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Van Persie spares blushes after it all goes Per-shaped for Mertesacker

Norwich 1 Arsenal 2

Morison 16; van Persie 26, 59

Midway through the second half, the PA announcer at Carrow Road declared a new all-seater record attendance of 26,801, in response to which the visitors’ travelling support immediately struck up a chorus of “You’ve only come to see the Arsenal”. And although their profligate finishing and a defensive lapse by Per Mertesacker ensured a tight finish, the Londoners’ sometimes scintillating build-up play and two clinical finishes by Robin van Persie – his 30th and 31st league goals of 2011 – were more than worth the price of admission as Arsenal racked up their fifth successive Premier League victory.

Arsène Wenger made one enforced change to the side which beat West Brom 3-0 before the international break. Per Mertesacker returned to the centre of defence as Laurent Koscielny, fresh from his international debut, moved to right back in place of Carl Jenkinson, who was ruled out with a back injury.

Szczęsny

Koscielny  – Mertesacker – Vermaelen – Santos

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Walcott – van Persie – Gervinho

Arsenal started the day in seventh, just three points off the Champions League places, having won their previous four league matches and nine of 11 in all competitions. Norwich were in ninth position, six points behind, but this game represented the first of a tough seven-match run up to the Christmas holidays which includes encounters against four of the top seven.

It all goes Per-shaped for Mertesacker

An entertaining first half saw the visitors dominate everywhere except where it matters most: on the scoreboard. Norwich have yet to keep a clean sheet this season, and it was soon apparent why as Arsenal found space behind their back line at will and should have killed the game inside the first 15 minutes.

Mertesacker will want to forget his role in the opening goal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Within the first two minutes, Theo Walcott and Gervinho escaped down the flanks to set up presentable chances for Robin van Persie and Walcott himself. Van Persie then drilled a low cross-shot just wide and Walcott saw another effort brilliantly cleared off the line by Russell Martin. It looked to be only a matter of time before Arsenal opened the scoring.

So naturally it was Norwich who scored first, from their first meaningful attack. Marc Tierney hoofed a hopeful long punt forward, and Mertesacker hesitated fatally as he tried to shepherd it back to Wojciech Szczęsny. Steve Morison bundled the big German off the ball – fairly – and slotted home from 12 yards to give the home side a shock lead. As Szczęsny looked on in disgust, Mertesacker walked away with his head in his hands, knowing he had committed the kind of error even a schoolboy would have been ashamed of.

Another assist for Walcott, who tormented Marc Tierney throughout (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Arsenal’s response was immediate. Van Persie stabbed wide from an angle. André Santos fired a right-footed 25-yarder straight at John Ruddy. Martin completed a personal hat-trick of goalline clearances, denying a looping van Persie header and a Gervinho shot which had been half-saved by Ruddy.

Despite Norwich’s battling heroics, the equaliser looked inevitable as Arsenal repeatedly carved them open like a chainsaw through butter. And when it came, the identity of the scorer was equally predictable. The supplier was Walcott, who easily beat Tierney and fired in a low ball across the face of goal. Gervinho missed it altogether, but van Persie was on hand at the back post to tap in from four yards out.

At 1-1, the game settled down a bit until half-time. Arsenal remained on top, with some of the interplay between their front three of van Persie, Walcott and Gervinho a delight to watch. Meanwhile Norwich refused to sit back, but too often their attackers wanted one touch too many or lacked the killer pass in the final third.

Van Persie at the double

Norwich manager Paul Lambert made a positive move at half-time, bringing on the attack-minded Elliott Bennett to offer more pace and support for Morison up front. However if anything the change helped Arsenal, allowing Ramsey, Mikel Arteta and Alex Song to exert greater control in midfield.

Certainly the visitors had the better of the opening exchanges. Thomas Vermaelen twice provided an unexpected attacking threat. First he bombed forward and produced a cross which deserved better than Gervinho’s tame header. Then a raking cross-field ball allowed Walcott to centre for Ramsey, but the Welshman could only find the side netting with a difficult chance. Immediately after, van Persie span away from Tierney and slid a delightful ball in for Gervinho, who rounded Ruddy only for the goalkeeper to recover and block his shot. It’s fair to say it wasn’t the Ivorian’s day.

10 goals in 5 games for van Persie (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Norwich were unable to offer much from open play, with their only opportunity of note a free kick from Anthony Pilkington which was well struck but easily held by Szczęsny.

Just before the hour mark Arsenal were gifted what would prove to be the winning goal. The otherwise excellent Martin was dispossessed by Ramsey in the centre circle. The ball broke to Song, who carried it decisively forward before finding van Persie on the edge of the area. The Dutchman controlled the ball with one dab of his left foot before lifting a delicate right-footed chip over the onrushing Ruddy. It was an exquisitely calm finish from a striker at the very top of his game. Van Persie now has ten goals in his last five league appearances.

Norwich pushed forward with increasing urgency in the final half-hour as Arsenal were content to sit back and attack on the break. Grant Holt was sent on to add muscle up front, and he and Morison proved a handful for the uncertain Mertesacker. But with Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny dominant alongside him, Norwich’s threat was limited largely to set-pieces.

In the closing stages Arsenal exerted a stranglehold on possession, with even Szczęsny showing off his mock-Cruyff turn. And the best chance of the final minutes fell to Walcott, who capped an impressive performance with a fierce shot from the right-hand edge of the box which struck the outside of the near post.

It was left to Szczęsny to add the full stop as Arsenal professionally closed out the game, charging off his line through a crowded box to claim an injury-time free kick with a minimum of fuss. It hadn’t been the most clinical Arsenal performance ever, but it was enough to register their fifth league win on the bounce.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger was more than happy with the way his side fought back to win against tough opposition:

We should have got there at the start because we missed some early chances. In the first 20 minutes we had at least three clear-cut opportunities and on top of that we were 1-0 down. That made the game difficult against a very dynamic Norwich side.

But backs against the wall we did very well again today, like we did at Chelsea. In the second half, once we got to 2-1 we controlled the game well and were never really in trouble. Overall it is a very positive win today.

And he was full of praise for his inspirational captain:

He is exceptional and he has something that you cannot give to people. Today he finished with a chip on his right foot – and I have never seen a bigger left-footed player than Robin van Persie. He always makes the right decisions in a fraction of a second when there is little time available. That makes him exceptional.

Without ever being at their ruthless best, this was another efficient performance from an Arsenal side which looks increasingly capable of closing out tight games. Norwich lacked the edge to really stretch the visitors’ defence, but they showed the same battling qualities which saw them draw at Anfield and only succumb at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge late on. They are exactly the kind of opponent the Arsenal of the first two months of this season would have struggled to break down – but not today.

Although he had clearly misplaced his shooting boots today, Gervinho’s movement and pace combined effectively with Walcott on the opposite flank to regularly stretch Norwich’s defence to breaking point and create space for others through the middle. Walcott gave Tierney a torrid time and produced one of his best performances of the season. And everything van Persie did oozed class. After missing a couple of early half-chances, he was clinical on both his goals, with the chip for his second struck with his weaker right foot. On another day, the quality of his link-up play and passing would also have set up at least two more goals.

Ramsey, Artera and Song were quietly efficient in controlling the middle of the field, especially when calm heads were required in the second half. Each got forward on occasion in support of the front three. However their role in choking the supply lines to Morison, Bennett and Holt was just as vital, if less immediately obvious.

Vermaelen was prominent in both defence and attack (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Defensively, Mertesacker had a tough afternoon. He was clearly rattled and disappointed by his mistake for Norwich’s goal, and struggled to contain the physical threat of Norwich’s strikers throughout. However Santos was equally vulnerable, and was lucky not to be punished on a number of occasions. We know he is a swashbuckling attacking full back and is always suspect to being caught upfield. But more worrying is his tendency to charge in and telegraph his tackles, hanging out a leg which can be easily evaded – or fallen over – by an agile opponent.

On the upside, Koscielny adjusted to his move to right back with assurance, although he is never likely to provide much coming forward. Vermaelen was excellent – strong and dominant in defence, and an effective supplement to the attack when he chose to gallop forward, with the confidence to spray the ball around and charge on in support of the strikers. Arsenal are a far more organised and confident unit from front to back with him in the side, and he is quickly re-establishing himself as being every bit as important to the team as van Persie is. With both fit and in form, the Gunners are almost unrecognisable from the side which stumbled so haplessly earlier in the season.

Arsenal return to action on Wednesday at home to Borussia Dortmund, the side with which Paul Lambert won the Champions League. Victory will put them through to the knockout stages of the Champions League with a game to spare. After that, their next three league games are all against sides in the bottom five (Fulham home, Wigan away, Everton home). A maximum nine points out of nine is a not unreasonable expectation as their pursuit of a top four place continues to gather momentum.

Arsenal man men of the match: Thomas Vermaelen and Robin van Persie. Vermaelen is the glue that holds Arsenal’s defence together, van Persie the cutting edge which ensures Arsenal’s attack products an end product. Both have established themselves as key leaders, and both were outstanding in their respective roles here. The Dutchman is already world-class, the Belgian fast becoming so.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

8 Responses to Van Persie spares blushes after it all goes Per-shaped for Mertesacker

  1. kickingsport says:

    This was a really testing match for Arsenal as Norwich were quite impressive at times but with RvP fit and in form the team looks like it can really go places. Van Persie possibly the best player in the league now – already a strong favourite for player of the season as long as he can keep going.

    • Tim says:

      There’s no doubt van Persie is our difference-maker right now. He has become a true all-round goalscorer, scoring both great individual goals and predatory tap-ins, and he makes everyone around him look better as a result – which can only be good for confidence.

      Norwich didn’t offer much of an attacking threat – their only shots on target were the goal and the Pilkington free kick which Szczesny had no problem with. But they are also a good, solid side who gave United, Chelsea and Liverpool a real battle (and away from home on each occasion). I’m very pleased overall, as matches after an international break can always be tricky.

  2. Divvy says:

    What a wanky blog this is, truly woeful and just as lazy and negative as any tabloid rag

    • Tim says:

      You are, of course, entitled to your opinion, no matter how negative. Here is mine. I find it interesting you think my thoughts are negative. Perhaps you could actually try reading them? Or do you just live up to your name?

  3. Luc@ says:

    Hi Tim,
    i think that this match vs Norwich it was decisive for the confidence of the team and i’m sure that after all, the big mistake of Per “it was good”.
    No, i’m not crazy, i want to say that if we won two away matches when we were losing, it’s decisive for the confidence, much more than the victory against WBA
    Now we need to win all 3 next matches before facing city.
    Oh, i was forgetting B Dortmund but that’s another story.

    • Tim says:

      Definitely a good win for the confidence – and only our second Premier League away victory of the season (after Chelsea). Hopefully we can win the next three games, and we can enter the City game with our confidence high. We’re one of the few teams who can really get at City’s defence – although stopping their front line will prove tricky!

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