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Match Preview: Norwich City v Arsenal; Have the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor

When Arsenal midfielder Francis Coquelin’s injured his knee ligaments in last week’s loss to West Bromwich Albion, a large contingent of Arsenal supporters morphed into members of Delta Tau Chi fraternity.

Like the fictional residents of Animal House expecting expulsion from Faber College, these defeatist Gooners wrote off Arsenal’s season. Coquelin’s three-month absence, so runs the story, makes the season pointless. Arsenal can’t compete for honors without the Frenchman’s distinctive combination of physicality, keen sense of danger, positioning, concentration, and skill on the ball.

One player won’t be able to replace Coquelin’s traits. That’s no doubt.

The questions are how do the team address his absence and how do we as supporters react. Do we resign ourselves to an unattractive fate or do we rally to John Blutarsky’s inspiration, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor”?

On the first question, manager Arsène Wenger has decided on a close facsimile of Coquelin, rather than an overhaul of the team’s structure. For Wenger, maintaining the balance and flow of the team points to the selection of Mathieu Flamini to play beside Santi Cazorla in central midfield. That move disrupts the team the least.

The alternatives involved moving Aaron Ramsey from his more attacking position to one in deeper midfield. Wenger has said this would weaken Arsenal’s stability and reduce Ramsey’s effectiveness.

“Ramsey is more an offensive player,” Wenger said. “I will use him sometimes there [centrally] when the game demands, but is he naturally with Cazorla a balanced pair? Defensively, certainly, it’s an adventurous one!”

“He is not afraid to tackle, but he likes to go in the box, and he has good timing of runs, and he wants the ball, and he wants to go forward. If you take that out of him, and you say, ‘Look. You have to sit now. Sit there and wait,’ you kill his strengths.”

The response to the second question–on the fans’ reaction–will be predictable to anyone who’s followed the club in the past decade. A vocal group will take the obvious, self-satisfied, and psychologically easy way of anticipating the worst and criticizing the manager before that outcome even happens.

That technique does provide comfort in the face of uncertainty and the knowledge that Arsenal’s chances of winning the title–never overwhelming due to the correlation between financial outlay and final league position–have shrunk with the absence of one of the team’s essential players.

But I’d ask why these people follow sport in general, and the Arsenal in particular, if they’re looking for certainty. The basis of the drama and its attraction lie in the unpredictability.

Plus, just because the ultimate prize might well escape Arsenal’s grasp, does that render all the proceedings moot?

Arsenal finished the 2014-15 league campaign in third place, far behind champions Chelsea. If you had anticipated that outcome at the beginning of the season and dismissed anything that happened in the meantime, you’d have turned your nose up at the captivating Alexis Sanchez, ignored the surprising emergence of Hector Bellerin and Coquelin himself, and missed out the joy of beating Manchester City, Liverpool, and Manchester United in the FA Cup.

To say nothing of the moments of sublime skill and brilliance that these elite and compelling athletes can deliver.

The next opportunity bear witness comes in Sunday’s match at Norwich City. There, the Gunners start the “WC” (Without Coquelin) period in the Premier League against the 16th-placed Canaries. The hosts have lost four of their last five matches, but three of those have been by one-goal margins.

Norwich are in the middle of the pack on most statistical measures, though they do rank low on tackles and interceptions. This suggests that the Canaries don’t aggressively go after the ball when they’re not in possession, choosing instead to keep their shape.

Arsenal will be familiar with this approach: It’s similar to the one West Brom employed in defeating the Gunners last weekend. This time out, Arsenal players must learn from their mistakes at the Hawthorns, especially the lapses in defensive concentration, and unsettle Norwich with swift movements.

Even without Coquelin, Arsenal have the players to succeed at those tasks. And to produce unforgettable moments, such as this. It’s worth staying behind the team for that reason alone.

Players to Watch:

Arsenal. Santi Cazorla. The diminutive Spanish director looked majestic against Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday night, wriggling through traffic as only he can and launching Arsenal’s attacks. How he combines with Mathieu Flamini and picks apart the Norwich defense could well determine Arsenal’s prospects Sunday and beyond.

Norwich City. John Ruddy. The Norwich keeper can keep matches close. But he’s also capable of letting in six goals, as he did at Newcastle in mid-October.

Probable Lineups:

Injuries and Suspensions:

Arsenal: Coquelin (knee), Arteta (calf), Walcott (calf), Rosicky (knee), Wilshere (leg), Welbeck (knee)
Norwich City: Tettey (thigh), Jarvis (knee)

Match Officials:

Referee: Jonathan Moss (9M, 29Y, 3R)
Assistant referees: A Holmes, S Long
Fourth official: R Madley

Broadcast Information:

UK: Sky Sports 1, 1615 GMT
US: Premier League Extra Time, 11:15 EST

YAMA Prediction:

Norwich City 1 – 3 Arsenal.

Match Facts: (Courtesy FourFourTwo.com via Opta Sports)

  • Norwich City have won just one of the last 13 Barclays Premier League meetings with Arsenal (W1 D5 L7) and lost seven of the last nine.
  • Aaron Ramsey has scored in each of his last two appearances against the Canaries in the Premier League.
  • 10 of the last 11 goals Arsenal have scored against Norwich City in the Premier League have come in the second half.
  • Mesut Ozil has provided an assist in seven consecutive Premier League appearances, a longer consecutive run than any other player in the history of the competition.
  • Ozil now has 11 assists in the Premier League this season, five more than any other player, while no player in the history of the competition can equal that haul after a team’s opening 13 games.
  • Arsenal have won 10 and lost just two of their last 13 Premier League away games.
  • The Canaries have won just one of their last eight Premier League games (W1 D2 L5).
  • Olivier Giroud has scored in each of his last four Premier League appearances away from home.
  • The Gunners average just 1.6 points per game in November under Arsene Wenger, their worst month. The next worst is August 1.9 and best March 2.22.
  • Norwich have managed just one clean sheet in the Premier League this season, a joint-low total (along with Bournemouth).

 

 

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