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Three goals conceded, three consecutive draws as Arsenal slip up again

Arsenal 3 Norwich 3

Benayoun 2, van Persie 72, 80; Hoolahan 12, Holt 27, Morison 85

In the end, the villain of the piece was Kyle Naughton – the defender on loan from Tottenham, of course – who had a hand in the final result. Literally, as his shove in the back on Robin van Persie in the dying moments of the game denied the striker a dramatic late winner. But the truth was Arsenal had no one to blame but themselves, as they were fortunate to finish with a point after a pulsating 3-3 draw with Norwich which featured shockingly amateurish defending from a side which hopes to play in the Champions League next season. Their fate is now out of their hands, however, as the weight of expectation passes to Tottenham tomorrow. It is a burden which proved too much for Arsenal here.

Arsene Wenger retained the same side which fought out a 1-1 draw at Stoke last weekend, opting for experience over youth despite calls from many fans to promote Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from the bench.

Szczesny

Sagna – Koscielny – Vermaelen – Gibbs

Song – Ramsey

Gervinho – Rosicky – Benayoun

van Persie

Back in November Arsenal won 2-1 at Carrow Road, their fifth league victory in a row. Robin van Persie‘s brace cancelled out Steve Morison‘s early goal, which came after a misjudgment by Per Mertesacker.

Norwich take command after conceding early

Benayoun celebrated his birthday with a memorable strike (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Any nerves that Arsenal were suffering before kickoff should have been quickly dispelled as Yossi Benayoun celebrated his 32nd birthday in style with a goal after just 65 seconds. However, it was merely a prelude to an extended period of domination by the visitors, who had only just secured their top-flight status in mid-week.

Benayoun’s goal was a collector’s item. He took a pass from Tomas Rosicky, shimmied into the box and cut easily inside Kyle Naughton before curling a delightful shot past a motionless John Ruddy into the top corner. Against opponents with nothing to play for, this should have resulted in an opening of the floodgates. Instead Norwich, unencumbered by the threat of relegation, seized the initiative themselves.

Grant Holt may look like a Sunday League player, but Wayne Rooney is the only Englishman with more Premier League goals this season, and he gave Arsenal’s back four the run-around all afternoon. Only a Kieran Gibbs block prevented him from converting Simeon Jackson‘s cross for a quick equaliser, and he then beat Wojciech Szczesny to a cross from the other flank but could not keep his header down. The Polish goalkeeper was looking decidedly shaky, and seconds later he gifted the visitors a soft equaliser. Naughton’s run and cross from the right was met by Wes Hoolahan, whose low shot bounced off Szczesny’s hands and into the goal.

Szczesny’s howler gifted Norwich a deserved equaliser (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With Norwich looking sharper down both flanks, they more than held their own in an open contest as Arsenal struggled to string their passing game together, and it came as little surprise when they took the lead on 27 minutes in depressingly familiar fashion. With Thomas Vermaelen up the field, an Arsenal attack broke down and a simple exchange of passes left Norwich three-on-two behind Arsenal’s midfield. Gibbs closed Holt down, but could do nothing as the striker’s shot looped off his boot and over the stranded Szczesny.

Stung, Arsenal finally upped their pace. Bacary Sagna‘s low cross was inches away from the sliding Robin van Persie, but the full-back would shortly hobble off with a broken fibula which will keep him out of Euro 2012. Gibbs scuffed a shot wide. Alex Song and Rosicky nearly played in van Persie and Benayoun respectively.

But Norwich could and should have also scored a third goal. Laurent Koscielny was lucky to get away with a blatant tug on Russell Martin‘s shirt, but later redeemed himself with a brilliant sliding tackle on Holt. Overall, Arsenal were lucky to go in at half-time just 2-1 down.

Arsenal turn it around and throw it away again

The second half continued in the same open vein as the first, with the ball flying from end to end. Jackson almost immediately doubled Norwich’s advantage with a tame shot straight at Koscielny. Aaron Ramsey, who had already been booked, was fortunate to escape further censure for a poorly timed sliding challenge. Benayoun met Rosicky’s free kick with a firm header, but straight into Ruddy’s midriff. Hoolahan’s volley from Holt’s chip through whistled inches wide. Ruddy saved with his legs from van Persie and Ramsey miscued his follow-up shot. Szczesny’s weak clearance nearly presented Holt with another gift.

Van Persie turned the game around – or so it seemed (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Gradually, though, as the game entered its final third Norwich started to drop deeper, allowing Arsenal to exert increasing pressure. Van Persie slashed wide with his weaker wide foot. Vermaelen’s fierce drive was saved. The equaliser was unmistakably coming, and was finally supplied by a familiar combination. Substitute Marouane Chamakh saw a shot blocked, but Song picked out van Persie’s run off the shoulder of the last defender with a trademark chipped ball, and the captain made no mistake as he volleyed the ball across Ruddy from eight yards.

Arsenal poured forward in search of a winner. They had a good shout for a penalty when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain‘s cross struck Simon Lappin‘s outstretched arm as he deflected the ball behind. It was turned down, though, and Chamakh headed over from the resultant corner. But they would not be denied. As wave after wave of attack rained down on the visitors’ goal from both flanks, Rosicky’s through-ball ricochetted off a defender’s legs and van Persie was quickest to the loose ball, pivoting and slotting home right-footed from ten yards for his 30th league goal of the campaign.

Even with their noses finally back in front, Arsenal looked nervy. Bradley Johnson fired a good chance over. And then with just five minutes left a loose ball by Song was easily intercepted by Norwich. Jonny Howson‘s pass over the top set Steve Morison free, and his first-time shot flashed across Szczesny into the far corner.

In a frantic last few minutes Arsenal carved out five clear-cut chances to snatch a last-gasp winner. Van Persie was put through one-on-one but Ruddy managed to get something on it, and although substitute Chamakh did well to get his head to the rebound first, the ball fell inches wide. Naughton prevented a simple van Persie tap-in only by shoving the Dutch striker in the back – a clear foul missed by the officials. Song’s cheeky back-heel was cleared by Ruddy, and then Gibbs’ point-blank header flew straight at the keeper.

But it was too little too late, and Arsenal must now rely on slip-ups by both Tottenham and Newcastle if they are to claim the third place which looked all but assured just three weeks ago.

Post-match reaction and analysis

There was no mistaking Arsene Wenger‘s frustration after his team had failed to give him reason to celebrate his 900th game in charge at the club:

It is more than frustrating because we were very poor in the first half, not switched on. The quality of our first half was absolutely not at the level we wanted in a decisive game like that. in the second half we did very well. We created at least ten chances but again not only did we not take our chances, but on top of that we gave them a third goal in a situation that was absolutely unbelievable. In the end we got punished for our mistakes.

He reflected on the result’s impact on his team’s Champions League hopes:

It leaves us with one thing – it is not in our hands anymore. We have to wait for the results to see where it leaves us tomorrow night. We knew that if we didn’t win today, that is what would happen.

He did not excuse his side’s disappointing defensive frailty:

We were [too frail], of course. We lost too many challenges and it is surprising because recently we were quite good, but today I feel that defensively the whole team was very poor.

And he felt compelled to defend the again disappointing Aaron Ramsey, who has become a target for fan disaffection in recent weeks:

He is very strong mentally and is going through a difficult period at the moment. But he will come off that stronger.

It is hard to isolate the exact cause of the sudden evaporation of form which has left Arsenal with just three points – and no wins – from their last four games. Low energy levels are surely a key part of it. With injuries depleting an already thin squad for much of the season, Wenger has had little chance to rotate his key players to keep them fresh, and that is evident across his front six right now, with Alex Song, GervinhoAaron Ramsey and Robin van Persie all looking physically jaded. Of course, it doesn’t help that the last two named have never completed a full injury-free Premier League season before either. Even Wojciech Szczesny looked mentally fragile, committing a poor technical error for Hoolahan’s goal and playing with uncertainty throughout.

But lack of discipline and concentration are key issues too. Attacking football is written into the DNA of every Wenger side, but there is a difference between attacking and suicidal. Norwich’s second goal was a prime example. Thomas Vermaelen had galloped forwards into the Norwich area – fine in itself, but you would then expect one of the midfielders to sit in the hole. But as Norwich broke forward, Arsenal’s trio were  flat and strung out across the halfway line. One simple ball through the gap created a three-on-two situation which should never have been allowed to develop. The critical deflection off Gibbs was unfortunate – the manner of the build-up was sheer ill-discipline by the players in front of Gibbs and Koscielny.

As much as Arsenal have been dependent on van Persie’s goals, it is clear that they have been equally dependent on Mikel Arteta‘s presence in the middle of the park. With the Spaniard in the side, Arsenal are efficient and dynamic in midfield, and he seems to bring out the best in Song in particular, giving him the freedom to venture forward more often. But without him the cohesion vanishes – and Arsenal have failed to win any of the eight games in which he has not started. Song is caught out of position too often, and Ramsey does not have the range and simplicity of passing to enable Arsenal to command possession. Defensively, Arsenal are far more vulnerable as a result.

Up top, Theo Walcott‘s pace and instinctive understanding with van Persie are greatly missed, and after a reasonable start to his Arsenal career Gervinho has been ineffective since the Africa Cup of Nations – although he was excellent in the second half after a first 45 minutes he will want to forget. How Arsenal miss the trickery and error-free distribution of Robert Pires – or even the game-changing ability of a focussed Andrey Arshavin. However, Arsenal must play with the hand they are dealt, and while complacency is not necessarily the issue with the current team, consistent application is. All they can do now is look to secure three points at West Brom next Sunday – no easy proposition against a side who will want to say goodbye to Roy Hodgson in style – and hope for the best. Third is still within their grasp, but they must hope that Spurs and Newcastle relinquish their grip on it first.

Arsenal man of the match: Robin van Persie. Scored two, and should have earned a penalty for a blatant shove which denied him a hat-trick. Circumstances may lead to his departure this summer, but his commitment to the cause has remained unwavering.

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

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