Arsenal 3 – 3 Norwich: Advantage Spurs

Arsenal 3 -3 Norwich

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This game was a rather neat microcosm of our entire season. A fairly abject first half, a spirited improvement in the second, due largely to the unquestionable brilliance of Robin van Persie; and a heart-wrenching collapse at the finale. Having dragged us ourselves back from the brink to lead 3-2, we handed Norwich an equaliser, and in doing so may have handed third place to either Spurs or Newcastle.

That guaranteed Champions League spot seems to have been in our hands for a little while now. We’ve treated it like a hot potato, fumbling and flustering, and have now well and truly dropped it. Both chasing sides know now that if they win their remaining two games, they will finish above us – even if we beat West Brom on the final day.

If we play like we did yesterday, there’s little chance of us doing that. The first half was every bit as poor a performance as the one we put in against Wigan – worse, really, because it showed we’d learnt no lessons from that game.

The key area of the pitch was central midfield, where we had no shape or discipline. Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey were ostensibly the holding pair, but there was almost no protection provided for the back four. Norwich were canny and left three attackers up the pitch at all times. As Song and Ramsey bombed on, we were left vulnerable to counter-attack after counter-attack. Similarly, when the likes of Vermaelen pushed forward, neither Song nor Ramsey showed the initiative to fill in. Ultimately, would prove costly.

It all started so well when Yossi Benayoun, celebrating his 32nd birthday, curled home a peach of an effort with barely a minute on the clock. Unfortunately the rest of the team took it as a cue to sit back on their imagined laurels. Norwich were all over us in the first half, and their two goals were undoubtedly deserved. The first came after a simple move down the right-flank, although Wojciech Szczesny will be disappointed to be beaten so easily at the near post. He could do little about the second, which cannoned off Kieran Gibbs and looped over his head and in to the net. It reminded of the goal Louis Saha scored for Spurs when they led at half-time. Arsenal would need a similarly remarkable comeback in the second half to salvage anything from this game.

To give credit to the players, we showed a lot of spirit. The likes of Gervinho, abject in the first 45, suddenly sprung in to life. Of course it was Robin van Persie who scored the two goals to restore our lead – his 29th and 30th league goals of the season. The first saw him collect yet another of those clipped Alex Song passes to volley home; the second spin and fire in after a lucky deflection inside the penalty box.
At that point, there were 80 minutes on the clock. It tells you something about how dangerous Norwich looked, and how poorly we had defended, that I had absolutely no faith we would see through the game at 3-2. And so it proved: Alex Song gave the ball away, Kieran Gibbs inexplicably allowed Steve Morison to run beyond him, and the lifelong Spurs fan fired expertly past Szczesny, rooted to his line.

There was still time for Arsenal to spurn a couple of chances to win it, but in truth Norwich deserved at least a point. On the touchline, Arsene Wenger was as frustrated as he’s been all season, and that’s saying something. His irritation was with his own team. Yes, we should have a penalty, but so should Norwich. We have nobody to blame but ourselves.

There were mistakes and poor performances all over the pitch, but what stood out for me was how badly we missed Mikel Arteta. It remains the case that we have not won a Premier League game in his absence. Without him, I’m not sure Alex Song has the will or the nous to play as a true holding midfielder. Perhaps that’s something we need to address in the summer.

It was a particularly bad day for great Arsenal right-backs. This was almost certainly Pat Rice’s last home game before retirement, and he deserved a better send-off. Also, in a sad footnote to the game, Bacary Sagna broke the same fibula bone as earlier in the season, and will now miss the Euros and quite possibly the start of next season.

Before that there’s plenty to be decided. We’re now in a position whereby we need favours from other clubs: namely Man City, Aston Villa, Fulham, Everton and possibly Bayern Munich. Both Spurs and Newcastle face their hardest games today. If we’re to get a reprieve, it will surely come at Villa Park. It’s unlikely, but you never know.

As many said in the build-up to yesterday’s game: if we can’t beat Norwich, we don’t deserve Champions League football. Perhaps they were right.

5 Reasons 2 Believe

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Arsenal pile on top of Theo Walcott after he sets the seal on Arsenal's derby victory

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

“Arsenal are alive more than anybody thought before the game.”
Arsene Wenger 

As we all know, Arsenal vs Tottenham is more than a game. And yesterday, with an Arsenal side on the verge of crisis hosting a rampant Spurs, it looked to be more than a derby. Fitting then, that what we got in the end was more than a victory. It was a hammering.

With 34 minutes gone, it wasn’t looking so clever. Spurs had glided in to a two goal lead; first Louis Saha broke beyond an Arsenal backline more jagged and ugly than one of Aaron Lennon’s eyebrow designs, and his shot deflected off Thomas Vermaelen and over Wojciech Szczesny. Then Gareth Bale fought his way past Kieran Gibbs, and took a self-inflicted tumble over the advancing Szczesny. The referee pointed to the spot, more out of habit than anything else, and Emmanuel Adebayor stroked home his inevitable goal.

At this point, I feared the worst. In the short-term, I was worried we would be on the end of a humiliating result. Although we hadn’t played particularly poorly, Spurs looked deadly on the break with the pace of Bale and Walker, and Saha and Adebayor were proving a real handful. It was inevitable we would pour forward in search of a goal, and I feared we’d be picked off on the counter-attack, much like Manchester United were in their 6-1 drubbing at home to City.

In the longer term, I wondered if this match might prove to be another nail in the coffin of Arsene Wenger’s tenure. A hefty home defeat to Spurs, off the back of exits from the Champions League and FA Cup, could have turned the tide against him irreparably.

The players, it seems, had other ideas. Before the game Arsene said he didn’t feel they’d let him down at Sunderland. I disagree. On that day they weren’t up for a battle; they didn’t fancy a fight. Yesterday was different.

Their combative spirit was typified by the goal that got us back in to the game. After Robin van Persie struck a post with a right-footed effort, the ball was kept in play and knocked back to Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard floated a clipped pass to the far post, where Gareth Bale seemed certain to nod the ball away. Instead, he was beaten to it by Bacary Sagna, who launched himself at the ball and headed powerfully beyond Brad Friedel and in to the far corner.

It is said that great headed goals depend on two components: delivery and desire. All too often our attempts to score from crosses lack either. This was a rare example of both. In recent years, I haven’t seen too many Arsenal players throw themselves at the ball the way Sagna did yesterday. He didn’t care if he got hurt. He knew what a goal back before half-time would mean, and he wanted it more than every single Tottenham defender.

Even he could not possibly have known the avalanche that goal would inspire. Before half-time, we were able to grab the equaliser that turned the game on its head. Of course, it fell to Robin van Persie to turn this way and that on the edge of the box before arcing a beautiful shot around Brad Friedel and in to the back of the net. It was a moment of sheer class. It had struck me before the game that since his evolution in to a penalty-box poacher, RVP has not often found himself with the time and space required to score the wonder goals for which he made his name. Yesterday, in his desperation to drop deep and make things happen, he inadvertently created an opportunity for one of his patented long-range strikes. And what a strike it was.

As the second half kicked off, the momentum was firmly with Arsenal. Harry Redknapp made a double change, introducing Sandro and Van der Vaart and switching to 4-3-3 in an effort to stem the time. It served only to weaken Spurs’ attacking threat, and a creaking Tottenham backline found itself coming under wave after wave of Arsenal attacks.

In this most unpredictable of games, Arsenal’s third goal had the most unpredictable scorer. Tomas Rosicky picked up the ball about thirty yards out, slid it wide to the onrushing Sagna, and sprinted in to the box to meet the full-back’s cross with a deft finish off the outside of his left boot. Wojciech Szczesny celebrated with a backflip. The Emirates was delirious, and Rosicky relieved. It was his fiftieth game since his last league goal.

If Rosicky scoring was a surprise, then so too was what followed: a brace from Theo Walcott. Walcott had been dreadful in the first-half – he seems destined to inherit Andrey Arshavin’s role as the fans’ designated scapegoat – and was probably considered for the hook at the interval. However, he showed tremendous persistence and self-belief to put in a considerably improved second half display.

At the heart of his performance were two fantastic goals. First he raced almost the length of the pitch to support Robin van Persie, and lifted the ball neatly over Brad Friedel. Then he beat the offside trap to meet a remarkable lofted pass from Alex Song, and finish expertly across the American. Big goals from a player who has not been a fan favourite of late.

Late on, a headless chicken who goes by the name of Scott Parker was sent off for a second bookable offence, and Arsenal were able to see out the game with a bit of keep-ball against ten men whilst ‘Oles’ rang around the Emirates. A remarkable turnaround, and a contender for the most entertaining game in our new stadium’s short history.

We’re not out of the woods yet. Amidst the Arsenal fans’ gloating, one song was conspicuous by its absence. Quick though we were to ask Adebayor what the score was, or to remind Spurs they had been two up before collapsing, there was no chant for the man who had masterminded the victory: Arsene Wenger.

He got his XI spot on, starting Yossi Benayoun ahead of the more fancied Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. His recent faith in Tomas Rosicky was vindicated with the Czech’s finest performance in years, and his decision to retain Walcott rewarded with two excellent goals. And yet the 60,000-strong crowd did not see fit to salute Le Boss individually. Perhaps we were too busy taunting our rivals. Or perhaps there’s more to it.

Grateful though we all are for yesterday, there is a strong and accurate feeling that redemption is about more than one game. This was the first of three hugely significant league games, which will also take in clashes with Liverpool and Newcastle. The performance yesterday has to be a blueprint for those games, and beyond. If we are to qualify for the Champions League we need to consistently find that level of desire, that degree of determination, and that quality in our play.

Each of our goals was expertly taken, and each demonstrated a player prepared to go that extra mile for his team.  Each of those five goals gave rise to joy and, crucially, belief.  Belief that this is a side who are capable of taking fourth place, ensuring Champions League qualification, and (with the right reinforcements) pushing on beyond that in the year to come.

Today marks a year to the day since the Carling Cup Final defeat by Birmingham – a game which signified the beginning of something on an annus horribilis for Arsene’s Arsenal. Let’s hope yesterday’s victory can signify the start of a more enjoyable twelve months.

Oh, and Tottenham fans: Mind the gap.

Arsene Wenger and the world’s worst handbrake

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Bacary Sagna writhes in agony as Arsenal go down at Spurs

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The table makes unpleasant reading for Arsenal fans today.  Spurs are in the top six; Arsenal are in the bottom six.  If Tottenham were to win their game in hand, they’d have more than double our points tally.  Seven games in to the season, we have less points than the promoted trio of Swansea, Norwich and QPR.

After the game, Arsene trotted out the now-familiar refrain of Arsenal’s problematic braking system:

“In the first half I felt we played a little but with the handbrake on.”

Maybe.  But I thought a handbrake was supposed to stop you going downhill fast?

This wasn’t, by any stretch, our worst performance of the season.  But that only makes the fact we failed to take any points away from it all the more damning.  The first half was a fairly even affair, and we should have taken the lead when great work from Van Persie down the left saw the Dutchman cut the ball back to the onrushing Gervinho, who put his effort wide at the near post.  It was a fantastic chance, and underlined some of my concerns about the Ivorian.  When he signed I compared him to Chelsea’s Salomon Kalou, and it was as much for his inconsistency and erratic decision-making as his pace, trickery and versatility.  It’s clear Arsene is a big admirer of the winger, but at this level you simply have to put chances like this one away.

Spurs had opportunities of their own.  When Alex Song overplayed in defence, Wojciech Szczesny spread himself well to block Scott Parker’s goalbound effort.  There was little he could do, however, about the goal that gave Spurs the lead.

Rafael Van der Vaart uses his arm to control the ball

When Emmanuel Adebayor brought the ball under control on the edge of our area, Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna were nowhere to be seen.  Adebayor looped the ball over Mertesacker, for Van der Vaart to bring it down and finish smartly in to the far corner.  The German immediately appealed for handball, and whilst replays yesterday still left me feeling it was a marginal decision, the photograph on the right provides little room for doubt.

With Van der Vaart already on a booking for a lunge at Kieran Gibbs, a deliberate handball could even have seen him dismissed, which would have altered the pattern of the game enormously.  Some suggested he was lucky not to go for his celebration, which saw him embrace fans in the crowd, but that’s a rule I’m neither fond nor keen to take advantage of.

The start of the second half saw Arsenal looking purposeful, and we swiftly had an equaliser – Alex Song danced to the byling and pulled a left-footed cross in the box for Aaron Ramsey to tap in.

From then on, however, we simply failed to impose ourselves.  Spurs grew as the game wore on, switching from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 to combat our midfield trio.

The winning goal was one strewn with errors.  First Arteta and Ramsey were slow to react to a quick Spurs throw in; then when the ball was cleared Kyle Walker was not closed down and allowed room to hit a screamer from range.  Powerful though the shot was, Wojciech Szczesny (who had produced another outstanding save to deny Adebayor) will know he ought to have done better, allowing himself to be beaten by a late swerve on the ball.

At this stage there were still twenty minutes to go, but instead of laying the Tottenham goal to siege, we lay down and meekly accepted our fate.  Even when we threw Per Mertesacker upfront in stoppage time, we seemed reluctant to hoist the ball towards him.  There was a lack of urgency and a clear lack of belief.

At full-time Arsene Wenger shook hands with Harry Redknapp and his assistant, before being pursued by the demented figure of Clive Allen, who felt he’d been overlooked for a handshake.  Allen himself overlooked the fact that he’s about one above ‘kit man’ in the Spurs pecking order, and that he did little to endear himself to Arsene by giving him a shove on the touchline in this fixture last year.

As I said, it wasn’t our worst performance of the season, and young Francis Coquelin can be very proud of the job he did holding midfield.  However, there were still plenty of negatives.  Aaron Ramsey, goal aside, had a dreadful game and seems to be making countless wrong decisions on the ball.  His performance highlighted a longer-term problem – without Wilshere or Diaby, we don’t have anyone in central midfield with the acceleration to beat a man.  It means our game is inevitably slower and more predictable.

Defensive organisation was again an issue, and both Gervinho and Walcott will have reason to feel they didn’t contribute enough to turn our possession in to chances.  The greatest blow could yet be the injury to Bacary Sagna, who is expected to miss three months after breaking a fibula.  Sagna remains an outstanding right-back and relatively consistent performer, and without experienced cover could prove to be a huge loss.  Although Carl Jenkinson replaced him yesterday, I wonder if Coquelin might be given a go in a role he played several times for Lorient last season.

Another international break now.  A fortnight of stewing over how to put this right.  Just what we don’t need.