Goal: Holt (19)
Arsenal suffered their second defeat of the season after a performance so lifeless that Damien Hirst would have been tempted to put them in formaldehyde and exhibit them as an art piece.
Arsenal lined up with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Vito Mannone again started at the goal instead of the injured Szczesny (who is going through the longest two-week injury in football history). Vermaalen was paired with Mertesacker at the center of the defence. Carl Jenkinson started at right back, and Andre Santos replaced the injured Kieran Gibbs at left back. In central midfield, Mikel Arteta was paired with Aaron Ramsey (as Abou Diaby remains injured). Podolski was on the left, and Gervinho was on the right (yes, contract rebel Walcott was also injured). Cazorla was behind Giroud who started as the central striker. Jack Wilshere was fit enough for the bench after his 14 month injury.
This was one of the worst Arsenal performances in my recent memory. Over the last few seasons, there were many occasions where Arsenal have been breached rather easily defensively, but they have always been quite dangerous going forward, especially against lower ranked opposition. Today’s game against Norwich, who started the day without a win in the league, had one clear recurring pattern. A criminally sluggish and lackluster Arsenal side were chased after and pushed backwards all over the pitch by a very dedicated and focused Norwich team. The Canaries pressed very purposefully and closed down every hole that emerged in their defensive shape. Arsenal did have a big majority of the possession, but except a few half chances very early and late in the game, they were not able to create anything with it. Prior to this game, Norwich City had the second most porous defensive record in the league conceding 17 goals in 7 games. Yet, the extent of their comfort in keeping Arsenal at bay was a point of embarrassment for an Arsenal side talking about a title challenge.
Norwich started the game with a tight defensive shape, leaving only Holt up-front in a 4-5-1 formation. An important role in their game plan was given to Wesley Hoolohan who occupied the most advanced midfield role. Hoolahan was helping their lone striker Grant Holt to press Arsenal’s ball circulation through Arteta, as well as dropping deep to receive the ball when Norwich gained possession to direct their play with clever and simple passes.
The first attempt on goal came from Norwich when Pilkington cut in from the left and fired wide. At the other end, after good combination play with Giroud, Andre Santos slipped Podolski through inside the left channel, but the German’s threatening left-footed drive missed the post by a small margin. This chance was as close as Arsenal would get for the rest of the first half. Norwich never allowed the visitors much time on the ball. When Arsenal tried to push forward from the center through Cazorla and Ramsey, they were forced wide by Alexander Tettey and Bradley Johnson who tirelesly screened in front of their defence. When Arsenal tried to attack through their two full-backs Jenkinson and Andre Santos on the overlap, Norwich wide midfielders Pilkington and Bennett tracked them excellently and pushed them back.
As Arsenal looked surprised at finding such a determined and well-organized Norwich side, the home team took the lead almost midway through the first half. Norwich’s Ghana-born Norwegian midfielder Alexander Tettey received the ball 30 yards from goal, and he was basically invited to shoot as no Arsenal player closed him down. The Norwegian’s hard and low drive was parried by Mannone, but before Mertesacker could react to the rebound, Holt burried the chance from 4 yards. Some observers might put the whole blame on Mannone for not parrying the ball away from the goal, yet it seemed that the main culprit was the lack of any midfield cover to deny Tettey the shooting chance. Andre Santos snoozing a good yard behind everybody else and playing Holt onside when the shot was taken did not help either.
Falling behind did nothing to galvanize Arsenal. It was actually Norwich who found two more chances to extend their lead. First, Turner inexplicably missed a free header from a Pilkington corner. Later, when Hoolohan overhit a through ball, Mannone’s hesitation allowed Holt to control the ball on the by-line. Fortunately for Arsenal, the big striker’s cutback was cleared by Mertesacker. At the end of the first half, as Gervinho hilariously fluffed Arteta’s set piece delivery at the far post, he basically summarized Arsenal’s performance.
The second half exhibited the same pattern of Arsenal being sluggish and Norwich being intensely focused. Early in the half, Jenkinson finally found the space to overlap on the right, and his low cross was spilled by Rudy in the 6-yard box. Giroud tried to find the net with a scissor-kick-like attempt, yet he could not execute whatever it was that he intended to do. It seemed like if the Empire State Building was filled with adrenaline and injected into Arsenal’s collective arse, it would still not be enough to get them going. They were that dire.
Wenger curiously waited until the 63rd minute for a substitution, yet instead of the completely anonymous Gervinho, he took off Podolski and sent in Oxlade-Chamberlain to the right wing (Gervinho moved to the left wing to continue his abject performance). Oxlade-Chamberlain, however, got injured with his first action in the game when he burst forward from the right wing under the close attention of Bassong. Nine minutes later, he had to be replaced by Arshavin (yes, the Russian is still at the club). Wenger also threw in the 17-year old prospect Serge Gnabry, yet it was not happening for Arsenal. Norwich found themselves in very promising counterattacking situations time and time again, but those were all wasted by Holt’s bad decision-making. The home side, though, gave nothing free to Arsenal at the other hand. In the last minutes of the game, Arsenal were reduced to hoofing the ball to Mertesacker who was sent forward to win headers in the Norwich box. Arsenal’s pseudo-pressure yielded one clear chance in this last period. Gnabry released Gervinho on the right edge of the penalty box, but the Ivorian’s shot was blocked brilliantly by Bassong.
This was a truly terrible performance by Arsenal, and watching it was like chewing glass. It is futile to talk about individual performances and tactics when the team basically does not show up for work. Until the Schalke home game in the Champions League in midweek, Wenger and Bould have three days to put this game behind as an exception.