Saturday, October 19, 2013

Arsenal 4 - Norwich City 1

The first game back after an international break is always tricky business, the more so it seems when Arsenal are at home to a lower-ranked squad, like today's match against Norwich City. So often, the Gunners take a half or more to rediscover their rhythm.

Not so today, especially with the Santi Cazorla back on the pitch (after a several weeks on the injured list) playing alongside Mesut Ozil for the first time. From the off, Arsenal's one-touch football was sublime. The first goal, by Jack Wilshire in the 18th minute, resulted from five or six consecutive one-touch passes, the last being a brilliant flick from Giroud (not for the first time this season) to the goal-scorer that put him through against four defenders in the box. A classic Arsenal goal.

Throughout the first half, Norwich City could hardly get a sniff at possession. Every time Arsenal lost possession, they seemed to have the ball back within 5-10 seconds. The only bad news for the Gunners in the first half was the need to substitute for Mathieu Flamini, who picked up a head injury. But how bad could it be when the substitute is Aaron Ramsey, who was Premier League player of the month for September?

Arguably, Arsenal should have led by more than 1-0 going into the halftime break. Olivier Giroud would have made it 2-0 but for an excellent stop at the near post by the Norwich keeper. As the half drew to a close, Norwich City finally started to play their way into the match. It appeared that Ramsey's replacement of Flamini may have unsettled Arsenal's structure a bit. Whatever the reason, the defense let down a bit, and Norwich nearly evened the score before the halftime whistle. Fortunately, Wojciech Szczesny, who had had little to do throughout the half, made a fine save to protect Arsenal's halftime lead.

The second half began with both teams sharing possession and creating a few half-chances. Arsenal seemed comfortable enough, but a 1-0 lead is never safe; and as the 60th minute approached, the fans in the Emirates Stadium seemed to become anxious that their clearly superior side had not already finished the job. But Norwich City deserved at least some credit for their dogged determination. They weren't just going to let Arsenal run roughshod over them; and they played as if they could at least salvage a point from the match.

Arsenal seemed to put paid to that notion in the 58th minute on a fine counterattack led by Santi Cazorla. He passed the ball to Giroud on the wing as Ozil ran straight at the goal. In a reversal of normal service, Giroud, for second time in the match, picked up the assist, as his cross found Ozil's head and Ozil's header found the back of the net. It was Cazorla's last action of the match. Being short of match fitness, he was replaced by Thomas Rosicky.

The Gunners seemed well and truly in control of the match, when suddenly, against the run of play, some lackadaisical defending by Arsenal allowed Norwich City back in the match. Johnny Howson scored on a fine shot from the edge of the box. In some respects, it was to be expected. Arsenal hardly ever keep a clean sheet these days -- their only one of the season so far came against Tottenham. This must be a continuing worry for Arsene Wenger. It may, in part, have been a consequence of the first-half injury to Flamini, who is happy to do the dirty work on defense. His replacement, Aaron Ramsey is, like Jack Wilshire, more intent on getting forward on the attack. Clearly, Arsenal's defense is strongest when Flamini and Arteta are in the midfield together. Take one of them out, and Arsenal's goal seems more at risk. Fortunately, Arsenal survived the risk today, but they definitely need to better organize their defensive midfield in situations when they're protecting a lead and either Flamini or Arteta is out of the line-up.

Second-half substitute Aaron Ramsey finally put the game to rest on a brilliantly taken goal in the 83d minute. He received a pass from Wilshire at the edge of the box, and then dribbled his way past three defenders to bring himself face-to-face with the goalkeeper, who really had no chance as Ramsey blazed the shot past him. To put a cherry on it, Arsenal scored a fourth, brilliant goal in the 88th minute, as Rosicky crossed to Ramsey at the far post, who pulled the ball back to Mesut Ozil in front of the net for his second goal of the match.

Despite the defensive frailties that can result from having so many offensively-minded midfielders on the pitch at one time (not to mention two offensively-minded fullbacks), Arsenal's have the offensive prowess to overcome those frailties. Some of Arsenal's combination play today was simply breathtaking.

It must be a terribly frightening prospect for Arsenal's opponents these days to face a side with six legitimate play-makers, each of whom could legitimately wear the #10 shirt, including Ozil, Cazorla, Wilshire, Ramsey, Rosicky, and Arteta if necessary. When three (or more) of them are in the game at the same time, they are fully capable of switching positions at a moment's notice, creating massive match-up headaches for the opposing team's defense. The quality of Arsenal's offensive midfield, at present, is on par with any side in the world, excepting Barca.

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