Sunday, 20 November 2011

Another away win sees Gunners tied on 22...

Yesterday's win at Norwich was a good performance and another obstacle safely negotiated. Arsenal are now level on 22 points with Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool, and although Spurs have two games in hand, upcoming fixtures – which see Liverpool play leaders Man City next Sunday and Chelsea play high-flying Newcastle the week after that – could have very interesting implications on who ultimately breaks into the top four.

Against the Canaries Arsenal started brightly and purposefully, keeping good possession for long spells and winning the ball very quickly when it broke free. This pressure forced Norwich into nervy and hurried clearances, not least from keeper Ruddy. Van Persie had two early half-chances while only a remarkable goal-line clearance from Russell Martin stopped Walcott from making it 1-0 on twelve minutes, when the Canaries' defender somehow kept out Theo's well-directed shot.

Arsenal's strong start therefore made Norwich's goal on the quarter-hour mark seem fairly fortuitous. It was certainly against the run of play, although the warning signs were perhaps there. In general the back-four marshalled the Norwich attack adequately in the early period, but they also exhibited a worrying tendency to step up at every opportunity. This high line was vulnerable to the ball over the top, and predictably that's exactly what happened – Tierney hit an unsophisticated route 1 punt and Steve Morison duly barrelled after it. Mertesacker, although caught flat-footed and with the glare of the early afternoon sun in his eyes, initially looked to have recovered by managing to get between player and ball. Alas, the uncompromising Morison then merte-suckered the unfortunate German by muscling him out of the way before finishing past Szczesny. An unflattering goal, but perhaps a valuable lesson in English football for our new centre-half.

Morison would expose the Gunners at the back again, as he sat on the shoulder of Mertesacker (or, given the height difference, on his elbow) and looked to make runs into space. The Norwich midfield had precious little of the possession though, and so the bullet-headed Welshman was subsequently reduced to holding up the ball as it was played to him from deep. With his back largely to the Arsenal goal, and without much forward support from his team-mates he was unable to capitalise further. Arsenal, meanwhile, continued to apply pressure of their own, and created a fistful of chances – Gervinho spurning two or three before RvP once again came to the rescue with a close-range finish from a low Walcott ball across the box. That is swiftly becoming a trademark Arsenal goal and the duo have formed a very good understanding indeed.

At 1-1 Arsenal reasserted their dominance and looked by far the better team – and the most likely to score a second. Both Norwich full-backs suffered at the hands of Walcott on the right and the effective overlaps of Gervinho and Andre Santos on the left. However, although the Brazilian's eagerness to get forward undoubtedly adds an extra dimension to Arsenal's forward play, it also leaves the team vulnerable to the counter-attack, and the Gunners did get lucky once or twice in this regard. Fortunately, Van Persie was once again pretty much unplayable, and almost single-handedly he could have kept the Canaries on the back foot, even without Gervinho, Walcott and Ramsey weighing in with their own attacking threat. Arteta and Song were similarly composed in the middle, and watching them at work is starting to become very satisfying, as their snappy tackling, excellent distribution and good ability to switch the play provided a solid platform for the Gunners to build from.

It was evens at the break, but Arsenal were well on top. They came out for the second 45 with more of the same, and it seemed to be working despite a slight change in shape from Norwich as Paul Lambert brought on Elliot Bennett for David Fox, attempting to push further up the right-hand side of the pitch. Santos, marshalled by the left-sided centre-half Vermaelen, was just about equal to the challenge, despite showing that his defensive abilities seem largely to consist of diving in as soon as a player picks up the ball. It could have proved costly, but then that man Van Persie did his bit to secure the game with a second goal. Ramsey made a good challenge to win the ball inside the centre-circle, but went to ground in the process. Alex Song quickly took over and broke forward, shaping to play in the advancing Gervinho on the left before electing to supply RvP to his right. The Dutchman deftly dinked an accomplished and distinctly Bergkamp-esque chip over Ruddy as the Norwich 'keeper went to ground, thereby recording his 31st goal in 29 games – an incredible strike rate. Right-foot, as well… Gooners are quickly running out of superlatives to describe our mercurial captain. With 13 goals already this season, he looks certain to get to a personal tally of 125 in Arsenal's 125th year – and probably not too far into 2012, on current form.

Arsenal managed to see out the game without major drama, and although there were a couple of nervy moments in the final half-hour they alleviated opposition pressure through good ball retention. The Gunners probably should have notched another goal at least, but nevertheless the win was fully deserved. Frustratingly, they did concede a cheap free-kick in the closing seconds, but managed to maintain enough concentration to close the game out and so record the second domestic away win of the season.

Plaudits must of course go to RvP, who is arguably the best player in the league at the moment, and an admittedly very open Norwich defence were unable to deal with his movement, as he dragged both centre-halves all over the pitch. Walcott was also a constant menace whilst simultaneously working hard to provide some cover down the right-hand flank for Koscielny, who was playing in an unfamiliar right-back position. A word also on the Ramsey-Arteta-Song axis, which is becoming a very efficient unit. Alex Song has stepped up his performances this season; but in addition Arteta is making him look even better by helping him out of trouble in typically unfussy but assured fashion. Undoubtedly a calming presence, Arteta's tireless work rate and willingness to help out defensively has also given Ramsey more licence to get forward. At this rate Wenger will have a real selection dilemma when Jack Wilshere finally makes his much-anticipated return in January.

With another three points the Gunners have now put themselves in a good position, and if they can continue to create as many chances as they did against Norwich whilst shoring up an improving but still susceptible defence, then the chase will really be on.

In other news, Yaya Touré has reportedly suggested that Manchester City could emulate the Invincibles and go the whole season unbeaten. Rather premature, methinks – we're only twelve games in, after all. Admittedly, at present Arsenal fans have more immediate concerns than defending the honour of our greatest ever Premier League side, and it is still the case that for the time being we have to look a little further down the table to find the Gunners – but not much further. Let's continue to keep the pressure on, and come 18 December we might see whether City really have the quality to compare with the class of '03/04.

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