Norwich City vs. Arsenal: 6 Keys to Victory
The heavily favored home side did not play badly by any means. Rather, the visiting Canaries were in a spirited form that belied their three-game losing streak. Having allowed 11 goals in those previous three games, including nine at home to visiting sides Manchester City and Liverpool, the Norwich side hardly looked to be a dangerous opponent for an Arsenal squad playing in North London.
This Saturday's game is a golden opportunity for the Gunners to redeem themselves. In tandem with difficult matches for several of the sides sitting above them in the Premier League table, Arsenal can make their way back into a Champions League place if results go their way.
In order to do so, however, they must be near their best to defeat a gritty Norwich playing at home.
Dominate the Midfield
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The hallmark of Arsenal sides for the past several years has been the ability to keep possession for large parts of a match.
The arrival of Mikel Arteta last summer was seen by many as a stopgap solution for the departure of Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal's creative force at the time. Rather than playing in an advanced role, however, Arteta played alongside Alex Song in a deeper midfield position.
With Song having tread the now-familiar path from North London to Catalonia, Arteta now occupies the hybrid role of a deep-lying distributor and hard-tackling shield for Arsenal's back line.
The former Everton player's 94 percent passing efficiency in the league (617 completed/658 attempted), including a 92 percent mark for long passes (46 completed/50 attempted), is as sublime as his 4.2 tackles and 2.4 interceptions per game. Arteta must maintain this form if Arsenal are to dominate the midfield, and in turn, possession.
With fellow Spaniard Santi Cazorla almost assured to be both tidy with the ball and aggressive in and out of possession playing ahead of Arteta, the question mark is who partners the two in the middle of the pitch.
Aaron Ramsey has been playing well as of late, but primarily in an unorthodox winger position. If the Welshman starts against Norwich, he must limit his mistakes, lest Arsenal be punished on a swift counterattack.
Contain Grant Holt
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Grant Holt is a terrific striker. The 31-year-old scored 15 goals in the league last season, and has already scored twice this campaign. Standing 6'1" and full of energy, the Canaries' forward will be Norwich's primary goal threat on Saturday.
More than likely, he will cut an isolated figure as the game progresses, as the midfield behind him struggles to cope with Arsenal's possession and movement.
But Holt found the net against Arsenal in May following a swift counterattack that saw his shot deflect off Kieren Gibbs. Laurent Koscielny may be preferred to the more cumbersome Per Mertesacker in central defense.
He will work hard the entire game, and Arsenal's center backs must be keenly aware of him for 90 minutes. If he is kept quiet, Arsenal stand a good chance of not only winning, but also keeping a clean sheet.
Press Norwich Hard from the Beginning
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Arsenal are at their best when they emulate Barcelona's passing rhythm and team-pressing tactics when off the ball. When Norwich and Arsenal tied in May, much of it was due to Norwich's playing in a fearless and aggressive attacking manner.
In order to not repeat the almost calamitous late-season draw, the visiting side must attack quickly when in possession and press Norwich hard when out of possession. The greater the early game stress on Norwich, the quicker their midfield will compress, allowing Arsenal's more patient passing game to slowly dictate the match's tempo.
An early goal for the visitors would be huge to keep the winless, 19th-placed Canaries at bay, and it would pave the way for Arsenal to add to the nine goals Norwich have conceded in their last two league games.
Challenge the Norwich Defense
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Norwich may be in the relegation zone, but goalkeeper John Ruddy was originally part of England manager Roy Hodgson's Euro 2012 plans. Had the 25-year-old not broken his finger, he would have been the Three Lions' third choice in net this past summer.
Despite hemorrhaging goals this season, Ruddy is less to blame than the defensive line in front of him. Former Tottenham man Sebastien Bassong has been partnered with Leon Barnett in central defense, and while the Frenchman may prove a savvy purchase for the Canaries if they stave off relegation next May, the pairing has been something of a sieve in recent weeks.
The 17 goals Norwich has conceded in seven games is the second-highest mark in the division, and the defensive unit has conspired to secure only a single clean sheet in that run.
If Arsenal can deliver the ball in the box, whether from crossing or passing their way there, there is a strong likelihood that the match ball will find its way in the back of Ruddy's net.
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Olivier Giroud has not taken to the Premier League as quickly as fellow import Santi Cazorla, but Cazorla is the exception, rather than the rule. Many players need time to acclimate themselves to the pace and physicality of English football.
Giroud's two goals and four assists in 10 appearances this season, including a goal and assist in his last start away to West Ham, seems to indicate that the Frenchman is finding his feet, so to speak. It also makes him a perfect selection for the trip to Norwich City.
The forward's ability to finish and provide for his teammates, the latter being something that Gervinho has yet to master, makes him a more dangerous choice than the Ivorian at center forward. His four assists in 10 games is already halfway to Gervinho's eight in 44 Arsenal appearances.
As I have argued before, Giroud has the ability to cement his place as first-choice center forward, and the away match to Norwich is an ideal launching pad for a potentially prolific season in front of goal.
Build on Early Successes
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Arsenal are in as close to an ideal position this season as they could have hoped for. With their only loss, a close one at that, coming at the feet of an excellent Chelsea side, and the squad currently only three points out of second place, this is a team brimming with potential.
New captain Thomas Vermaelen looks indomitable at the back. Mikel Arteta is, statistically speaking, one of the top midfielders in European soccer. Santi Cazorla is looking every bit as able as former captain Cesc Fabregas, and for half of the money. The offense has five goal-scoring internationals for three available positions.
Beyond this, goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny will be returning to the squad in the coming weeks, as will defender Bacary Sagna and midfield dynamo Jack Wilshere.
And how about the promising Emmanuel Frimpong, the talented yet out-of-favor Andrei Arshavin and long-term injury Tomas Rosicky? I can't remember the last time Arsenal was performing this well, while also promising so much more.
The Gunners need only maintain their form to defeat Norwich City on Saturday. If they play well, the only question will be how many goals they can score in the process.