Post Match Reaction: Three Things We Learned from Norwich City v Arsenal
Arsenal’s difficult November came to a close with a 1-1 draw at Norwich City on Sunday.
For the second week in a row, the Gunners could not hold a 1-0 lead into halftime. Mesut Özil’s lovely opener gave Arsenal the advantage for just 13 minutes, before Norwich’s Lewis Grabban nabbed a 43rd-minute equalizer.
There was additional discomfort with injuries to key players Laurent Koscielny, Alexis Sanchez, and Santi Cazorla. Their absences may prove more damaging than the result in the long run.
Here are three things we learned from the match.
The manager was betwixt and between with Alexis
Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has been sending the message that Alexis might be overworked. You can understand why: The Chilean whirlwind has hardly rested in two years: 43 games with Barcelona in 2013-14, the 2014 World Cup with Chile, 51 matches with Arsenal in 2014-15, the 2015 Copa America, and 20 appearances for Arsenal so far this season. That doesn’t even include international friendlies and World Cup qualifiers.
The payment finally came due in East Anglia on Sunday. Alexis chased the ball in the Norwich penalty area, didn’t quite get to it, then grabbed his hamstring.
Because Wenger went public with his deliberations over continuing to field his star, he opened himself up to critics. The manager clearly recoiled at the criticism during his post-match press conference: “Nobody is scientifically developed enough, not even the press, to predict exactly when a guy would be injured. I must say that with all humility we are not in position to predict that.”
It’s easy to say in hindsight that the manager should have given Alexis a rest, but given his impact, the other attacking options available, and the need to improve Arsenal’s form in the league, one can understand why Wenger sent him out on Sunday.
Indeed, it was Alexis’s energy and quick thinking that created the Arsenal goal. He pounced on a heavy touch by Norwich’s Gary O’Neil and swiftly swung the ball left for Özil to beat the onrushing John Ruddy.
Arsenal will go as far as Mesut Özil takes them
Arsenal’s top signing has to carry this team now. Due to Alexis’s impending absence, Özil will have to provide and produce if Arsenal is to have a successful season.
It’s a heavy individual burden in a team sport, particularly one like football whose dynamic favors defense over creativity. There’s no Premier League player I’d choose to entrust with this responsibility over Özil, though.
He has delivered impressively so far. The German playmaker has 11 assists and four goals in the Premier and Champions leagues this fall. According to whoscored.com, Özil has made 58 key passes in league matches this season. That’s 11 more (23%) than West Ham’s Dmitri Payet, who ranks second on the list.
Although his assist streak came to an end on Sunday—and his key passes were below his season average—Özil distributed the ball dangerously and effectively. He completed 67 of 68 passes (98.5 percent), including 33 of 34 in Arsenal’s attacking third.
Then there’s his newfound nose for goal. Özil said after scoring against Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League that he doesn’t need goals to fuel his ego, but perhaps his team ethos makes him realize that the group needs him to contribute goals as well. He made his mark in that respect again on Sunday and led Arsenal with five shots in total.
Expect that trend to continue.
Arsenal could not overcome Norwich’s tactics
Norwich manager Alex Neil drew some lessons from watching Arsenal’s last two matches. He saw West Bromwich Albion stifle the Gunners by packing as many defenders as would fit into their own penalty area, and he witnessed Dinamo Zagreb delay Arsenal’s attack with a high press.
The Canaries combined those approaches on Sunday, and Arsenal did not have a compelling answer.
Norwich put just enough pressure on Arsenal’s main ball distributors, Cazorla and Per Mertesacker, to slow the Gunners’ transitions from defense to attack. Then, as Arsenal advanced, Norwich crowded its penalty area and forced the Gunners to find a way through. They couldn’t.
In reaction, Arsenal sent the ball wide and looked for fullbacks Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin to stretch Norwich’s defense laterally. The pair attempted a total of 40 passes in Arsenal’s final third, according to FourFourTwo’s StatsZone app. That was more than Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady, Norwich’s forward-looking midfielders, tried between the two of them in their final third.
Arsenal weren’t dangerous from these positions on the flanks. The Gunners sent 28 crosses into the penalty area, but only connected on five of those. That was the same number of successful crosses that Arsenal put up at West Brom, where they attempted 23.
We can make a reasonable guess about the tactic Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce will employ when his team visits Arsenal on Saturday.
If you’re a Premier League player in a game being refereed by Jonathan Moss and you’re nearing the pitch boundaries, you’d best watch your back. Moss officiated Arsenal’s encounter with Stoke City last January, when Marko Arnautovic caused Arsenal’s Mathieu Debuchy a separated shoulder by shoving him into the advertising hoardings. He was also in charge on Sunday, as Norwich’s Ryan Bennett pushed Alexis into a camera well. In neither case did Moss take action.