucial in the race for third place, the manager replaced Sanchez with Coquelin in the 84th.
In the playmaking role, Ozil had an average game. He is nowhere near the form he enjoyed in the first half of the season. The Germany international is still able to produce moments of magic, like the volleyed pass he made for Sanchez in the 71st. But there are also moments when you can’t help hanging your head. Ozil had Giroud and Ramsey to his right in the 85th, both in a very good position to pull the trigger. Yet, Ozil’s 10-yard pass was so shockingly poor that the ball rolled between the two players and the chance was gone. His only goal attempt came in the 73rd when he pounced on a clearance from the Norwich defense to unleash a half-volley from 30 yards over the bar.
Maybe the only surprise of the game was Ramsey’s new tactical discipline. In theory, Elneny is the holding midfielder and Ramsey the all-rounder. But Saturday’s stats showed Elneny and Ramsey took turns protecting the back four and providing support to the forwards. They had 1 key pass each and combined for 5 tackles and 5 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. The unusual stat here is their goal attempts. Ramsey didn’t take a single shot whereas Elneny took his chance three times.
Cech’s crucial saves
At the back, Monreal had a poor game as he was unable to keep Redmond quiet. The Canaries tested Cech’s shot-stopping skills in the sixth minute with their second foray into Arsenal territory. Sanchez failed to track Olsson, who hoisted the ball into the box. Mertesacker redirected the ball toward Redmond, who took a touch before forcing Cech into a leg save. Monreal was late for the block because Mertesacker and Koscielny were marking the same player, Brady, and therefore left Monreal with Jerome and Redmond at the far post.
Cech also prevented Norwich from taking the lead in the 42nd. Redmond chested down a cross from Houlahan to fire a powerful strike that Cech punched away. Elneny failed to stop Houlalan’s cross while Monreal was not tight enough to Redmond on that play. On the stroke of halftime, Redmond took advantage of Mertesacker’s sluggishness to create space but he missed the target with his low drive. The last scare came from a counterattack in the 70th. Redmond outpaced Ramsey down our left flank to make a low cross for Mbokani, but Paulista cleared the danger with a sliding tackle. The Brazilian centerback replaced Mertesacker, who pulled his hamstring in the 48th.
In the race for Champions League spots, the Gunners play their most important game of the season next Sunday. They could secure a third-place finish with a victory at the Etihad stadium. The Citizens could be knackered as they will also travel to Madrid for a Champions League match on Wednesday. Arsenal would retain third place with a draw but would then need to get a result against Aston Villa in the last game of the season. A loss at Manchester City could leave Arsenal in a fight with the Red Devils for fourth place. That’s not an option knowing the potential number of international players who will miss the start of next season.