Goals: Turner (56), Arteta (pen, 85), Giroud (88), Podolski (90+1)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Fabianski (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Vermaalen (CB), Gibbs (LB), Ramsey (CM) Arteta (CM), Wilshere (CM), Gervinho (RF), Cazorla (LF), Giroud (CF).
Three very late goals in eight minutes saved Arsenal against a stubborn and disciplined Norwich City.
Chris Hughton Parks the Bus with Three Defensive Midfielders
In my tactical preview of the game, I had predicted Norwich to continue with their usual line-up and place their creative attacking midfielder Hoolahan behind the lone striker Kamara in a 4-5-1 formation. I had also called the Norwich City manager Chris Hughton an unimaginative yet purposeful manager in the grand tradition of British/Irish managers. The prediction of the Norwich starting line-up proved to be inaccurate as Hughton did not use Hoolahan, but instead gathered together all the defensive midfielders he could find and erected a yellow wall in front of his defense. While Bradley Johnson, Howson and Tettey screened in front of their defense, Kamara was placed on the right side of a 5-man midfield with Snodgrass occupying the left side. Holt was left as lone striker up-front to wrestle with Arsenal centerbacks and provide an outlet for long balls. As the chalkboard below indicates, Holt and Kamara did not have a single attempt on goal and basically performed a rear-guard action to hold the ball up-front to slow Arsenal’s tempo, as Hughton aimed at nothing but frustrate the Gunners and perhaps nick it with a set-piece, if he could. And he almost did succeed.
This ultra negative formation was succesful in frustrating Arsenal as the home side found it quite difficult to poke holes in the dense Norwich defensive forest. Kamara on the right side of Norwich had an important role in this shape as he pushed forward to prevent Gibbs from overlapping on Arsenal’s left when Santi Cazorla roamed inside to central areas. With Arsenal’s left not working offensively (bar a very early instance when Wilshere released Gibbs behind but the left back’s cutback missed everyone), and the center extremely congested with three Norwich defensive midfielders, Arsenal tried to rely on Gervinho’s dribbles and Sagna’s overlaps from the right. The home side could have taken the lead despite their labored performance, when Giroud’s glancing header from a Sagna cross bounced off the bar, and later Gervinho took a heavy touch and lost his angle despite going past the Norwich goalie after Cazorla released the Ivorian with a brilliant ball.
Arsenal huffed and puffed during most of the first half, especially with Wilshere (who made a return after 6 weeks on the sidelines due to an ankle injury) looked depressingly off the pace. The young England midfielder’s touch was uncharacteristically heavy, his movement and body language indicating he is not quite fit to be playing in this game. In contrast to Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey was simply brilliant, producing more energy to the midfield than a nuclear reactor. But Norwich were closing space very well, and not allowing much to happen.
Norwich Take The Lead with their First Attempt
Early in the second half, Arsenal continued looking sluggish and almost out of ideas, and it surprised no Arsenal fan when Norwich took the lead from a set piece with their first attempt on goal. Holt cushioned down a long ball to Kamara on Arsenal’s left channel, and the on-loan forward burst past Gibbs who allowed Kamara to reach the ball as he was on the wrong side of him, but the Norwich man somehow tripped himself with no contact from Gibbs. When the referee gave a joke of a free-kick, Snoggrass sent a dangerous ball for Turner to power home under horrendous Arsenal marking.
At the hour mark, Wenger removed Wilshere and Gervinho, and sent in Walcott to the right wing and Podolski to the left wing. Cazorla moved inside behind Giroud. Arsenal kept looking for an opening and almost found their equalizer when Giroud chested down a Gibbs cross to Podolski but the German’s left footed rocket was tipped to the crosbar by the Norwich goalie, Bunn.
Wenger throws the Kitchen Sink in the Last 10 minutes
With Arsenal headed for a shock home defeat, Arsene Wenger made a final move and threw in Oxlade Chamberlain, removing Sagna. Arsenal switched to a 3-3-4 formation with Oxlade and Walcott on the two wings, Podolski and Giroud as two central strikers, supported by an Arteta, Cazorla and Ramsey midfield. In this formation, Ramsey was playing like an auxiliary right back when Norwich had the ball making it a 4-2-4.
With Arsenal pouring forward with almost every player, Norwich started cracking and Arsenal made their comeback. First, when Giroud was about to pull the trigger on the edge of the 6-yard box after Norwich failed to clear a corner (which was controversially awarded), Kamara hauled down the French striker. The referee Mike Jones did not seem to be interested in the blatant foul in the box, yet the assistant referee on the far side flagged for a penalty. Norwich protested vehemently firm in their belief that they were well within their rights to haul down a striker who is about to score in the 6-yard box. On TV, the ultra anti-Arsenal commentator Tony Gale questioned how on earth the assistant referee could spot something that the first official did not spot from 8 yards, completely ignoring the fact that the referee’s view was blocked as he was behind Giroud and Kamara. Once replays showed that Kamara’s foul was too blatant to argue against, he brought up that it was not a corner in the first place and those things are never given anyway. Arteta equalized from the spot
Coming back from the death like Lazarus, Arsenal poured forward for the kill. When Arsenal scored a second, Gale was still moaning. Oxlade-Chamberlain drove forward from the left, had a glorious one-two with Podolski to get behind and his ball across the face of the goal was bundled in by Giroud. In extra time, Podolski blasted home from the edge of the box after being set up by Walcott, who had started the move from a marginally offside position to devastate Tony Gale even further.
Wenger’s substitutions worked to a perfection, but my man of the match was Aaron Ramsey. I have criticized the Welshman harshly in the past after his sluggish and indecisive displays, but he seems to have rid himself almost completely from his bad habits (unnecessary flicks, giving the ball away in dangerous positions, getting caught in possession, jogging back slowly when opposition break from midfield, taking way too long to decide what to do when on the ball). Today his tireless energy and aggression, defensive attitude, quick ball circulation and simply doing his job at whatever position Wenger uses him without a fuss was examplary.